EDUCATION-MEDIA: NEW VENTURE SUPPORTS LONG-DISTANCE LEARNING
by Yvette Collymore
WASHINGTON, Apr. 23 (IPS) -- A new company here believes it has
found a way to provide citizens of poor countries who lack the
time, money and transportation access to classrooms.
The Washington-based company, WorldSpace, Inc., says it intends
to feed school courses, as well as information and entertainment,
to audiences in developing countries via satellite-fed digital
radio. It will be pitching its plans to distance-learning educators
in Africa next week.
Part of the plan is to give the concept of long-distance
learning a boost with the help of digital satellite radio. The
bigger picture involves a billion dollar commercial venture that
brings together broadcasters, electronics manufacturers, a large
enough audience willing and able to buy the technology, and the
boosters of the business here.
WorldSpace was set up in 1990 to carry out the project under
what founder and chief executive officer Noah Samara calls "a
disciplined business plan." WorldSpace has received permission to
launch three satellites to supply digital radio feeds to developing
"In 1994, we started working with Fortune 500 companies, with
broadcasters from around the world, and with consumer electronics
manufacturers, to anchor a technology which we tailored to fit our
needs," says Samara, a U.S. citizen of Sudanese and Ethiopian
"Our project grew, through sheer economy of scale, from a $40
million venture to a billion dollar one," he says. Samara says that
WorldSpace raised funds with the help of the New York investment
firm Morgan Stanley and Co. Inc., but he declined to disclose the
The first of the three satellites for the venture is to be
launched in mid-1998 to cover Africa and the Middle East. The
company has also received a license from the government of Trinidad
and Tobago to operate a satellite to cover Latin America and the
Caribbean. And Australia has approved a license for the company to
move on another satellite for South and Southeast Asia.
Each satellite is to shed three beams on the respective regions,
and each beam is to deliver a number of digital channels which will
be combined to offer 80 stations with different radio formats. To
access the system, users would have to buy special receivers at an
initial cost of $150 per unit. WorldSpace is also keeping the
manufacturers of these units a secret, only saying that "their main
assets will be their brand name."
But the secret to the receivers is not the body but the chips
to be placed in them, says Samara.
For these chips, WorldSpace has signed contracts with SGS
Thomson of Italy and ITT Intermetall of Germany. These companies
are to design and mass-produce two million chips. Samara says he
expects the technology to eventually become available to any chip
The digital signals are designed to carry both print, audio and
visual data. The more affluent and ambitious user would have a
printer and video screen to take full advantage of the technology.
But to make this venture attractive to the poorest countries,
WorldSpace has set up a foundation to protect what it calls the
"economic and development" segment of the project.
Samara, who refers to this aspect of the plan as his "vision,"
says that WorldSpace will allocate about 10 percent of its channel
capacity to the Foundation to serve "development" needs. The rest
is to be commercial space to be made available to a variety of
African education specialists will get an introduction to the
technology and its proponents at a distance education conference
next week in Ghana.
"The ministers of education from Africa will decide the extent
to which countries buy into the technology," explains Samara.
Sponsored by WorldSpace and the Canada-based Commonwealth of
Learning, the estimated 120 participants at the April 27-29
conference in Accra are to discuss how the technology may help to
address what one distance learning expert here described as "the
crisis of education in Africa."
"Since the 1980s, the populations of developing countries have
steadily progressed in improving their education systems. The same
cannot be said of countries in Africa," says Dr. Stephen Anzalone,
Director for Research and Evaluation of international programs at
the Education Development Center here.
He cites World Bank estimates which show that while the
continent increased primary school enrollment from 21 percent in
the 1960s to 51 percent in the 1980s, the percentage today has
climbed to 52 percent.
Some of the conventional approaches to education "are simply not
going to work" in African societies, says Anzalone, who has served
on the advisory committee for the Learning Without Frontiers
Program at the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural
Organization (UNESCO). "Conventional schools with well-trained
teachers and that are well-equipped will not work. They simply
won't reach all the people."
Long-distance learning, which initially brought instruction to
students only through correspondence courses, eventually
encompassed the use of audio cassettes, radio programs, and video
cassettes. The latest generation of distance education technology
is interactive, including, audio, video, and computer conferencing.
But the financial constraints in Africa confine distance
learning technology to mainly printed media that is used in
conjunction with audio and video cassettes. That applies to every
educational level on the continent, from the Open University of
Tanzania, to vocational and technical education in South Africa,
to literacy campaigns elsewhere.
"Technology can offer magic solutions to distance learning,"
says Dr. Abdul Khan of the Commonwealth of Learning, an
organization which helps Commonwealth countries develop distance
learning techniques. "But the question is what technology is more
realistic in terms of accessibility and affordability. Even if
television channels operate, everyone who wants to take part must
have a TV."
With $1 billion riding on this venture, WorldSpace and other
backers are banking on the appeal of both its commercial and
educational services and on the ability of a large number of people
to buy the $150 receivers.
They are also banking on developing countries' dependence on
radio as a mass medium. More than 100 million radios are sold each
year in developing countries alone, says Samara.
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