Towards the virtual university

Ben Teehankee

23 March 2000

The View from Taft


The potential of the Internet to fundamentally affect the conduct of higher education has lately received increasing attention. Among telecommunication innovations used in education, the global Internet has grown the fastest in terms of reach. The Economist reports that to reach 50 million users from inception, radio took 38 years, the personal computer took 16 years, television took 13 years, and the World Wide Web took 4 years. For nations who are seriously pursuing education as a strategy for national development, the power of the Internet is clear.

On March 27 and 28, representatives from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam will gather at De La Salle University for a conference spearheaded by the ASEAN University Network or AUN. The conference goal is as timely as it is formidable: to map out joint strategies for setting up an ASEAN virtual university.

Is this possible? Can a multi-cultural, multi-lingual group of countries plunge into an educational partnership in cyberspace? Many issues will confront the conference participants as they craft a strategy for Internet-enabling higher education in a borderless scenario. Without meaning to preempt the conference discussions, I would like to share my thoughts on some of the main issues the delegates will likely grapple with.y What is a quality online course?

Beyond the technology concerns of java graphics, streaming video and voice over Internet protocol, the delegates will ask questions that have bedeviled educators for as long as there have been courses: When do we know that we are running good courses and that learning - the right kind - is actually taking place? Different models of quality in online instruction are emerging. Some look at the extent of use of Internet technologies to build inter-activity between content and learner. Still others look at the interaction among the learners themselves - the creation of so-called learning communities. y How can ASEAN universities best share their resources online given the disparity in their IT infrastructures?

The range of IT endowments among the ASEAN countries is wide, indeed. Singapore has a national initiative, aptly called Singapore One, which delivers the highest level of interactive and multimedia applications and services to homes, businesses and schools throughout the city state. In contrast, we have ASEAN countries, the Philippines included, who have yet to make telephone service available to most families. This is a clear sign of the emerging "digital divide" - the yawning gap between those who have access to IT resources and those who do not. It is a credit to AUN that it aims to confront this divide through the collaboration this conference represents.y How can faculty be best prepared for being educators in a virtual university?

It is well-known that the key to any educational innovation is the faculty. But academics are not always the first to embrace needed change and this is well- known, too. What strategies will ASEAN countries pursue to nurture the self-reinvention that the Internet is forcing on all knowledge workers, faculty included? How do we encourage faculty to stretch themselves beyond the role of information broker at a time when the Encyclopedia Britannica has made its entire content available for free online? How do we move faculty away from being "the sage on stage" to being the "guide on the side?" More than the obvious task of retooling faculty in the use of online technology, there is the more important task of paradigm retooling that needs to be addressed.

Many of the above issues cannot be resolved in a single conference. But the best outcome for a gathering of this type may be the collective awareness that can be the foundation for good policy for Internet use in ASEAN higher education. It is significant that while the Internet revolution has led many businesses to reengineer themselves to be more competitive, the educational institutions who are sending delegates to this conference are contemplating on how to reengineer themselves to be more collaborative. And the AUN seeks to harness this development for collective regional good, in harmony with the challenge posed by 1999 UNDP Human Development Report which states:

Global governance of technology must respect and encompass diverse needs and cultures. Public investment - through new funding - is essential to develop products and systems for poor people and countries. Precaution is needed in exploring new applications, no matter how great their commercial promise. Only then will the rules of globalization allow technological breakthroughs to be steered to the needs of people, not just profits.

To this end, I wish the AUN conference delegates the best of luck.