Commentary: Education:

Internet-Based Education and Its Impact on Developing Nations

by Dr Seamus Phan

As my esteemed colleague and publisher John Pellam commented recently in an email discussion, education is the great equalizer in today's unequal world.

From developed industrialized nations to developing nations, the highly educated often take socially important roles and assume leadership. Others take up educational and management roles in institutions and commercial entities and further the economic engines in one way or another.

However, the highly educated remain the elite among their people in developing nations, and the divide between them, the "haves", and the uneducated  "have-nots", is fast becoming greater as well. With the emergence of the Internet and the empowerment it bestows upon the "haves", who will only accelerate their learning and thereby gain greater leverage over the "have-nots", the role of government leaders in Asia Pacific has been to reduce the chasm between the educated and the uneducated.

The Internet is perhaps one such tool, since it can become more affordable with regional governments taking time and resources to improve network infrastructure, and to provide education to the mass population.

The changing face of education

Education, especially in Asia, has traditionally been classroom-based. The concept of "teacher" and "student" is deeply ingrained in the Asian mind, and is still difficult to separate from many of the traditionalist educators. However, the younger educators, many of whom were educated in the West, are increasingly reducing their role as teachers, and are acting increasingly as facilitators. This is because students today are more empowered with the use of computers and the Internet, and have a lesser dependence on teachers to impart knowledge. Teachers have become mediators and facilitators of knowledge, helping students discern truth from falsehood, focus from noise.

It is with the changing face of K12 and tertiary education that adult learning has to evolve as well, to adapt to the new world of knowledge economies. Governments in the region are fast recognizing that the true competitive advantage they will have in the future will be in specific knowledge that can be harnessed and deployed, rather than simply providing labor and menial resources to large organizations.

From manufacturing to database repositories

Asian nations must slowly evolve from low-cost manufacturing hubs into information and database hubs, providing specific and vertical knowledge to Western nations.

This will not happen overnight, nor should it. This is because the regional economies still create value to traditional manufacturing, and the large numbers of unemployed still have to be dealt with in the short term to prevent social unrest. For example, the hundreds of millions of unemployed in mainland China are attributed to the industrialization of many sectors, and untrained labor has become obsolete in the high-tech industrialization that has taken place in many emerging rural areas. The convergence of talents within highly developed cities in mainland China also compounds the unemployment numbers, since there are only a finite number of jobs as compared to the availability of converging talents.

Likewise, in other Asian nations such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and even Singapore, the unemployed tend to be under-trained in terms of practical industry knowledge, and middle-aged. As economies become faster in pace and change, many less trained employees drop out of these companies, unable to cope and compete, both in terms of knowledge and energy. Also, because many traditional Asian organizations tend to respect tenure above skills and talents, many people were promoted beyond their competency, with unjustifiable high salaries to match. When such organizations become victims in economic turmoil, they have no choice but to disregard their tenure-based traditional approach and lay off these middle-aged executives and managers. And because many employers in Asia would rather employ younger employees, who are deemed more flexible and adaptable to change and lower salary and benefit expectations, these middle-aged employees who are laid off find that getting equivalent jobs become almost impossible. And because the Asian mentality tends to gravitate toward maintaining "face", or that of protecting one's pride, these laid-off employees often do not want to even consider lower-paying jobs with lesser "titles".

How then, can this situation be changed?

It has to do with social change. People must recognize that today's world is no longer based on tenure, but on what one knows and what one can do. People must also recognize that today's organizations rely on the efficient sharing of information, and no information should be hidden from others for personal gain. Rather than trying to educate employees on the merits of sharing information, the short-term method is to instill disciplinary measures to ensure that sharing is effected. This method will work in Asia, since Asians respect authority, and in difficult times, may be more willing to listen.

When the knowledge pool gets larger and deeper, organizations can leverage a knowledge management system to help employees of all levels understand various tasks and problems, and to provide an intelligent platform from which to draw answers from.

The basic skills

The basic denominator for all Asian nations should be a sound Internet infrastructure, since the Internet allows a mutually beneficial platform between nations to share information at all times. For countries and economies to migrate from old manufacturing hubs to knowledge hubs, their people should be given opportunities to learn technologies, and to acquire knowledge with technology as well.

In economies where computers and bandwidth are expensive, some kind of community platform should be built to allow people to learn and use computers and the Internet, while researching new information and building new knowledge with the Internet platform.

In economies where computers and bandwidth are affordable relative to the income of the average person, there should be incentives to allow people to gain further education, through tax incentives and recognition for their achievements.

What it means to Asia

Capitalism in various forms can be a good thing, but only if it creates harmony rather than unrest. If the chasm between the "haves" and the "have-nots" is too great to bridge, it is inevitable that riots or even civil war will result. History has spoken time and again when the chasm widens, and it is wise not to allow such chasms to widen, or even exist.

It is important that the "haves" remember the days when their forefathers did not possess much, but built the fortunes for their children to inherit and enjoy. Therefore, community building in a capitalistic world is extremely important, to retain, and nurture social harmony. For a harmonious world is the only way where poverty and ignorance can be defeated.

Dr. Seamus Phan is a regular contributor to this Journal with his series of articles on Internet Security and also serves as an Adjunct Professor and Lead Faculty of the Department of Media Studies at the Hawaii-based International University of Professional Studies.

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