By Aaron Senn
Whilst opening the website of The Open University, a drop-down menu of the 195 nations of the world opens, asking where one is located, trying to find out from where one wants to commence studying.
Education is the backbone of any society, and access to quality education is crucial for human development. However, in many parts of the world, access to education and specialized knowledge remains limited, hindering social and economic development. This is where decentralized universities and knowledge databases can make a significant impact.
Decentralized universities, also known as open universities, are institutions of higher education that provide education to students regardless of their location or socioeconomic status. These universities typically use online platforms and other digital technologies to offer a wide range of courses, programs, and resources to students worldwide. By removing geographic barriers, decentralized universities make education more accessible to individuals who would otherwise be unable to access it. In Africa by the turn of the millennium, the University of the Cape of Good Hope had become one of the largest distance learning institutions globally, with around 400,000 students in 130 countries taking its courses. Following its success, in the following decade, multiple open universities were founded across Africa, such as the Zimbabwe Open University, Malawi’s neighbouring nation.
The benefits of decentralized universities extend beyond accessibility. By offering a wider range of courses and programs, these universities can help bridge the skills gap and provide the specialized knowledge needed for specific development programs. For example, in the case of Malawi, a country in which access to clean water still remains a major challenge, particularly in rural areas where most people depend on hand pump water sources, hydrogeologists are essential for the proper installation and maintenance of these hand pumps. However, the shortage of trained professionals in this field makes it difficult to implement such programs effectively.
A decentralized university with a focus on water resource management could offer a specialized program in hydrogeology, providing the necessary skills to install and maintain hand pumps properly. By doing so, the university would contribute to the development of Malawi's infrastructure while also creating employment opportunities for the local population. Furthermore an open university could provide high quality educational videos on open platforms such as YouTube, which would further improve accessibility of education, especially to low-income rural societies.
Another critical aspect of decentralized universities is the creation of knowledge databases, such as Malawi Atlas. These databases collect and store vast amounts of information and research on various subjects, making it easier for individuals to access specialized knowledge and stay up to date with the latest developments in their field. Knowledge databases can also facilitate collaboration and knowledge-sharing between experts and NGOs, which could avoid duplication of efforts, a major problem in Malawi as highlighted in the lecture of Muthi Nhlema on Malawian handpumps at ETH Zurich, leading to faster problem-solving and innovation.
Decentralized universities and knowledge databases have the potential to revolutionize education and drive social and economic development in areas where specialized knowledge is essential. With the rapid development of technology, the possibilities for expanding access to education and knowledge are endless. By leveraging these advancements, we can create a more equitable world where education and knowledge are accessible to all.