Presentation at the opening of the Mauritius "boot camp" of the Virtual University for the Small States of the Commonwealth


7 August 2006

By Paul West & Sir John Daniel


Good morning ladies and gentlemen and thank you for inviting me to speak at the opening of this affectionately titled "boot camp".

Firstly I bring you greetings from Sir John Daniel the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Commonwealth of Learning who would love to have been here today, except that he is travelling in other parts of the Commonwealth.

What is the Virtual University for the Small States of the Commonwealth all about? Well, in the words of Sir John:"In the spirit of the 21st century I suggest that it will be a network rather than an institution - a network with multiple nodes of activity. We are not trying to create a new institution with its own brand name but to find ways to reinforce the institutions and the developments that are already taking place in your countries. A common theme of the responses of ministers to my request to tell me about their priorities was the ambition of strengthening their existing post-secondary institutions."

To this I would add: "We need to help institutions and education systems to leapfrog their use of technologies in much the same way that cellular telephone companies are helping countries to expand access to telephones and the internet. This will involve educators working and collaborating online with colleagues from across the globe on a daily basis."

Stated otherwise, is there any way in which we can give billions of people living in poverty access to learning and training?

There are projections that there will be 7 to 8 billion people in the developing world by 2025, of which some 50% will be considered to be young people. Add to this that in industrialised countries the post secondary participation rate is approximately 40% or higher. In other words, of those people younger than 25, approximately 40% are able to gain some post-secondary education. In developing countries the same figure is usually 10% or less.

Taken from another perspective, CK Prahalad speaks about the 4 billion people at the bottom of the pyramid. His approach is mostly aimed towards consumers and the business sector, yet his insight is most useful to us.

He says: "for companies with the resources and persistence to compete at the bottom of the world economic pyramid, the prospective rewards include growth, profits and incalculable contributions to humankind."

If we were to approach the bottom of the pyramid scenario and try to increase the 10% participation rate to just 35%, we would need to register some 150 million additional learners. This is far more than the current total enrolments in post-secondary education worldwide.

What is needed to be able to compete at the bottom of the pyramid are radical innovations in technology and in business models. Companies that succeed at the bottom of the pyramid think to sell in small and affordable quantities. Is there a way that education can adapt to serve the 4 billion presently underserved people?

Is there a way of helping people improve their lives by producing and distributing products and services in culturally sensitive, environmentally sustainable and economically profitable ways? Can we translate this into education by delivering appropriate courses, in appropriate sizes, at appropriate prices?

We need to keep asking: "does eLearning fit the bill?" In the case of the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth, we are not just talking about online learning, but rather online collaboration by educators.

If advancements in communication are altering the way that poor villagers in developing countries function, what more could these same technologies do for educators who embrace the online world?

Can educators take advantage of the opportunities that now exist by making greater use of the Internet, cellular telephone systems and other portable electronic devices?

We believe that the single most promising innovation at hand now is that of open educational resources. These are in addition to the already well-known free and open source software and tools.

In addition to this, we need to apply to teaching and learning, the same basic principle of sharing that underpins academic research.

The most likely barriers to sharing of courseware between countries and institutions are "the not invented here syndrome", the range of copyright issues and learning materials that are in non-digital formats.

We can already see the emergence of three generations of open educational resources. The first and most visible release of free learning resources was made by MIT in the USA. Call this the sharing of information.

The Open University of the UK is currently converting a large amount of its distance education courseware to free resources that will be posted on the Internet. Call this the sharing of learning, because the Open University's material includes some brilliant social software to enhance learning.

A third generation of open education resources has started to emerge this week. Call this the sharing of teaching and learning! This is a fully collaborative model of institutions in multiple countries collaborating to create and share learning resources. This is being done by the Virtual University for the Small States of the Commonwealth! You are at the cutting edge of developments worldwide.

We would like to acknowledge the important contributions of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which has provided enormous support to the open education resources movement, including supporting the costs of the work of the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth.

Although significant external funding has been required, the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth is not a donor driven development. It was initiated by the ministers of education and is being led by ministries of education.

Having said this, I must tell you what an exercise like this boot camp costs. By the time the participants leave this workshop, approximately 130,000 US dollars will have been spent in direct costs. This figure excludes the cost of everyone's time or COL's involvement in this project.

Is there any way that this group could create course materials to the value of 130,000 US dollars in three weeks?

I suspect that the only way to provide sufficient added value to make this amount of money worthwhile and to multiply its value, is to:

·         form an online community, whose life will continue for years after this workshop,

·         grow the community by including colleagues and other people who may be trained on returning to home countries,

·         make VUSSC a vital part of your normal daily job - that is to include it in your job description and evaluation processes, and

·         schedule time for VUSSC activities in the same way that all other activities need to be scheduled.

What can governments do to support the process? Governments and Ministries need to focus on creating the right context to support education initiatives. And they need to ensure that they don't inadvertently block education initiatives.

One such blockage in many countries is the cost and availability of bandwidth. In many developing countries, users can pay over a hundred times more for full Internet access than in the industrialised world. The bandwidth that I purchased in Vancouver costs approximately $250 per year, whereas an institution in Africa typically pays $5,000 for the same bandwidth. Wherever the problems lie, they need to be resolved and urgently!

So, can partnerships and collaboration help developing countries develop their higher education systems?

In the words of Sir John Daniel: "our aim must be to combine connectivity with learning resources so as to create a global intellectual commons, accessible to the whole of humankind."

To which he adds and reminds us: "you are engaged in something very important."

Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you.


Presented by Paul West
7 August 2006