By Steve Eskow
Lynn Zimmerman asks all the right questions in her article “Access: The New Imperialism?” I hope we can find some way to bring others into the discussion since those questions cut to the very heart of the matter of the new technologies—and the old technologies—and the future of education for a world in search of rebuilding.
Here is Lynn’s central thesis:
As I read some of the comments [in Eskow's article], I started to wonder if this insistence on “getting out of the building” and going strictly to an online format is a form of “technological imperialism.” (See “Aping the West: Information technology and cultural imperialism” by Paul Cesarini.) Although many people have ready access to all kinds of technology, not everyone in the world does. By saying that the brick and mortar classroom is out-of-date and should be disbanded, aren’t we in danger of disenfranchising a large number of people who have no capability of engaging in education through technology? That is not to mention the people who have no interest in and no ability for using technology.
Our difference begins with Lynn’s assumption that we technological imperialists are urging “getting out of the building.” She assumes that the buildings—that old, great, medieval instructional technology, the campus—are already built, available to those who need instruction, and that we are trying to empty them and replace the rich instruction that goes on in lecture halls and classrooms and libraries and media centers with computers.
Second proposition: there are many students for whom the lecture hall and notetaking is a poor instructional technology, and who do not learn much in the conventional classroom
Third proposition: the campus is a very expensive instructional technology. Keeping the building clean and the lawns trimmed and the parking lots patrolled costs—and of course it costs millions to build the campus in the first place. The 26 public and private universities in Ghana, where my work is now, are breaking down: students in hallways because the lecture hall cannot accommodate them, eight students stuffed into a dorm room built for two—and despite all this, only 5% of those 18-22 can be accommodated.
Note, too, that the vast majority of Ghanaians are in rural areas, often remote from the nearest university or polytechnic, which typically are in cities or large communities. To use the instructional technology called the campus the student must leave home and family and live in one of those dorms and sit in one of those lecture halls, if there is a seat for him, or standing room.
That old instructional technology of campus is a form of internal brain drain, taking from the rural areas their best minds and crowding them into the cities.
Current books and journals in that campus library? At current prices? Adequate collections in each of those 26 libraries?
The Nigerian Lynn cited talks about the failures: the computer centers equipped with computers donated to schools unprepared to use them. He does not talk of the thousands of Africans who have no access to good secondary instruction and are debarred completely from higher education unless they are of the elite and can afford to leave home to study—often at a foreign university, perhaps never to return to Africa. Again, the campus as brain drain.
Lynn cites an article re “technological imperialism”: Western technologies promoted thoughtlessly destroy indigenous cultures.
Presumably the author does not consider the British educational system, with its streaming and creaming and building-based universities with campuses and dormitories and maintenance crews and Western-style curricula a form of technological imperialism—but if that language is appropriate for computers it is appropriate for campuses. The university as we know it, then, is a colonial transplant and not an indigenous institution.
There is of course something to worry about, something to look at carefully, in the current vogue of “global education,” the possibility that we are exporting Western ideas and ideologies along with t-shirts and McDonalds. It is important to note, however, that many of those leading the attack on the “digital divide,” urging the creation of new educational forms built on the new technologies—technologies perhaps less expensive in the long run than the old brick-and-mortar technologies—are themselves Third World intellectuals. Indeed, many of them resent the talk of “indigenous cultures” and propose that it means that we want computers for the West and drums and chanting for he South. Those that I work with think they can have both: computers and chanting.
In his Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler contrasts what he calls the “industrial age information economy” with the new “networked information economy.” In the old information economy, communicating ideas, knowledge, and culture required expensive capital equipment—printing presses, television studios and the like—and around this equipment the structure of knowledge and its dispersion was built. Although Benkler does not include the university in his discussion of the old information economies, the case seems apparent: to have a “real” higher education system, you must first spend millions or billions for brick and mortar universities, and millions for their upkeep and maintenance.
Now anyone with access to a reasonably inexpensive computer can create and publish video and radio and text, and be part of the new knowledge economy. And be a student in an online university.
And we can put the instructor’s face and voice and instruction online, and send them to a computer in a church basement in a rural community where one or three or five students can use that computer to see the lecture, and engage with the instructor, and discuss the issues with colleagues they don’t see—as I am engaging with Lynn Zimmerman, whom I can’t see, but has contributed to my learning.
It may be, then, that the campus is the old imperialism, and the computer the promise of a new possibility for democratizing education.
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