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Educational Portal of the Americas
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Number: 71
Year: 2002
Author: Johann Van Reenen, Editor
Title: Digital Libraries and Virtual Workplaces. Important Initiatives for Latin America in the Information Age

      The last decade has seen many events and trends, but of all of them the most significant has been the rapid development and profound impact of technology on the everyday lives of people. However, the advent of new possibilities in communication and access to information has not taken place at the same rate throughout the world and has left many sectors of the Hemisphere vulnerable, among them Latin America and the Caribbean. This vulnerability is the result of an asymmetric development that is evidenced by the limitations to and lack of available resources that could lead to a greater level of connectivity and, consequently, more competitiveness in the area of technology.

      The problem that we are referring to cannot be looked at from only one angle—represented in terms of high or low levels of access to technology—but also requires, to be fully understood and analyzed, a comprehensive vision that considers the interaction of social actors and historical circumstances. In this sense, it is important to understand the dual effects that the implementation of technology had on the countries of the region.  While it has aided in the growth of transparency and more accountability from governments, it has also added to the migration of a critical group of individuals, who are in search of better training and professional opportunities, from their countries of origin. The developed countries with a greater head start in information technology, and consequently a more developed technological infrastructure, offer the allure of more economic and professional opportunities to talented professionals from developing countries, whose own societies cannot match such promise. The vicious circle of unequal growth within the Hemisphere seen so often in other historical contexts —here termed a “digital divide” by many leaders and institutions— reappears once more. What cannot be denied however, is the promise and opportunity that this same technology provides to break not only this trend, but also those trends that have deeper historical roots, such as educational gaps between the developed and undeveloped countries of the regions.

      It is with these competing elements of disparity and potential in mind that the Inter-American Agency for Cooperation and Development (IACD) of the Organization of American States (OAS) is developing initiatives, based on the Plan of Action stemming from the Third Summit of the Americas and the resulting Connectivity Agenda for the Americas, to contribute to development in the Hemisphere. These initiatives aim to contribute to the strengthening, expansion and consolidation of those services dedicated to human resources training, allowing for the arrival of a new knowledge-based society.

      These services were created under the influence of three principal ideas. The first of these is that the process of increasing connectivity in the Americas is greatly dependent upon education. Secondly, there is a general consensus that access to knowledge increases and strengthens educational levels, and at the same time augments the possibilities for better socioeconomic performance. The last idea is that the role of education takes on added relevance for individuals and governments when one considers how closely access to better educational and professional opportunities has become intertwined with the rise of information technology.

      The Heads of State and of Government of the Americas met to discuss this and other important issues facing the Hemisphere during the Summit of the Americas, held in Quebec in April 2001. The issue of “connectivity” played an important role on the Summit Agenda, as the region’s leaders have recognized that technology allows individuals to further their personal growth and development, and that their development subsequently leads to the sustainable economic growth and social development of all of the countries of the region.¹

      The resulting Connectivity Agenda for the Americas reflects the Hemisphere’s commitment to promote increased access to knowledge and improved flows of communication for all of the region’s inhabitants. It proposes to enable all those in our societies to use information and communications technologies to build networks, share ideas, and establish more effective partnerships with government and the private sector that will enable them to participate more fully in the political, social and economic development of their respective societies.

      The Connectivity Agenda underscores the importance of providing affordable, universal access to telecommunications infrastructure and promoting the modernization of the telecommunications sector, working jointly with the private sector in deploying these services whenever possible. Likewise, the Agenda highlights the need for developing new methods for facilitating access to knowledge, particularly for the region’s children and youth, and to incorporate technology into national education systems and learning environments. In this same vein, attention will be given to broaden technical expertise through information technology training programs with a focus on training educators. As a whole, the Agenda is an instrument that encourages governments to collaborate with academic institutions and private-sector businesses to promote capacity building and human resources development through information and communication technologies.

