Monday, June 4, 2012

Online education -- an application for the ALBA-1 undersea cable

When the Internet was getting started in Cuba, there was a high level debate on whether to welcome or fear it. They faced the dictator's dilemma -- whether economic and cultural value of the Internet justified the political risk. Finance Minister Carlos Lage, said "yes" and Raúl Castro said "no." Raúl won.

In arguing for the Internet, Lage spoke of its economic value, comparing the cost of a telex to that of an email. He was correct, but the cost to the economy may not have been as important as the cost to the education system.

This point was brought home a year ago by Greg Sowa, a medical student from the US, who is studying in Cuba. Sowa described Cuban student access in a blog post:
Most students use their limited internet access at the school (forty minutes a week for each student, depending if you can talk your way in for some extra time) for communication. We furiously upload email attachments of letters home while copying and pasting messages from our inbox into microsoft word documents to read later, off the clock.
Compare that to a US medical student who has near-instant access to over 21 million citations for biomedical literature from PubMed, Web sites of professional societies, the National Institutes of Health, professional social networking, Google and Google Scholar, etc.

The ALBA-1 cable could help close this gap.

We have been discussing the cable lately, and it appears that it is not yet providing Internet connectivity to Cubans, but it is being tested and used used to operate the Venezuelan ID system. Writers like Yoani Sanchez attribute the lack of cable connectivity to political fear, and they may be correct, but, even if the government wanted wide-spread access, the domestic infrastructure to support it is not in place and Cuba cannot afford it. The cable may be operating, but there is little modern "middle mile" and "last mile" infrastructure.

Since Cuba cannot afford general high-speed connectivity, they must use the cable selectively, and higher education would be a good place to begin. Students like Greg Sowa would obviously benefit, but so would faculty. Furthermore, education could be a source of revenue.

The online education market is taking off, and universities, non-profits, private companies and venture capitalists are vying for a place in that new, global marketplace.

There is considerable diversity among the offerings and the student goals, but, the majority of current offerings are in English, leaving an opportunity for Spanish language material. Cuba could be in a good position to satisfy that need. For example, Cuba has considerable medical expertise. If they upgraded the Infomed network and connected it to the cable, they could offer medical education in Spanish and tailored to the needs of Latin America and the Caribbean.

My own university provides an example of the sort of thing that could be done. We offer a state-wide nursing program online. The program is successful and has been running for several years. Cuba could be in a postion to do something similar (perhaps even in collaboration with our nursing program).

Computer science is another promising area. The most visible and largest online classes to date have been in computer science. Elite schools like Stanford, MIT and the Indian Institutes of Technology are going online. Cuba has a specialized University of Informatics Science (UCI). Could UCI not do the same?

Cuba cannot afford to connect everyone on the island, and would not want to if they could. This sort of focus -- where Cuban expertise is applied toward a postive social goal that also generates revenue -- may be a way to bootstrap Cuba's entry into the Internet era.

Update 11/7/2013

Writing in The Havana Times, Alfredo Fernandez, a Cuban who is now in Ecuador, asks "why are there no Cuban academic videos on the Internet?" (

He goes on to say:
After a simple study based on everyday observations, I am quite surprised that, in the six months I have been searching for materials on YouTube – about subjects as broad-ranging as literature, philosophy, journalism, film and many others – I have not once come upon a single Cuban video.
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