Public Education's Information Gap

September 25, 2007

The technological advances of the twenty-first century will transform higher education as we know it. Latin American public higher education will be no exception. The nature of this transformation will depend largely upon whether and to what extent public universities embark on an aggressive and strategic campaign to include Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in their plans and programs in the near future.

The prognosis, so far, is not good. Few public universities in the region have invested in the type of training and infrastructure necessary to provide their faculty, librarians and administrators with the wherewithal to become "information-literate" producers who will be sharers of knowledge relevant to their institutions or to broader society. This is partly a function of the dramatic decline in public funding for higher education even as the demand for public education has increased. Unless this scenario changes soon, public universities will increasingly be trumped by new players, many from outside of the region.

Latin American public higher education is vulnerable from both within and without. As distance disappears through cheaper and faster ICT networks, enormous economies of scale will drive global consolidation of teaching and research. It has already happened in communications, banking and manufacturing. Corporations such as Microsoft, IBM/Lotus and PictureTel; communications firms like AT&T and TCI; publishers like McGraw-Hill; and content providers from New York University to the University of Phoenix are all forming partnerships and investing heavily in the promise of a huge distance-education market. Sylvan Learning Systems has begun buying universities in Europe and turning them into for-profit ventures. Taking McDonald's as an analogy, will Latin America (not to mention the rest of the world) end up with little local flavor and low nutrition on its higher education menu?

The levels of resources afforded to public higher education in Latin America—especially where and how they are targeted—will be an important factor as this drive toward the global consolidation of higher education expands. In contrast to the public sector, many of Latin America's more savvy and better-financed private universities have begun to respond to the technological demands of the future. For example, the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESM) has built a distance-learning delivery system for its 28 Mexican campuses and affiliates abroad—as far south as Chile.

Aside from the question of resources, another major challenge is to encourage those who labor in Latin America's universities to accept very new ways of doing things. Industrialized societies now perform work and study predicated on "information literacy" whereby people, using computer networks, capture information and share it collaboratively toward increasingly sophisticated and complex outputs. As Rolando Batista, a professor at the Catholic University (PCUMM) in the Dominican Republic observed, "while the technology availability gap is narrowing, the 'interaction-skills' gap is growing."[1]

Long-standing centralization within universities and interinstitutional competition for government money severely impedes achieving the critical mass of users necessary for successful academic networks. Most countries' national "academic networks," which often pioneered connectivity to the Internet in the early and mid-1990s, have failed to become truly national linkages of research or "virtual" academic communities. Instead, they have been overtaken by private Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Many academics opt for using these private ISPs over their university systems out of frustration with the poor quality of access and service they receive from the latter, further fragmenting the online academic community.[2]

The politicization of higher education is another handicap in the race for survival. The current governance structures in Latin American public higher education impede pragmatic distribution of technology resources for long-term benefit. As long as public university leaders are forced to be politicians and lobbyists first and administrators second, technology decisions requiring agile responses to rapid change coupled with long-term vision will be very difficult. Consequently, those countries that fail to achieve substantive reform of public higher education—improving organization, funding strategies and operations in general—may find themselves increasingly displaced by global consolidators. Indeed, for the past 15 years, students in many countries have migrated to new, private universities away from strike-ridden, overcrowded and poorly run public institutions.

The problem lies in the inability of Latin American public universities to capitalize on the opportunities afforded them by new ICT to improve the quality and reach of their research and to modernize their administrative structures. Addressing this problem requires investment in people and physical infrastructure. Many of the reports on the "information gap" fixate on the very real disparities in infrastructure between rich and poor countries. While worldwide there are 35 Internet hosts—computers permanently connected to the Internet—per 1,000 inhabitants, the average for Latin America is only 3.5 per 1,000. And some countries like Argentina and Brazil are more connected than others, such as Honduras.[3] But throwing equipment (hardware, connections and software) at institutions which lack appropriate structures and trained operators will clearly not solve the problem.

