Rural Development: An Issue of Global Concern The world population now exceeds 5-billion people, of which more than four fifths live in developing countries. Asia is residence to 75% of this population. While the problems that plague people in developed countries centre on over-consumption in things such as energy, food, and drugs, people in less developed countries try to eke out an existence without the basic necessities of life. There is a food shortage, even though the people in rural areas produce most of their countries’ agricultural product. They go without basic medical care and lack training on preventive medicine, and can hardly afford the expense of modern drugs. People in the developing world lack the basic education necessary to give a fighting chance in our global marketplace. They haven't the competitive edge necessary to communicate with and thrive in today's world economy. Competent and well-trained professionals in the United States or European countries can easily earn more than 100 times the salary of general labourers in developing regions of the world. Modern universities and colleges could be instrumental in rural development. Universities and policy makers can be leaders in the application of Information Technology (IT) in rural education development. The scope of presentation is not limited only to the traditional universities' role but includes various institutions of higher learning. Though my experience is limited mostly to Thailand and Southeast Asia, the ideas and viewpoints expressed in this paper could be generalized to developing countries around the world. Urban Colleges and Universities Most modern universities and colleges in the world are located in urban areas. The professors and support staff and technicians enjoy the convenience provided by cities and megacities. These city centres bring with them a high cost of living, but college students enjoy easy, although expensive, access to resources. There are so many gifted students who, by lottery of birth, live in rural areas. They desperately want to be admitted to the prestigious urban universities and colleges. Education holds their only hope of increased job opportunities and a better future. After the Second World War (WWII), national governments of Southeast Asian countries first established universities in major cities. For those residents of the outlying areas, it was hoped that the status accompanying big state universities in their locality would lure investors to the region, thus furthering economic development. Following this first trend was the promotion of smaller institutions of higher learning, such as teachers colleges, vocational colleges and institutes, or community colleges. In some countries (e.g.,Thailand) these smaller institutions were able to provide higher education opportunities for residents of provincial cities, smaller towns, and nearby rural areas. Most of the prestigious universities and colleges in SEA, save the Philippines, are state supported. Where the university or college is built will determine its accessibility to the rural population. The economic hardship one must endure to attend institutes of higher education in urban areas may bar access to much of Southeast Asia's population. The cost of attending a large, prestigious university or college in a city centre is four to five times more expensive than the smaller, less prestigious institutions located in provincial areas. The demand for the Southeast Asian governments to establish state owned universities in smaller cities is always there. The provincial populations in Thailand ask for two things from their government representatives: (1) airport and, (2) universities in their provinces. With 75 provinces in Thailand it is unlikely that these demands can be met. A university education is expensive both to the government and the parents in Southeast Asia. Traditional universities that, because of where they are located, require on-site residence or daily commuting to campuses represent significant expense to students in the SEA region. Policies and regulations, instituted by the SEA governments and university professionals to assure quality, make a low-cost university education near impossible. For public and private universities to be fully accredited, operational regulations require considerable investment by that institution. Accredited institutions must have the following: (1) A full-time faculty to student ratio of not more than 1 to 10-15-20; (2) A minimum number of books and library materials available per student; and (3) A minimum number of square metres of building space per student. For example, some professional boards demand that only those universities with laboratories, or professional related training facilities, be qualified to produce professionals in certain fields. This requirement adds to the cost of a university education, and does not leave much room for institutions to provide a good education at a lower cost. Such requirements blur the ideal of providing equal opportunities to all people in the country and widen the access gap between these education haves and have nots. The crucial function of universities and colleges in developing countries is to provide professional and highly specialized education to the countries' populations. The educational system needs to be revamped to solicit the involvement of institutions of higher education in rural development. Education in SEA needs to seriously consider new ways of providing quality high level education at a more reasonable cost. I propose that "Information Technology" can provide a promising and cost-effective alternative to solve the aforementioned educational problems in Southeast Asia. University’s Contribution to Rural Development Traditionally, universities and colleges have had three functions, namely: (1) to provide higher