IT and tertiary education

Stabroek News
July 27, 2001

Some months ago two local TV stations, Channels 7 and 28, ran a 60 Minutes programme which discussed Information Technology (IT) and tertiary education. Viewers learnt that some US universities are now offering degree courses in specified subject areas on-line, allowing the student to sit at home in his or her armchair and follow the required syllabus to a qualification. No more lecture-halls, no more tutorial rooms, no more physical presence on the campus. There will still be assignments, essays, required reading and exchanges with the lecturers, of course, but the occasional physical visit to the university aside, this will mostly be done via the computer.

The leader of the pack is the University of Arizona at Phoenix, which offers a range of degree courses on-line, and has set up sophisticated mechanisms to cater for this latest form of distance education. Even the compulsory course reading matter, for example, is available through the agency of the computer. Inevitably this new trend is coming under criticism from the more traditionally inclined establishments, which argue that there is no substitute in academic terms for real discussions of ideas among real people located in the same place at the same time. Whatever the merits of that position, some reputable institutions of learning are following Arizona's lead, and there is every likelihood that still more of them will eventually feel constrained to do the same.

Theoretically of course, it should be possible even for a Guyanese to sit at home in Linden or Parika or Lethem or wherever and earn an American degree on-line. In practical terms, however, that may not be possible at the moment, even if the institution concerned is prepared to cater for extra-territorial students. In the first place, it is horrendously expensive, and naturally fees are payable in US$. Secondly, students are still required to put in an appearance at their university - albeit infrequently - with all that that implies for the average Guyanese. Nevertheless, the writing on the blackboard might seem to suggest that in the not-too-distant future there may be a proliferation of the courses offered on-line, that costs may come down and that eventually even overseas students may be able to sit at home and earn a foreign degree.

Distance education is not new to this country. Earlier generations which had no opportunities locally for tertiary education - and Guyana Scholars excepted - no sources of funding to allow them to go abroad, earned their degrees externally from institutions like London University. With the IT revolution, however, the possibilities for distance education have increased dramatically. President Jagdeo has committed himself to providing computers in schools and has been seeking IDB funding for this, yet he does not appear to have considered the possibilities for tertiary education. Had he done so, he might not have rushed headlong into establishing a Berbice campus in circumstances where the Turkeyen campus had insufficient funds to sustain its operations, and where technology might overtake events in any case.

Perhaps the Government should seek out some expert advice on the new technology as applied to education, consider seriously its possibilities and its drawbacks, and make decisions on real projections about the future, rather than act in haste without taking all factors into account.