The countries of the Commonwealth share a common language and academic traditions, so dialogue and understanding are possible. But these countries, which represent a large proportion of humanity, are also so diverse that almost any assumption is open to challenge.
This tension was acute in our discussions of the implications of technological change for universities. The differences in technological infrastructure between Commonwealth universities are stark. In one African university the only reliable telephone on campus is in the vice-chancellor's office - with a long queue of people always waiting to use it. Contrast that with the Open University where this year 40,000 students use their home phones to link their personal computers to the OU for communication with other students and coursework.
Vice-chancellors in the developing world are naturally eager to give their people access to modern computing and telecommunications facilities.
Their colleagues in the industrialised world, however, still have plenty of questions about how best to use these technologies in teaching and learning. How do we cut through the hype about the revolution that new technology is going to bring to education? Technology may be an answer, but what was the question?
What is technology anyway? The OU teaches its students that technology is the application of scientific or other organised knowledge to practical tasks by organisations consisting of people and machines.
This stresses that technology always involves people and their social systems as well as hardware. It recognises that technology is more than applied science and involves the non-scientific knowledge inherent in design, management, craft and simple common sense. It also makes explicit that technology is about practical tasks, whereas science is mainly about understanding.
When we look at the practical tasks facing universities across the Commonwealth we see that the softer aspects of technology (rules, systems and approaches to problems) are just as important as the burgeoning array of hardware and media that the word technology more commonly evokes.
The central task of the universities of the Commonwealth is to bring the liberating effects of the academic mode of thinking to many more people. Twenty-five percent of the world's population is now under the age of 15. The present generation of teenagers is the largest in history and, if birth rates continue their downward trend, may never be surpassed. Without access to higher education many of these youngsters will grow up to be unemployed, unconnected and unstable. In a global world that is a challenge for everyone.
Alongside the record number of young students so many older people are returning to study that we call this the era of lifelong learning. In much of the world the traditional technology of universities, namely lecturing to groups in classrooms, is no longer appropriate. It is too expensive, too inflexible, and too difficult to scale up.
In this context some developing countries can claim to be more successful at technological innovation than the advanced economies. Taking the example of the Open University they have implemented the principles of supported open learning on a even larger scale.
In India alone there are now four open universities with a million students between them and six others are being developed. These, and their sister mega-universities in five other developing countries, may not yet have thousands of students working on-line from home. But they have adopted successfully the two technological innovations that will be most important for higher education in the 21st century.
The first is to re-design the university around learning and the students rather than around teaching and the lecturers. The second is to apply to all elements of the teaching/learning process the principle of division of labour that is the key to combining quality, scale and economy in other areas of human endeavour.
The Open University has started a revolution in higher education that will, through the academic mode of thinking, liberate the minds of millions in the next century.
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