In his “The Wealth of Networks” Harvard scholar Yochai Benkler demonstrates that information, knowledge, and culture always depend on an “economy”,: a system for generating, collecting, organising, and distributing them.
In what Benkler calls the “industrial information economy” these functions require massive and expensive capital equipment, buildings to house the equipment, and large and expensive labour forces to maintain and operate the operation.
The central characteristic of all forms of the “industrial information economy”—publishing, libraries, television, radio—all require centralising and operating out of “plants” organised on the “factory” model. The university as it has come down to us from the 11th century is organised on this “factory” model. The “campus” is a scholastic “plant”: lecture halls, classrooms, libraries, dormitories: an elaborate and expensive factory for the housing and creation of an educated citizenry.
If a nation has 10 or 50 universities there are ten or fifty sets of buildings and grounds that have to be maintained. And those wanting the learning that is housed in those buildings must leave their communities and emigrate to those ten or fifty communities. The university then becomes a kind of internal brain drain.
Benkler demonstrates that what we now have in the computer, the internet, and the cell phone are the modest apparatus for a new information economy he calls “The Networked Information Economy.”
The networked university does not require a physical plant. The computer and the cell phone—owned by the student or available to him or her in a local church or school or café — become the spaces of the university.
The computer is the lecture hall, and such programmes as YouTube bring the lecturer to where the student is, and make it possible for the student to watch the lecture at a time convenient, and to watch it as often as it takes for the learning to happen.
The computer and the cell phone are the classroom, and the tutorial, and the library. The “virtual library” makes it possible for ten or fifty universities to share the books and journals a university needs, overcoming the expense of paper books in each setting at prices no longer affordable.
The networked university, the virtual university allows faculty and students in Ghana or any part of Africa to access the laboratories of MIT in the United States.
If there is teaching talent that is rare, and found only in one university, the networked university makes it possible to share that talent, so that students in all universities can learn. And the virtual university can bring to Ghana or any part of Africa academics in disciplines not yet to be found on the continent. The network, then, becomes the library, becomes the classroom, becomes the school, becomes the university.
Benkler’s concept of a networked information economy is equally applicable to the Virtual High School (VHS) idea. The courses, laboratories and library of one VHS located at one facility could be accessed by any school and used to enrich its curriculum.
If a community had a pretty good school, it might use only a few of the virtual school courses. If the community had a poor school, or none at all, students might go to a local school, or a church, and enroll in the virtual school.
The VHS can also connect with the Open Courseware movement and collaborate with top academic institutions around the world, to create curricula and facilities of great quality that existing schools can tap into, but that also can enroll one or three or five students in a community with no school.
Africa does not have adequate resources–the money and the talent and the time–to do all the good things that might be done, that it would like to do. Many institutions of higher learning in the region lack the public resources required in order to guarantee quality teaching and research.
One great VHS will cost less than trying to build hundreds of walled schools. The VHS idea makes it possible to bring great teaching to the small schools of the poor communities of Africa.
To be able to train large numbers of scientists, engineers, technologists, trained and imaginative entrepreneurs, and the many technical specialists needed to support the new global businesses and industries, Africa will have to move in the direction of the networked information economy and virtual institution building.
Without such professionals and technicians our businesses and industries will not create the thousands of lower level jobs that are needed. African academic institutions need to be able to adapt to changes brought about by the emergence of a global knowledge society and information-driven economic growth.
We need to design a new educational system at all levels that prepares students for life and work today; a workforce education that keeps our workers continuously aware of the newest in their fields; we need to design a system of education that uses the spaces we now have — businesses, schools, churches and mosques, community centers–as places of learning, so that we do not spend what little we have on brick on mortar.
We need to commit ourselves to doing as much as we can to harness the power of these new technologies for education, and to spending as little as possible on the old technologies — on the brick and mortar for classrooms and lecture halls and dormitories and the rest of the expensive apparatus that drains resources away from the central needs–teachers and students and knowledge that can be communicated without brick and mortar.
If those in our rural areas are to learn about new ways to improve agricultural yield; or to use bed netting to minimise the chances of contracting malaria; or to replace unhealthy and dangerous kerosene lights with solar lights we must bring the knowledge of these possibilities to the rural areas.
We now have the opportunity to make this possible through ICT. A group of academics and educators, specialists in ICT infrastructure, workforce educators, experts from business and industry, could begin work on such a model.
The future of Africa is linked to the future of the computer, to the possibilities of all the new information and communication technologies to move ideas and knowledge to every corner of the continent; to create colleges and universities without walls. The computer and telecommunications — wires and wireless—can bring learning to all the villages and towns of Ghana. Benkler’s concept of a networked information economy applied to education offers several advantages over exiting traditional ways of learning.
The model is one such piece of action research: a way of bringing to Africa quickly the entrepreneurial skills, the technical knowledge that Africa needs now, with little money spent on brick and mortar and the conventional apparatus for housing learning.
The information revolution is here and has come to stay. Let us embrace it and use it to undertake a radical transformation of our educational system. We should have the courage to develop a different way to use the new communication technologies, a way that recognises the realities of African life.