Can Botswana bridge the digital divide in distance education?
By BiztechAfrica – Jan. 9, 2012, 1:44 p.m.
By John Churu, Gaborone, Botswana
The recent efforts by the Botswana College of Distance and Open Learning (BOCODOL) to offer Information Communication and Technology (ICT) courses have been hailed as a step in the right direction by education pundits in this country.
The birth of the Virtual University, whose educational courses are conducted online, has made distance education so easy all over the world is a feat Botswana wants to tap into.
A researcher, scholar and lecturer at the University of Botswana with the centre for distance education has praised the entry of ICT in education.
Dr Olugbade Oladukon said ICT has increased the number of distance learners undertaking their studies and earning their degrees. He noted that “the geographical boundaries between nations no longer pose difficulties or inhibit learners to access education from institutions outside their countries of abode.”
He observed that some of the benefits of distance education are that it expands access to learning by meeting the demands for education and training from the general populace and businesses. This is so because it offers the possibility of flexibility to accommodate the many time-constraints imposed by personal responsibility and commitments among other things.
In a paper titled ‘the virtual World of Learning and the quandary of digital divide: A Botswana experience on information access.’ Oladukon observed that while the library is an important information source, the information environment of distance learners goes beyond the library; that the demand of modern times cover the application and use of digital content obtainable from or via the internet and other media such as radio, television and telephone or other computer or mediated devices which can be used when the library is not available.
He added that the above can be seen in the context of the Botswana Government’s policy on information communication technology which seeks to create a conducive information environment for the people. The government of Botswana in its recognition of the importance of ICT and the future of economic and social development of the country articulates its Maitlamo (ICT) vision as follows:
“Botswana will be a globally competitive knowledge and information society where lasting improvements in social economic and cultural development is achieved through the effective use of information and communication technology.”
Oladukon further notes that “the efforts of the government of Botswana to ensure country-wide access to ICT could be seen in the liberalised telecommunications services and breaking the monopoly of Botswana Telecommunication Corporation (BTC) when mobile telephony was awarded to two private companies in 1998. The introduction of the Private Telecommunications Networks (PTNs) and Internet Services Provider (ISPs) among others is seen as part of the effective design for the people in Botswana including distance learners, to meet the information needs.”
The Digital Divide downside
Oladukon explains that one problem that seems to confront and impinge not only Botswana, butthe world information environment at large is the issue of the digital divide.
Many other researchers and policy scholars have expressed concern that the digital divide creates an underclass: the info-poor, who may become further marginalized in society when basic computer skills are becoming essential for economic success and personal advancement, entry to good career and educational opportunities, full access to social networks and opportunities for civil engagement.
There is an observed disparity of technological development use and application between the two worlds. Accordingly, this has led to some to express concerns for the future of off-campus services, in the face of the drift towards increasing disparity between the technology-rich and the technological-poor.
In the same study, Oladukon conducted among some of Botswana’s distance learners, it was noted that there is a significant relationship between location and access to the internet. A number of subsequent tests also confirm the prevalence internet facilities accessibility in the city and town as against what obtains in the village.
These findings substantiate the fact that the village is shortchanged when the use and accessibility of information and communication technology is considered. This consequently affects learners located in the rural areas. “It therefore implies that adequate arrangements has to be made on the provision of ICT facilities like the internet in some strategic locations including the villages if distance learners working or living in such locations are to maximise benefits from ICT,” explained Oladukon.
The study emphasizes that accessibility to digital resources by distance learners has locational dimension. According to Oladukon, it is much more convenient to access information in the metropolitan areas than in rural locations. The study also asserts that the more rural a location is, the less the chances of having adequate information resources. It is conclusive in its affirmation of the previous theories that there is growing disparity in access to information as a result of the location of individuals in Botswana.
Distance learners and by contrast, urbanites, will have high speed connections to the World Wide Web as well as have ready access to information resources. It is therefore a foregone conclusion that students located in rural areas will remain dependent on local libraries or a library delivery service from the campus until such time as it is economically feasible for cable or telephone companies to run high speed data transmission lines into average household or until internet access by satellite becomes widely available.
Oladukon’s study also reveals that many students still do not own the necessary equipment to participate in the new era of instant information access. However, he has a number of suggestions meant to thwart the emerging class system in distance education in Botswana and among the suggestions the following stand out.
Since most villages in Botswana enjoy electricity and telephone connections, encouragement should be given to private ISPs, and DSPs and PTNs to spread their services beyond municipalities to rural locations. The need to make computing and information literacy skills training mandatory for distance learners and last but not least, adequate utilization of cellphone functionalities should be encouraged.