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Report on UNESCO's International Conference

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The Second International Congress on Education and Informatics convened by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was held in Moscow, July 1-5, 1996 at the Moscow University. Over 1,000 representatives from 90 nations (the U.S. is not a member) included senior parliamentarians, Ministers of Education, university and school leaders, curriculum specialists, and hardware and software developers and suppliers. I was honored to have been a member of the Program Committee, one of the Vice Presidents of the Congress and chair of the "Drafting Group" to draft declarations and recommendations for UNESCO and Member States. There had been some concern that the Russian Presidential election, which was held during the week, might interrupt the Congress since voting was conducted outside the main meeting hall. However, the area was roped off and the process seemed to proceed in a very orderly fashion. It was even possible for Professor Vladimir Kinelev, Deputy Chairman of the Russian Government and Chairman of the State Committee of Higher Education to carry out his political duties as well as being President of the UNESCO Congress.

A working document had been prepared for the delegates to discuss. Three areas were of primary concern:

  • Promoting application of information and communication technologies for the free flow of information, innovation and effective management in education, science, culture and the media.
  • Encouraging international cooperation on legal, ethical and educational issues raised by the social and cultural implications of information and communication technologies.
  • Assisting Member States, particularly developing countries, in building information and communication capabilities, benefiting from new applications of information and communication technologies, and ensuring that these technologies do not lead to exclusion among and within societies.

Results of the Congress

The Congress was organized around six major themes: the Learner, Teacher's Technologies, Social Issues, Economic Issues, Educational Policies and New Technologies, and Issues for International Cooperation. Many papers were presented on the above topics, both in Plenary Sessions and in theme sessions called "commissions," which explored the topics in greater depth. The languages of the Congress were English, French and Russian with automatic translation offered in every session. Proceedings in all three languages will be available; I shall notify the readers of T.H.E. where and how those may be obtained as soon as they are published. Discussions were lively and stimulating. It was interesting to hear the numbers of activities in education involving use of technology in places such as China, South Africa, Palestine, Pakistan and Botswana. According to UNESCO rules and procedures, draft recommendations were presented to the entire body of the Congress at closing. Those recommendations -- based on the deliberations of the delegates--are suggestions for possible future action by both UNESCO and the Member States. The five pages of recommendations, follow the themes of the Congress and present some concrete ideas. In general they stress the need for research, cooperation, planning and dissemination of data, especially of "best practices." The recommendations shall be available with the Final Document.

Throughout the various meetings, emphasis was on sharing information and resources. A great deal of discussion revolved around the need for training and retraining, and the value of distance learning. Teachers and their professional associations were encouraged to involve themselves in the process of change and to re-evaluate their roles to include the use of technology. It was frequently stated that the development of new information technology must not be left to the commercial and industrial world alone but be developed in cooperation with the educator.

A cautionary note was stated as to the danger of using technology for its own sake, where enthusiasm for the medium distorts judgment in developing a sound educational philosophy. The Internet was also not seen as a universal panacea. Non-English-speaking nations were encouraged to promote their own data and material relating to their language and culture so that western culture and the English language do not dominate the system. There were warnings that the structure -- which now allows everyone to contribute "information," often invalidated and unstructured -- is contributing to information overload. All UNESCO delegates reflected willingness to work together to achieve equity of educational opportunity. Hope was expressed that technology will serve the educational systems of all the nations and contribute to the pursuit of peace through national understanding and trust.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.

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