      A strong correlation exists between the Connectivity Agenda and the Education component of the Plan of Action that was agreed upon during the same Summit meeting. As previously mentioned, the Heads of State and of Government of the Americas, in recognition of the fact that education is the key to strengthening democratic institutions, promoting the development of human potential, equality and understanding among our peoples, as well as sustaining economic growth and reducing poverty, established a series of mandates to ensure that, among other things, quality education is made available to all.

      The OAS has been assigned a critical role in fulfilling the Summit mandates with regard to the promotion and development of human resources in the Americas. In particular, the OAS has been entrusted with promoting access to quality basic education in Latin America and the Caribbean as well as promoting alternative educational methods to meet the needs of disadvantaged segments of the population or of those excluded from formal education systems.

      In addition, the OAS shall support and promote lifelong learning for students of all ages, and shall enhance the performance of teachers by providing them with opportunities for ongoing professional development and by designing more flexible teaching methods and strategies using information and communication technologies. For these reasons the OAS shall promote access by teachers, students and administrators to new information and communications technologies applied to education, through training geared toward new teaching approaches, support for development of networks and sustained strengthening of information clearinghouses, in order to reduce the knowledge gap and the digital divide within and between societies in the Hemisphere.

      These mandates are reinforced in the Inter-American Council for Integral Development’s (CIDI) Strategic Plan for Partnership for Development, as well as the IACD’s Business Plan, both of which set forth the need to employ information technology in cooperation programs and activities related to human resources development and training.² In response, the IACD has created the Educational Portal of the Americas, a web site to provide the people of the Americas – particularly those living in remote areas– with greater access to educational and training opportunities.

      In order to illustrate just exactly how the Educational Portal of the Americas will fulfill its role in facilitating connectivity in the Americas, we have included a brief description of the tool to be used to accomplish the task at hand.

      The first question to consider is “What is a portal?” Anyone who has ever “surfed” the Internet has probably used a portal of some kind. A portal could be defined as a browser-based application that allows the user to gain access to, interact with, make decisions about, and utilize a wide variety of information regardless of the user’s virtual location, the location of the information, or the format in which the information is stored. The most familiar kinds of portals are those web sites that offer an array of features—most typically news services, message boards, reference tools, e-mail, and shopping—that serve as an entry point, or portal, to the vast offerings of the Internet. While most portals share the aforementioned features, there is no set list of features required to be considered a portal. Like so many other aspects of the Internet, portals have evolved in a short time into a wide variety of types for many uses. They provide information on a plethora of topics, including local, national, and worldwide newswires; corporate coverage; stock updates; sports, weather, and entertainment news; reference tools such as maps, and phone and e-mail directories; as well as virtual shopping malls offering just about any product imaginable.

      Most portals are organized into channels, or categories, on topics that are related to the function of that particular portal. A channel then collates a range of elements, both on and off the portal site, in a single location. For example, an educational portal might include features of course offerings, scholarship opportunities, related educational sites, e-mail access, chats and a message board, on-line papers, a search mechanism, and news on educational programs, all on one accessible area.

      Another question to pose is “What kind of portals are there?” Some nine different web-based applications have been identified that could be considered portals. Among the various uses and roles that these portals may serve include: connecting different classes of data; providing access to business management information; facilitating consumer purchases; delivering training to employees; furnishing lists and links to resources, services and products; supporting the communication among the members of an organization in an intranet capacity; and serving as a resource for expert advice, decisions, opinions and support. There are several excellent examples of these portals in our region: the Educational Portal established by the Fundación Chile (educar); that of the Secretary of Public Education of Mexico, organized jointly with ILCE and its network of schools (sepiensa); and, to mention just a few.

      Although most portals will not utilize all of these functions, those that employ a combination of them are referred to as Knowledge Portals. The primary role of a Knowledge Portal is to retrieve specific information from an information technology system and present it based on the preferences and profiles of the particular user; allow for the personalization and navigation features that allows the user to customize their searches for their maximum benefit; and facilitate the communication and collaboration between those who have and those who need the information. The Educational Portal of the Americas, the features and characteristics of which will be discussed later, could be defined as a Knowledge Portal.