Moreover, we are now entering a phase in the nascent "information revolution" in which the cost threshold for Latin America (and other developing regions) is shifting down to more feasible levels. The ratio of cost to computer-processing speed has been doubling every 18 months. This means that 18 months from now the same dollar amount will purchase a computer that is twice as fast, or that today's cutting-edge computer will cost half as much. Over time, this change is exponential: A 400 MHz desktop, now priced at $1,000, will be worth $65 six years from now and will still be able to complete basic functions related to accessing, creating and sharing knowledge. Roughly the same capacity-to-cost ratio applies to communication: Bandwidth (the quantity of text, sound or image, that can flow through the channel in relation to time) becomes "wider" (i.e., faster) and cheaper as communication technology, such as fiberoptic and cellular, develop and expand. Also, many of today's basic infrastructure barriers, such as the lack of rural telephone lines, will be overcome with the advent of dramatically better and affordable wireless connectivity.

Latin American universities can learn from higher education systems in industrialized societies which are deeper into the process of ICT-driven cost and quality improvements. The first lesson is that the "build-the-network-and-the-users-will-follow" approach is wasteful, especially for poorer universities. Instead, the primary goal must be to achieve critical masses of motivated users of networks and distance education systems. Economies of scale will then justify the investments in technology infrastructure and the building of networks will follow.

How can this be accomplished? Training and technology support must be concentrated on these "early-adopter" individuals and departments within the broader university.[4] To draw from a U.S. example, the Pew Learning and Technology Program gives individual grants to early adopters at universities with the expectation that the universities will ultimately scale successes more broadly, both internally and at the national level. This strategy requires a fundamental change in the mindset of international funders. Public procurement of technology infrastructure cannot afford a slow, bureaucratic process or the technology will be obsolete by the time it reaches its destination.[5]

Instead, the strategy must be aimed at creating a "demand pull" through direct training of faculty, researchers and librarians. Training should be coupled with targeted grant projects like the Pew program to individual "early-adopter" faculty and departments, and it should provide both online and in-person training designed to enable faculty and administrators to grow from passive users of ICT to individuals with a strategic vision of how ICT can improve their teaching, research and, more broadly, the reach and quality of their institution's mission. This can be accomplished by combining hands-on technology training with strategic management theory applied to higher education.[6]

Public universities in Latin America face a daunting challenge. The clock is ticking as the local demand for more and better education grows. Increasingly, competition from local private universities and global distance-education providers is moving in to meet this increasing demand. To avoid a McDonald's-like homogenization of the content and structure of higher education in Latin America, universities must depoliticize their governing structures, embrace bottom-up innovation, and build institutional links at the national, regional and global levels. Otherwise public universities may be "put aside," as Fernando Reinach of the University of São Paulo has suggested, "as inefficient machinery incapable of responding to new demands."[7]

Winthrop Carty is Senior Development Officer for New Programs and Technology Initiatives at the Academic and Professional Programs for the Americas (LASPAU) at Harvard University.

1. Rolando Batista, "PCUMM, Dominican Republic, observations on IT-SUL listserv," archived at
2. Winthrop Carty, "Challenges to Academic Networks in Latin America: The Case of Colombia's Red CETCOL," On The Internet, Vol. 4, No. 1 (January/February 1997), p. 38.
3. World Bank, World Bank Development Report 1998 (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1999).
4. "Early adopter" refers to those first individuals who engage in the innovative use of technology despite the indifference or perhaps outright opposition of their colleagues.
5. Winthrop Carty, "Challenges to Academic Networks in Latin America," p. 39.
6. Jerry Mechling, "Better Funding for Government IT: Views from the Front Line," Journal of the American Society for Information Science, Vol. 50 (April 1, 1999), p. 305.
7. Fernando Reinach, "Adapting to Change in Latin America," Nature, Vol. 392 (April 1998), p. 648.

Tags: education, public university, technology, information revolution

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