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April 12, 2001 Virtual education partnerships provide hope for developing countries






by Barbara Black

Concordia recently gave a dinner in Ottawa to launch a seminar on the role of Canadian universities in human resources development in Southern Africa.

Provost and Vice-Rector Research Jack Lightstone was the host, and Education Professor Ailie Cleghorn was the coordinator. Professor Balbir Sahni, director of Concordia’s Centre for Academic Co-operation, also attended.

The featured speaker was Charles Bassett, senior vice-president of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), who said that CIDA is sharpening its priorities in the African subcontinent, and universities will have more opportunities than ever to assist in improving education and health, the delivery of inexpensive medicine and the promotion of civic virtues.

“Almost every Canadian university is currently involved in the use of technology-assisted learning, either for on-campus or for off-campus applications, and this expertise, as well as the course content developed, needs to be shared with partners in developing countries,” he said.

Bassett said that CIDA is moving away from its traditional, project-by-project approach to delivering Canada’s aid program in favour of collaborating with other donors. He suggested that universities may find new niches in what he called “sectoral partnerships.”

He gave as an example the new African Virtual University, which has evolved only over the past five years.

“The idea stemmed from the World Bank, as a way of giving Africans access to high-quality distance education,” Bassett told his audience. “The AVU is now based in Kenya, and links 26 sites, mainly in public universities in 15 sub-Saharan countries.

“CIDA has been a major donor, helping to strengthen the Virtual University itself. Quite independently, Canadian universities—including Laval and Carleton, I believe—are also playing a role by providing services that the AVU itself identifies as its priorities.

“This innovative experiment multiplies opportunity, while minimizing culture shock and brain drain— it’s worth noting that a large proportion of those taking pre-university courses are women,” he added.

Bassett said that the AVU gives talented people access to computers and thus to vast warehouses of knowledge. It also fosters regional interaction and co-operation, as African universities and learning centres work together toward common goals.

“As well, because it offers courses that are up to date and relevant to the economic and social needs of Africa, the AVU is having considerable success in marketing its services to the private sector. This is an encouraging sign of its own sustainability, and of the African partners’ ownership of the Virtual University.”

He concluded with an example of a different kind of partnership where universities could be significant players: the Global Development Learning Network.

“This network was established by the World Bank and is still evolving. It is designed to provide education and training to leaders from the public and private sectors as well as civil society in developing countries and countries in transition, using interactive videoconferencing and online activities.

“The network will only achieve its purpose to the extent that it can offer courses and seminars on a range of topics crucial to development and reform. The World Bank has invited Canadian content developers and providers to become partners in this initiative, and to propose courses or events that could be delivered in its host of Distance Education Centres throughout the world.”