      Another question that is frequently asked is “Why should one use a portal?” Just as there are many types of portals, so are there many uses. The primary objective for the implementation of a portal is to create a user-friendly environment that users can easily navigate in order to find the information they specifically need to more quickly perform desired tasks, make decisions, or utilize retrieved information. The one common feature among all of these formats is that they allow the user the convenience of having the relative chaos of the Internet amassed onto one site.

      An additional feature that makes portals a valuable resource is their adaptability to individual users. Indeed, through the use of personalization techniques, portals have evolved to deliver precisely the information one needs, just the way one wants it. For example, a portal can provide conveniences such as local weather reports or movie listings by remembering the user’s zip code. Pertinent information about the portal user is usually obtained through a registration process whereby the user enters personal information into a data bank. This data is then used in order to personalize the searches the user performs, or to notify the individual of relevant news or interests based on the profile that the user has previously provided. A portal allows the user the flexibility to tailor their searches and the use of the results of those searchers in such a way that simply was not possible prior to the advent of portal access. In this way, the wealth of information available can be individualized for more efficient and effective use.

      A portal also provides a virtual community via the use of email and chat-type forums. These allow users of the same portal to exchange ideas about portal content and subject matter regardless of where they are located. In this way a portal connects individuals on yet another level, an interpersonal one. In so doing, portals further bridge the gap between peoples of the region, facilitating the exchange of and access to knowledge.

      Many universities and other institutions of higher learning have also come to realize the importance of increasing their students’ access to knowledge. This realization has led to the growth of distance learning programs, which allow students to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees, as well as professional training, through the Internet or other technological means (satellite television, audiovisual, etc.) from their own home or office, at their own schedules, and at their own pace.

      While the percentage of Latin Americans who use the Internet is still smaller than in more developed countries, studies indicate that there was a 788% increase in Internet use in the Latin American region over the past several years. This spread of the Internet to Latin America and the Caribbean now holds the potential for more students in the region to have unprecedented access to high-quality educational programs. To capitalize on this potential, the IACD has created an instrument to promote and stimulate human resources development through the use of the Internet. This instrument is the Educational Portal of the Americas.³

      The Educational Portal of the Americas is a clearinghouse of information for students, teachers, researchers, government officials and others who would like to access quality information regarding the Hemisphere’s best distance learning programs and scholarship opportunities from one central location. It is a tool to help all individuals interested in improving their personal and/or professional development.

      Like the other Knowledge Portals described previously, the Educational Portal offers its users a combination of various services. First, it provides interface with a large quantity of information by offering direct links to over 4,500 distance learning programs from the Americas and Europe; access to scholarships available from various organizations, institutions, and countries; specialized courses for updating teacher training skills, particularly at the primary and secondary levels; news briefs on educational events and services; and links to other sites of interest for the user. Second, the Portal employs user profiling in its registration process to provide personalized searches where the information sought may be tailored to the needs and preferences of the user. This feature includes the options of choosing among academic subject areas of interest, academic levels, country, institution, and language. Lastly, users have the ability to communicate with other users via chats and forums on a variety of human resources issues. The Educational Portal fosters connectivity in that it creates a regional community of users and providers of educational services within the Hemisphere by linking the professional, economic and institutional capabilities of each country.

      To ensure accuracy, as well as quality of content, all courses and programs of study included on the Portal are periodically reviewed and certified by an Inter-American Academic Advisory Committee composed of renowned experts in the field. Although there are no costs involved for users to log on and navigate the Portal’s various resources, the participating universities and institutions may charge tuition and fees to register in the programs themselves.

