Address by Edmund Marsden, Assistant Director-General, the British Council, on behalf of the organizers of the Parallel Convention at the opening of the 13th Commonwealth Ministers' Conference, 28 July 1997
It is an honour to address such a distinguished audience today in the name of the organizers of the Convention which is running parallel with the Conference of Education Ministers.
IDP Education Australia, whose Managing Director, Denis Blight, is here, and my organization, the British Council, were delighted to respond to an invitation from the Government of Botswana and the Commonwealth Secretariat to stage this event. The Convention is in three parts: a symposium led by IDP Education Australia, an exhibition and a showcase of examples of the application of new technology to teaching and learning.
This is a first. It constitutes a significant extension to the ministerial meeting. Participation by convention delegates and exhibitors and visitors throughout the week will help to create a shared understanding of the issues and opportunities involved in the meeting place of education and technology.
A successful Convention will strengthen the ministerial discussions. It will create an informed network through which ideas and initiatives generated in the Ministerial Conference, in the seminar and through personal contact, help to improve policy making and lead directly to improvements in the quality of, and levels of participation in, education provision. Success of this kind can only be achieved by the active participation of us all. We have here a real opportunity. Let us make the most of it.
The staging of this event itself is an example a productive partnership of organizations coming together under the banner of the Commonwealth. This event draws on the great strength of the Commonwealth, its capacity for easy and informal networking which is now being dramatically enhanced by vastly improved telecommunications and the linking of computers. Britain and Australia are this year engaged in a major programme designed to modernise, to update our perceptions of each other, particularly among young people. Technology is playing a major role in this programme which we have called newIMAGES. I hope that many of you will join the case study session tomorrow afternoon which looks at the exciting learning experiences which Internet technology is making possible for students in both countries.
Some of you have told me privately how relieved you are to see the British Council playing a more active role once again in the Commonwealth. It is a fact that we are making a real effort to develop a Commonwealth dimension to our work. We have a new Commonwealth Relations Unit, a small but exceptionally talented and energetic team, and we are supporting or initiating a range of events and programmes drawing on our contacts and experience in the 32 Commonwealth countries in which we work.
Why this apparently sudden change of attitude? I think it is instructive to reflect on three of the factors which have combined to bring it about.
The first was a substantial and influential report by the British all-party parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee on the future of the Commonwealth. It argued for a more constructive engagement by Britain with the Commonwealth. This is now being reflected in policy statements by the new Government as it prepares to host the next CHOGM in Edinburgh in October.
The second factor is the realization in Britain that the Commonwealth network has been under-used and that information technology supplies at least a part of the solution to unleashing some the formidable latent power of this global network.
The third factor, and an important one for us today, arises from the need for all countries to invest effectively and efficiently in educating and training their people - in human capital. Achieving high standards of education is essential to sustained economic growth.
The Commonwealth has a long tradition of co-operation and partnership in education. We understand, in my organization, the need to develop that tradition and those partnerships in an age when the knowledge media resulting from the linking of telecommunications and computers, as Sir John Daniel will argue tomorrow, can help to break the 'insidious link between quality and exclusivity'.
My day job is with the British Council. But I also speak to you as the Chairman of Intermediate Technology Development Group who are represented in the exhibition. This group, a charity founded thirty years ago by Fritz Schumacher, is devoted to empowering local communities through the appropriate use of technology. It is in my view essential that more work is done urgently to find means to ensure that the benefits of information technology are made available to communities who lack the resources to enter the information economy.
Together with many of you I took part in the Global Knowledge 97 meeting organized by the Government of Canada and the World Bank last month in Toronto. I was struck at that meeting by the real danger that the information revolution risks dividing and excluding communities - north/south and rich/poor - unless we act decisively to develop means to encourage access through new kinds of partnerships between local communities, provincial and central governments, NGOs and the private sector. But I was also struck by the extent to which technology is already linking countless teachers and pupils, many in remote locations throughout the world. I was impressed by the account of a teacher from Zimbabwe of the impact on entire local communities of the computer linking of schools. The schools are being used by the local community as a kind of digital utility, providing access to communication and information which was previously beyond their reach.
In recent years we in Europe have made great strides in increasing the volume of teacher, student and school exchange and in sustaining those contacts through the imaginative use of technology. We must have more of this in the Commonwealth.
Ladies and gentlemen, innovation is usually the product of creative partnerships. At this convention we will have the opportunity to compare and contrast different approaches to the use of technology in education. The convention has a number of showcases and displays, each with its own story to tell. From the software used to teach deaf Batswana children to speak clearly, to spectacles that minimise sight defects and have helped thousands of Ghanaian teachers and children, to the work with seriously disabled children in Glasgow. Many of you I hope will have the chance to meet the remarkable Trevor Baylis, the inventor of the clockwork radio, who is here with us this week. His story is a classic. A brilliant idea which was, after much frustration, developed commercially in partnership with a backer with imagination and foresight.
Allow me to conclude by summarising one or two of the lessons we have learned so far about the role of technology in the work we do in education and training, language teaching and international cultural and scientific exchange.
First, the major cost associated with technology is do with investing in training the users to exploit its potential in a sustained way. This applies to teachers no less than to organizations.
Second, I have no doubt that given the resources, the technology will in time become pervasive. E-mail and Internet connectivity in Africa, for example, is growing faster than we predicted even a year ago. The challenge is to do with the content, its quality and its ownership.
Third, personal contact remains at the centre of all our activities. Technology is not going to replace, for example, the need for schools as a place for pupils to learn social skills. Nor, as this expanded ministerial conference quite vividly demonstrates, for people to require face to face contact to probe, to understand and to create.
Ladies and gentlemen. Allow me to conclude by pledging the support of my organization, its real and its virtual networks, to taking forward and sustaining the momentum achieved at this meeting. I look forward to discussing with many of you this week and beyond, the practical steps that we can take to build on best practice, to learn together and to share our knowledge and resources. I hope that the Parallel Convention will become a regular feature of future Education Ministers' Conferences. To do so it must prove its worth. It is up to all of us here today to see that it does.
Assistant Director General
The British Council
Further information on the Convention is available.
The illustrations show children at the Ramotswa School for Deaf Children, near Gaborone, Botswana and the National Convention and Exhibition Centre, Gaborone, location of the Convention.
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