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East: Internet Becomes Essential For Universities

  • Nikola Krastev

At a time of shrinking state funding for education, some of the leading universities in Eastern Europe and Russia are looking for innovative ways to increase their global presence. Problems abound -- the most serious being financial constraints -- but universities from the region are finding ways to take advantage of the globalization of education. RFE/RL's Nikola Krastev attended a New York conference on the subject. Here is his report.

New York, 14 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Participants at a recent international conference sponsored by New York University expressed their eagerness to take advantage of improvements in technology to expand their universities' education base.

But representatives of leading universities in Eastern Europe who attended the conference shared a common concern -- lack of funding. University representatives from the area who spoke to our correspondent at the meeting last week expressed envy for the global network set up by New York University, or NYU.

That global network is made possible by some major financial resources. NYU's annual budget of $30 million for information technologies -- or IT -- is, for example, nearly 100 times the size of the IT budget at Saint Petersburg State University in Russia. Both universities are of comparable size.

IT investment is seen as the key way for expanding the outreach of universities, adding to their student base and attracting financial backing from new sources. Universities are driven to embrace globalization as part of their educational mission because students from diverse backgrounds are demanding practical skills necessary to secure well-paid jobs after graduation. Those skills cannot be acquired in the traditional academic environment. Leading educators say development of a modern IT base is crucial to keeping universities competitive in a globally interconnected world.

The rector of Saint Petersburg State University, Lyudmila Verbitskaya, attended the NYU conference. She clearly sees the advantages that IT developments are bringing to her country and to Russian students -- some of the most gifted in the field of computers and the Internet. Verbitskaya tells RFE/RL:

"I think that in any process there are always two sides. Unquestionably there are a number of positive developments. Students have become very mobile, they travel everywhere, they can compare, analyze. Thus, having now the opportunity to compare the educational systems of Russia and other countries the students often are coming to the conclusion that Russia's is better. They think it's worth it to get an education in the classical Russian universities, while it is better to go elsewhere to improve their language proficiency."

NYU has in the last 10 years increased its global presence to six campuses on three continents. One of the campuses was established in the late 1990s in the Czech capital Prague.

NYU President Jay Oliva tells our correspondent that among the future targets for his university's expanding global presence are Moscow and Saint Petersburg, although there are no current plans to build campuses in either city.

"We will have an interest in Petersburg as a major piece. Because, number one -- it's a manageable city, it's a charming city, very receptive city, very cosmopolitan place. And I think our students would think that's spectacular."

For rector Verbitskaya, and for many of her colleagues in Russia and in Central and Eastern Europe, there is another set of issues. Verbitskaya says that in many provincial Russian schools the word "Internet" is recognizable only through television newscasts -- students simply have no way of accessing the worldwide web. She also says there is a lack of basic computer equipment in some of Russia's provincial colleges and universities, where the 486 computer -- considered obsolete in much of the world -- is still the rule rather than exception.

In that respect, Saint Petersburg State University is one of Russia's most privileged. It's been exactly 10 years since it introduced its first online courses through the so-called Baltic University -- a network of universities in the Baltic Sea region coordinated by Uppsala University in Sweden. Some 6,000 students from 160 universities in 14 countries participate in Baltic University programs.

Online courses are now offered by many other universities in the region. The Center for Open Multimedia Education, a part of Warsaw University in Poland, offers courses for both Polish and foreign participants -- with a faculty consisting not only of prominent Polish scholars but also of "visiting" professors from the United States. Online classes are also offered by Charles University in Prague, the oldest university in Central Europe.

While online instruction has many ardent supporters, there are also a number of skeptics who have doubts about it replacing traditional education. At the NYU conference last week, the main concern voiced about online education was that learning was being turned into a commodity and that students are now being looked on as merely a source of revenue.

The rector of Prague's Charles University, Ivan Wilhelm, says that in his view there is still no substitute for the benefits of a teacher interacting face-to-face with students. But Wilhelm notes that Czech universities are among the leaders in Central and Eastern Europe in the use of the Internet.

"We have now at this moment networking of all universities in the country -- on the network and the Internet -- and it is no problem to communicate by these technologies. It is widely used for communication, not only for mailing and sending some messages or something like that. We are looking to develop a method for education especially. That means advanced studies especially in humanities because it is really the most promising field [in developing] new technologies in education."

Some departments at Charles University experiment with video-conferencing via the Internet. Wilhelm says so far participants from New York, Oxford, Vienna, and Budapest have joined in, and that the idea is to turn this into a regular experience for the students. Online video-conferencing offers opportunities for scholars to interact simultaneously with each other in the most "person-to-person" manner possible through the Internet.

In his closing remarks at the conference, NYU President Oliva said that a university's longevity now depends to a great extent on its adaptability. In simple language, that means the challenges of the Information Age now appear to be demanding change and flexibility from the world's top universities.