Macdonald reflects on education at international congress

H. Ian Macdonald, president emeritus of York University, recently returned from Hong Kong after delivering a keynote address on education at the biennial congress of the International Council for Distance Education (ICDE).

Hosted by the Open University of Hong Kong, this 21st World Conference on Open Learning and Distance Education brought together over 500 distance educators from more than 50 countries.

When invited to make the keynote address, Macdonald, who is currently a professor in York’s Master of Public Administration Program in the Schulich School of Business and Faculty of Graduate Studies, said he was asked to “look back and look forward” in recognition of his many years of involvement in education.

“As I approach nearly 50 years of participation in the formal academic world and reflect on my recently concluded 10 years as volunteer Chair of the Commonwealth of Learning,” Macdonald said at the start of his talk, “I hope I can tie together a number of threads which make up the complex fabric of education.”

Macdonald’s address focused on how preoccupied the West has become with the means of delivering educational services, yet how poorly it has clarified the broader purposes underlying educational objectives. “I have always maintained that education is a prerequisite for peace and harmony…. It leads to wider compassion, greater equality and an enhanced quality of life for mankind. Why, then, has this not happened?”

Macdonald bemoaned the fact that, along with positive achievements, scientific and technological advances have produced weapons of mass destruction and threats of biological terror, while the limited access many people have to education has produced a widening gap in the equality of life between individuals, and between nations.

                                           Right: H. Ian Macdonald

“We have fallen short in providing the leadership necessary to harness the benefits of education for achieving a better world. Globalization seems to have widened the gaps [in education] and increased tensions on a global scale…. Not only have we not beaten the swords into ploughshares, we have given the bomb much higher priority than the book.”

Correction of that situation is a “one of the great moral imperatives of our time,” Macdonald said. “If we are to be a knowledge society…we must devote serious attention to three issues: Who will have access to education; how can the knowledge society be shaped to ensure a more peaceful world; and who should determine educational policies and how education is to be delivered?”

Macdonald asserted that, although “distance learning” is a term readily used by senior policy makers, they often fail to support its implementation. Distance education certainly has the potential of eroding political and geographical barriers to the “the movement of knowledge”. Unfortunately, he added, for those too poor to afford computers and Internet access, e-learning might also widen the gap between the haves and have-nots.

“Commonwealth countries continue to lead the world in the imaginative ways in which they have applied open and distance learning. However, that capability is not distributed equally…. To overcome that disparity is our immediate challenge.

“And our task is…to ensure that relief of poverty, improved health services and accessibility to basic education for those 150 million of the world’s children to whom it is currently denied become priorities for action.”

Macdonald closed his talk by posing several major issues for consideration:

  • To what extent should basic education be strengthened? Nations of the world must use every means at their disposal to accomplish this — local, national and international resources.
  • Which institutions are best equipped to assume responsibility for training people for occupations? This must involve traditional schools, online courses and training institutes, as well as employer and workforce organizations.
  • What delivery systems are most suitable for basic education and for occupational education? Whereas I believe that distance education still has huge gains to make in providing for the former, a hands-on situation would make training much more effective at a local level, particularly where the student has limited basic education.
  • How should this be financed? I would like to see broad concurrence with a United Nations resolution that would pose a formula for systematic transference of resources from armaments to education.
  • How do we reconcile modes of education designed to strengthen indigenous societies with the demands of globalization? We must work hard to tailor educational programs designed in the developed world to cultural characteristics of the user-world.
  • What strategies are most suitable for narrowing, rather than widening, economic and social gaps?

“This last issue is the most difficult challenge of all,” said Macdonald, “but the answer is to be found in a purposeful attack on narrowing the digital divide. We will need leaders of the UN, the G8, Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings and all levels of government to agree that the Education for All mandate will no longer be a pious hope, but a top priority in international, national and local decision-making.”

More about H. Ian Macdonald

Macdonald, who served as York’s third president and vice-chancellor from 1974 to 1985, is also director of the Master of Public Administration Program and a professor of economics and public policy in the Schulich School of Business.

Left: Macdonald, as president of York University

Macdonald has had a distinguished career, not only in academia, but also in government, the private sector, international agencies, the theatre and sport. His contributions to international education have included fundraising for Commonwealth universities. He has undertaken responsibilities for the Inter-American Organization for Higher Education, the International Association of Universities, the North-South Institute and the World University Service of Canada.

Among Macdonald’s many honours and awards are a Rhodes scholarship, Vanier Medal, Citation of Merit from the Court of Canadian Citizenship, Award of Merit of the Canadian Bureau for International Education, Centennial Medal, Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal, Governor General’s Medal, Commemorative Medal for the 125th Anniversary of Canadian Confederation, Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal and his place in the Order of Canada as an Officer.

For more information on Macdonald, read the Dec. 10, 2003, YFile.