The disruptive potential of ICT

When moving picture cameras were first invented, they were used to make movies by shooting the actors as if the camera was in the audience seeing a performance on a stage.
Tom P. Abeles, Ph.D.
Tom P. Abeles, Ph.D.

When moving picture cameras were first invented, they were used to make movies by shooting the actors as if the camera was in the audience seeing a performance on a stage.

Eventually the technology advanced to allow the audience to experience the action in the field as new techniques were developed. This same evolution is seen in the development of ICT.

In the case of Rwanda this evolution has been a major commitment to be a leader. The country has received international recognition for its efforts to develop and advance ICT at many levels.

This includes connectivity to the outside world. It includes encouraging the use of ICT’s in education starting with its One Laptop Per Child, OLPC, that gives pupils in primary school early access to the use of ICT’s.

And it has recently initiated the rollout of high-speed broadband access and related technologies to increase capabilities for government and the private sector. Unfortunately, at the post-secondary level, Rwanda has been slow to advance.

The recent development of MOOC’s or Massive Open Online Courses creates a global lecture hall for large numbers of students. Most of these are delivered at no/low cost where cost is for some published materials and/or testing for certification.

Many of these courses come from elite universities in the United States and Europe and are delivered by top professors. By carefully selecting these courses, a curriculum leading to a degree can be constructed at very low cost.  A range of from $4000-10,000 has been estimated for a complete college degree.

For Rwanda, the idea of using these MOOC’s is tempting, seen as a breakthrough in e-learning. What is not understood is that the disruptive forces that lead to improved learning and lower costs is not the delivery of content but the shift to accrediting knowledge proficiency via measures of competencies and not by the collection of “seat-time” or time spent at an institution for obtaining a fixed number of credits towards a degree. 

Assessment for competency is transformative and it is not dependent on whether knowledge is delivered on a campus or virtually, in packaged “units” called courses.

For Rwanda with its push for global interconnectivity, content is fungible, transferable across geo-political boundaries and is asymptotically approaching zero cost. Remember MOOC’s are delivering their content for free.

This means that this content is delivered to any person with Internet access regardless of country. Content has been democratised reducing country advantage.

There are a number of private companies seeking to establish programmes in under-resourced countries, using these emergent courses. As these become established they offer alternatives to the existing institutions including traditionally funded institutions.

Potentially, this could circumvent existing programmes and faculty. More interestingly, these MOOC’s and related courses can be used to expand and/or replace existing ones at traditional universities challenging the entire faculty infrastructure while reducing the costs of support for these institutions.

What is of interest here is that, globally, this is not limited to under-resourced countries but is expanding across the developed countries and their post secondary institutions where sharing of these materials can reduce overhead and allow repurposing programmes, faculty and staff to increase productivity and focusing scarce resources elsewhere.

This means that for basic undergraduate programmes, costs can be substantially reduced while freeing resources for new programmes.

Rwanda’s effort to increase its global connectivity places it in global competition. Interconnectivity of ICT is not the same as interconnectivity of physical infrastructure such as rail or roads.

Information moves instantaneously between points, picking the best route that could involve many interconnections even when the two points are literally across the street from each other or on opposite sides of the earth. End users send and receive information oblivious to how it traveled between points.

The rise of intelligent search engines, again, challenges human skills that currently use this information. It is rapidly obsoleting skills obtained almost as quickly as individuals graduate from a programme of certification.

This challenges the entire core of traditional universities in all disciplines from STM (science technology and medicine) to HSS (humanities and social sciences). For Rwanda and other under-resourced countries trying to build their post secondary institutions in the current model of traditional universities, there is a need to study how to “leap frog” the extant model.

Rwanda has made a bold move to combine several post secondary institutions into one university. This move, up to the present, has been administrative in nature.

The radical disruption by competency-based, inter/cross disciplinary education, along with the changes being introduced in ICT delivery of content, globally, points to an imperative for the new University to move this integration beyond the content area while increasing the quality of its graduates. 

Globally, countries are increasingly aware that traditional seat-time, content-based, courses do not offer a competitive advantage for their graduates.

Rwanda has had a bold vision for the potential of ICT. It has seen that one of the keys is to introduce this into the educational system. The creation of one public university offers the perfect opportunity to move the vision forward.

What Rwanda (and it is not alone, globally) has not done is to make allowances for the disruptive forces that ICT is generating with the rise of “intelligent” computer systems that can replace and/or repurpose human content-based expertise globally.

The writer is a futurist focusing internationally on both policy and practice on issues of sustainability, renewable resources &  post secondary education.