education to the public, mostly students (2) to do research in various fields in response to both academic and societal demands, and (3) to provide academic and professional services to their communities. Universities can serve their country's rural population in various ways. First, they can provide degree programs to the rural population at their traditional campuses. Some universities have in place a quota system to provide university education to some individuals from their rural population. Other countries in Southeast Asia have a quota system to increase access to university education for special groups. Secondly, universities can provide degree programs at the extended campuses, or through partnerships with provincial area colleges. Many universities have taken advantage of this opportunity and are thereby offering degree programs to individuals in previously disadvantaged areas. Thirdly, universities can expand their academic services to include such things as short-term training courses, seminars, workshops, etc., to provincial or rural area populations. In some developing countries, there is a demand from university alumni and people from all walks of life for academic and professional training from those universities in their local areas. Universities can be active participants in agricultural management, vocational training, and educational professional development. Universities are no longer tied to their buildings but have moved out to search for and serve the greater population rather than wait for students from rural and provincial areas to amass enough money to be able to move into the cities to further their education. Fourthly, universities can conduct research and development in areas of benefit to rural development. Institutions of higher learning with a strong research orientation can use information gathered from their research activities in rural development through rural problem advocacy. Universities are in a good position to influence policy makers by proposing alternative management directions for rural development. Universities and colleges are capable of so much more than they are currently doing. With the appropriate use of utilize Information Technology in education and training activities, universities can have a great impact in the field of rural development. Demystifying IT in Developing Countries After WWII, technology developments took off, and emerged with the following trends: (1) In the last 20 years, computers became smaller, cheaper, faster, and more user friendly. Through fierce competition within hardware and software industries in the West, new products have been brought to world market. (2) The lines of communication are so much unlimited with the emerging linkage via Satellites and the fibre-optic cabling. These lines of communication will bring televisions, telephones, fax, Internet, etc. to offices, institutions, and homes around the world. (3) Global communications have now wired the world into a global IT network. Globalization has impacted all sectors of society and all fields of knowledge in the world. The language of IT is constantly changing, growing more and more specific every day. Its vocabulary is developing so fast that the world's dictionaries, even virtual dictionaries on-line, cannot keep up. The world's population receives IT both positively and negatively. Some people like its applications and find that they cannot live without it. Others resent and fear it. This resentment ultimately limits opportunities for society as a whole. Some of the myths, misconceptions and misunderstandings of IT that contribute to this resentment and fear are as follows: Information Technology is expensive and therefore out of reach for developing countries. Many educational administrators have not even explored the opportunities presented for IT applications in the classrooms. If used appropriately, IT can make the implementation of mass education strategies cost-effective and efficient. IT is a fad, it will go out of style just as fast as it came in. People are familiar with the IT of computer games and techno-toys. Children have short attention spans. They will play with the new toy for a while and then get bored with it. The expensive purchase of today collects dust in a drawer tomorrow. The IT to which I am referring is not just toys or games. The IT of today is paving the way for the information super highway of the future. The benefits of which are access to information, ideas and benefits to our lives that we would have never thought possible 20 years ago. It will become an integral part of our modern lives, with applications in all aspects of development, learning and communication. This IT will never collect dust or be thrown away as it is constantly changing in response to the needs of the worldwide community. It will be impossible to do business in the world without it. IT is not a tangible thing, and therefore cannot contribute to the real world economy. Many companies in SEA bought very expensive IT related equipment, to show themselves as modern corporations. Millions of US dollars were unwisely spent on the bells and whistles of IT and not on applications that could benefit the corporation directly. The cost of such displays of techno-strength was transferred to the public through price. Decisions about IT and purchases made by informed consumers can actually reduce costs in services and production. The key to IT decisions is to know what is available, what can help one's company, and how to use it appropriately. IT is merely another method of Western exploitation of SEA. "They give us lovely toys and convince us to buy the more expensive ones. It is true that they sell PCs that are capable of doing much more tasks. They bring in new products and they convince us that the old PCs are now obsolete. The merry-go-round ride starts