      There are five populations that will initially benefit directly from the Portal’s services. The first group consists of people who would like to pursue secondary or university programs, as well as those who may have begun programs but were unable to complete their studies, and need to ascertain the range of available options and institutions offering the programs and courses that are of their interest. The second group is comprised of employees, working professionals or technicians who need to quickly acquire technical skills and access practical training to advance in their career. The next group consists of corporate users, or more exactly people who have professional training that aspire to improve their abilities and focus on an area of expertise, and corporations that seek to provide these opportunities to their employees. Educators make up a specific group that is also varied and diverse. These are teachers performing duties at the basic, intermediate and secondary levels needing to update their knowledge and improve their teaching skills, or are members of the academic community holding advanced degrees who need to update their knowledge or complement and enhance areas of expertise. The last group is comprised of the adult population that seeks to enrich their personal growth through continuing studies.

      In accordance with the mandates to stimulate the role of the private sector in the development of information technology infrastructure and services, the IACD has sought the participation of numerous leading businesses and educational institutions in the creation and development of the Educational Portal of the Americas.4  The Portal initiative was announced at the Summit of the Americas in Canada in April 2001, at the OAS General Assembly in Costa Rica, and at the annual meeting of Virtual Educa 2001 in Madrid, Spain. The Portal was officially launched in its Spanish and English versions on September 24, 2001, in Punta del Este, Uruguay, at the proceedings of the Second Meeting of Educational Ministers of the OAS. In January 2002, the French and Portuguese versions of the Portal were made available. During its first six months the site received over eight million hits from 70% of the countries of the continent and the rest of the globe.

      In addition to the functional components of the Portal already mentioned, it is worth noting that during the year 2002 several activities are being implemented that will allow for the incorporation of new components. For example, a Virtual Campus designed for the development of experimental academic and training activities and projects within the framework of the fellowships and training program of the OAS. These actions will be carried out through strategic alliances with universities of the Hemisphere, the goal being to offer them on a larger scale once an experimental phase is concluded. Another component designed to create a true virtual community is to equip hosting services on the Portal to support networks of academic excellence with limited or regional access, such as la Fundación Omar Dengo of Costa Rica, the Huascarán project of Peru or the Latitud initiative of Project Zero of Harvard University, in order to increase their reach across the Americas.

      Special mention should be made of the initiative for a Common Market of Knowledge that is projected to be launched at the end of 2002. This initiative, which was conceived during the 1990s by former President of Uruguay, Luis Alberto Lacalle, consists of a network of digital libraries in the priority areas established by CIDI. The cooperation of the Digital Library project of ISTEC of the University of New Mexico and the national libraries of numerous countries of the region will contribute to the organization of this service.

      In summary, the Educational Portal of the Americas addresses the Connectivity Agenda of the Americas as well as the Plan of Action of the OAS/IACD resulting from the Third Summit of the Americas on a number of fronts. First, the Educational Portal is a vehicle that invests in the development of human potential as it significantly augments the capacity to access knowledge and offers a solution to improve the dispersal of that knowledge on a global scale. It will in principle promote lifelong learning and new opportunities to partake in the knowledge-based society by way of a flexible service delivery through its mission to provide the people of the Hemisphere with greater access to quality educational programs regardless of their location.

      By providing users with entry to a vast clearinghouse of distance and on-line education programs the Portal enables access information on post-secondary studies and learning opportunities offered across the Hemisphere. In addition, provision of information on OAS fellowships will promote access to quality basic education for all. The Portal’s focus on and dedication to teacher training via on-line courses enhance the performance of teachers by furnishing opportunities for ongoing professional development that uses new information and communication technologies as their strategic foundation. These services will deliver greater support to the program of connectivity as they will allow for the sharing of vocational experiences among professionals from many countries. The Portal’s personalized format and its communicative components such as e-mail, chats, forums, and links of interest will establish networks of individuals in various societies that will promote the exchange of information, ideas and best practices as well as participation and dialog between the public sector and other sectors that will increase the knowledge of other cultures and languages and generally enhance communication among peoples of the Hemisphere.

      In its design, delivery of services and dedication, the Educational Portal of the Americas serves as an invaluable resource in realizing the Connectivity Agenda of the Americas and the continuing efforts of the OAS and the IACD to stimulate and promote development among the countries and peoples of the Hemisphere.