The phenomenon of the "tele-centre" or "tele-learning centre" is emerging as a hallmark of the virtual education environment. In concept it is not new; the idea of a community learning centre has long been a part of various models of adult education and was pioneered many years ago with the Scandinavian concept of "learning circles." However, in its current form the concept involves the creation of community-based access points where connectivity to networks is provided and access to information and communication technology appliances is made available. While applications may not be exclusive to education, the idea of the technology-based community learning centre provides an essential component of any virtual education system that aspires to be broadly accessible. Countries like India, which recently announced it will create information kiosks throughout the country, and South Africa, with its commitment to developing tele-centres, are examples of nations which have recognised the importance of ensuring access to citizens as a matter of public policy. Although virtual education models have not yet influenced education at the primary and secondary levels in a pervasive sense, there is evidence that this will start to occur rapidly. Initiatives such as SchoolNet in Canada, SchoolNetIntroduction 9 India, SchoolNet South Africa, and the Open School in British Columbia, Canada, are examples. The evolving model is likely to remain focused on classrooms, but with more flexibility in the role of the teacher. This role can be portrayed as a continuum, at one end of which technologies are used to support teachers and, at the other, teachers support learning where information is primarily accessed via information and communication technologies. Change Strategies Two visions of change in educational systems emerge from the regional reports in this publication. One portrays technology as an overwhelming driving force with the emergence of a few global providers dominating the educational market through vast distribution networks and strategic partnerships. The second involves a more explicit, policy-based approach at national and state levels which is concerned with issues such as equity of access, curriculum relevance to labour market needs, accreditation, consumer protection, and cultural sensitivity. These visions are, of course, not mutually exclusive as they can, and are likely to, co-exist. However, if they are to coexist in a positive way, then it behooves educational policy makers to ensure that the educational leaders in their jurisdictions are making decisions in a careful manner and are managing the process of change as constructively as possible.
Following are some strategies that the study team considers important:
1. Ensure that information and communication technology development planning is linked with educational planning so that the application is both appropriate and sustainable in terms of access to the infrastructure. Wherever possible, virtual delivery should be linked to the development of tele-centres to enhance access and add value to overall information and communication technology development.
2. Use policy, legislative, and regulatory incentives to ensure that some portion of telecommunication capacity (e.g., X% of cable channels or Y% of bandwidth) is reserved for educational use at costs that are affordable by institutions. If such incentives are available free of charge to accredited institutions, they will help ensure that educational applications become part of telecommunication infrastructure development.
3. Ensure that all facets of the concept of appropriateness are considered. In other words, the technology needs to be appropriate to the skills and characteristics of the target learners, the nature of the programme content, the current competency of the instructional staff, and available funding.
4. Show how the application of information and communication technology in education can enhance existing practice. If teachers perceive that a given application will help them accomplish their goals more efficiently and effectively, they will more likely change their behaviour and be motivated to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge.
5. Ensure that appropriate staff training and development programmes are available as an essential part of any change strategy.
6. If the purpose of increased utilisation of information and communication technologies is to achieve cost savings, ensure that there is a clear plan in place indicating precisely how such savings will be effected and whether they will be real savings rather than simply a transfer of costs to students.
7. Encourage differentiated mandates among institutions. There is an obvious cost benefit if complementary rather than competitive development can be achieved within educational systems.
8. Encourage and support initiatives of faculty members. Change, particularly within conventional institutions, often occurs at the initiative of the individual teachers rather than by strategic decisions taken by the institutions.9. Consider how or whether institutional functions can be "unbundled," particularly between those functions related directly to the provision of instruction, and those that relate to materials development and learner support. The goal is to enable the partners to focus on what they each do best—their "core business."
10. Recognise that the development of virtual education models will create change forces in a variety of other ways:
• Advising and counselling may need to be managed differently.
• Concerns over the quality assurance of providers using information and communication technologies will develop as new players become involved.
• Issues of credit recognition and transfer will arise between institutions.
• Demands from learners for assessment of existing skills and knowledge will become commonplace.
• Decisions related to the allocation of funds will increasingly be between the costs of "bricks and mortar" on one hand, and the cost of "bandwidth" on the other.
11. Effective incorporation of the technologies requires a commitment by all parts of an institution. For example, the offering of courses on-line will be diminished if the registry insists on "hard copy" processes. Summary As stated at the outset, this study was designed as a "snapshot" of current practice and the state of development of virtual education.
Given the dynamic nature of information and communication technology, the examples cited date very quickly. However, what will endure is the phenomenon of change that educational institutions at all levels, and in all parts of the world, are experiencing. The decisions that face educational leaders and practitioners are no longer simply intra-institutional; increasingly they are systemic and international in scope and involve some aspect of technological application. The world of education has become a smaller place and, like it or not, more interdependent. However, just as the emerging information and communication technologies have made the educational decision-making environment more complex, so have they led to a great deal of conventional wisdom regarding their application. We cannot over-stress the importance of the concept of appropriateness when making decisions about information and communications technology applications. This study has revealed nothing if not that the use of information and communication technology should be in the context of clearly stated educational outcomes accompanied by practical strategies for achieving them.