again, and we buy into the new technology. They keep us buying what they are selling through pressure tactics and purposely developing hardware and software that will become obsolete within months of purchase." That is the way a lot of people feel. For people of IT consuming countries, they have to decide what is the most appropriate IT for their individual situation, and determine their own company's direction and approaches to problem resolution. It sounds great but I am too old to learn. In Southeast Asia, less than 15% of school administrators can use simple PC applications, even though most of them have PCs in their offices. Even those who use their PCs only use the machines up to 60% of their full capacity. The majority of university professors aged 50 years and older are computer illiterate. This need not be the case. Modern software and hardware development has been geared towards making computers very user friendly. People can learn to operate the machines within 3 hours and can learn to conduct research by surfing the web with modern "Search Engine" within 6-12 hours. Age is no barrier. Even people over the age of 70 can learn to use PCs and become connected to friends and family around the world with Internet linkage. It is inexpensive and fast. To the homebound it can represent a "virtual passport" that allows them to travel around the world as many times as they want everyday. These myths and misunderstanding have contributed to the Southeast Asia's educational stunt in growth. There is so much more that needs to be done to realize the potential of higher education in Southeast Asia. Ignorant of the possibilities afforded by IT, people in high places in education in Southeast Asia are still not using the technology appropriately. Modern Universities need IT In Southeast Asia, universities and colleges are created along the same lines with those from the west. If IT and Networking concepts are employed in an appropriate manner, universities and colleges can catapult rural development into the next millennium: Traditional residential universities. Many good state universities in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, are cast from the same mold as the residential universities and colleges of Oxford and Cambridge in England, and the university towns in the United States. The successful students of the traditional universities need to devote all their time on their studies. They spend most time on campus in order to be closer to professors, and to work and study for many hours in laboratories and libraries. Students form their own support networks through student group memberships and the development of social acquaintances. A network of shared resources allows for quality education and an extension of academic resources to the less privileged institutions. They can be good producers of academic materials. Urban commuting universities and colleges. These institutions can provide students with a good education but with significantly less cost to students and their families. Students are able to save on cost of living. Students can live and eat at their own home, and commute to attend classes whenever necessary. They are able to work part-time and sometimes even full-time to earn money to support their education. Their career growth is not interrupted by their will to further their education. Like traditional residential universities, these institutions have good academic resources. They are situated in large cities, and have developed ties to business and industrial establishments. They can provide practical experience to students and valuable resources to others. Small community colleges, teachers colleges, vocational and technical colleges, or university extensions. Institutions like these provide alternatives to traditional education for people in rural areas. Smaller institutions such as these can easily be located near the provincial areas. In Thailand, there are more than 1,000 institutions of higher learning, of which 80% are small institutions having less than 3,000 students. Institutions such as these are able to release pressure from the governments to provide higher education opportunities for people in rural areas. These institutions should not feel handicapped by their small size, out-of-the-way location, and lower number of staff. They can provide good quality education and other related academic services at a low-cost through the use of IT networking. Such technology can allow for academic materials from other similar institutions and those from larger universities to be easily shared among them. Traditional Open universities. Open universities make use of long distance learning. Located in an urban area of the central part of the country, the resources are accessible from almost anywhere in the country by their very nature of existence. (1) No class attendance is required, although students are required to attend term examinations at specified times and places. (2) Class instruction for large groups of students can be provided at their main campuses or be extended into provincial areas. (3) Books and programme texts are available for independent study. Students are able to set time and place of study by what is convenient for them. (4) TV and radio instruction can be provided for instruction by their universities. In Thailand, about 2 out of 10 students receive instruction in this type of training institution. Open universities are moving toward new age of "open education" through new IT and on-line education. This new generation of open universities is now able to network with traditional universities in producing academic resources with up-to-date content, and collaborate with smaller colleges and institutes around SEA and the worldwide as "resource centers." Education materials can shared in seconds via modern IT methods of communication.