As fellow IAU members and other readers of Horizons may be aware, the Association is initiating a process of reviewing and revising its existing ICT statement to consider the present state and future directions of ICT within the Higher Education sector. Accordingly, the theme of this issue’s In Focus section is, “Technology in higher education: opportunities for bridging divides?” Answering such a question requires us to deepen our inquiry and consider which divides require bridging, and who will be the beneficiaries of the opportunities being considered? In the case of ICT, the divides and bridges are both virtual and material. After all, information, ideas and other content are transmitted only when there is available, reliable and accessible infrastructure for sending and receiving it. However, the causes and remedies of the divides for which ICT might be a bridge have more to do with values and beliefs than with devices and technical capabilities.
ICT is not a panacea for addressing social and economic disparities, but it can certainly make a profound and positive difference. The so-called “Digital Divide” references the fact that - despite the dizzying pace of development of new devices, compression and transmission efficiencies, apps, software and storage solutions - many communities don’t even have high-speed internet access. The typical explanation given for this disparity is a “lack of resources.” However, this is arguably a polite way of saying “low priority.” The truth is that it has been possible to widen access to ICT for quite a while, but the decisions about funding, implementing and maintaining such expansion have been tied to logics of financial investment and returns rather than equity and access. A related element is the belief that certain countries - particularly Western nations - have wealth and nearly universal access to advanced technologies while “developing” countries generally do not. This is not only reductionist, but such stereotypes exacerbate existing stratifications both between and within countries and communities around the world.
I live and work in San José, California, USA, part of the so-called Silicon Valley home of companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple, Yahoo, HP, Adobe, AMD, Cisco, Oracle, and Intel, to name a few. At a recent meeting of the local Rotary Club, a writer named Caity Cronkhite offered personal reflections on her experiences growing up in a rural community, Fountain County, Indiana (population 16,591, of whom 51% have access to high speed internet) and relocating to Santa Clara County, California, part of Silicon Valley (population 1.025 Million, of whom 96.4% have access to high speed internet). She described her struggles as a younger person eager to pursue education and a successful career, the barriers and constraints associated with being born in a place where many still can’t access the Internet or still utilize telephone lines and dial-up modems to reach it, and the coerced choice to leave (something that many can’t do) so she could pursue her education and career.
In her remarks, Ms. Cronkhite connected such access to other social problems facing residents of Fountain County, Indiana versus Santa Clara County, California, two cases illustrating the Divide to be bridged. These include such issues as teen birth rates (41 per 1000 people vs 15 per 1000), household income ($45,924 vs. $117,352 USD/year), public school availability (3 vs 405), percentage of university graduates (14% vs. 49%), local hospitals (0 vs 15), and annual drug overdose deaths (14 per 1000 vs 8 per 1000). In her remarks, she argued that the presence or absence of high-speed internet and other advanced technologies have enormous impact on these various issues. Provision of online and hybrid educational programs for people who are bound by place, time or budget obviously require such technology, but so does academic preparation to be successful in most university-level programs more generally. Advanced technology and infrastructure also provides broader access to specialized medical care and facilitates the research leading to its development. ICT facilitates dissemination of health and nutrition information, finding potential mentors and collaborators for career and entrepreneurial endeavors, exploration of personal and career interests, generating and circulating solutions to manufacturing and agricultural challenges, establishing and maintaining diverse social connections, and informed democratic participation. But, if decisions about whether to install the necessary cables, servers or wireless transmission equipment is based on whether the users can pay their respective incremental costs, then little or nothing will change the present technological—and thus social—stratification.
IAU has as one of its priorities to “pursue that the potential of technology is fully harnessed to improve the quality of higher education and to increase access to knowledge and education for all.” As such, two of the overall objectives are to “Advocate for equity and solidarity between and within higher education institutions in ICT matters” and “Promote the design of inclusive ICT strategies in HEIs by encouraging and facilitating networking and cooperation between HEIs, international, and national bodies.”
IAU member institutions and national HEI consortia have both the capacities and mission obligations to collaborate with each other, policy makers, and community partners in synergistic fashion, leveraging ICT as a strategic enabler for achieving inclusive excellence at universal scale. In short, HEIs - rather than the Silicon Valleys of the world - are the ultimate conveners and initiators, making them the REAL ICT hubs of society. Will we step up at this critical moment and act like it?