How Moldova’s Academic Community Prepares Students for the Internet Age – An Interview with Dr. Victor Besliu

On 2 Feb 2011 we met with Dr. Victor Besliu, Chairman of the of Automation and Information Technology faculty at Moldova Technical University.  Dr. Besliu is a graduate of the Moscow Technical University, and has many strong ideas and recommendations for how Moldova can make students and graduates more competitive not only in the Moldova ICT community, but also the global community.

The interview was conducted mainly in Romanian language, with translation done by Ion Stanciu.  You can listen to the entire audio recording of the interview in Romanian HERE.

Main topics discussed during the interview included;

1.  His opinions on Moldova’s eReadiness

  • He conducted extensive research on the topic during 2005 and 2009
  • Moldova still has only a couple of universities with curriculum focusing on ICT (information and communications technologies)
  • Moldova Technical University (MTU) does offer a major in computer science
  • MTU has around 500 graduates from the program each year
  • Moldova currently has approximately 1500 professional, qualified ICTR specialists working in government and private industry
  • He considers the quality of Moldovan graduates quite high, as most are actually being recruited to work in foreign countries following university

2.  His opinions on how well Moldova is meeting the needs of children, preparing them to function and succeed in an Internet and computer-enabled world.

  • Children at a young age need access to ICT tools, and are able to quickly absorb the technology
  • If children are given access to computers and Internet too early, they could run a risk of slipping into a virtual world, and not being able to function correctly in social environments

3.  On distance education and eLearning

  • Moldova currently has no legal framework for eLearning, meaning formal credits towards degree programs are not available through online education
  • The academic community has begun discussion and planning to consider the question of incorporating eLearning into the curriculum, however that is still an open topic
  • There has not historically been a culture of lifelong learning in Moldova
  • Historically paper (degrees and diplomas) has been given higher status and more respect than experience or knowledge
  • Some face-to-face interaction in the education process is important

4.  On adult education

  • In the old days of the Soviet Union, there were age restrictions on persons entering degree programs (35)
  • Today, in Moldova, there are no age restrictions, allowing any person with prerequisite qualifications to apply for formal university programs
  • Many students from foreign countries apply to, and are accepted, into Moldova’s university system

5.  On how to make the Moldova education system more capable in meeting the needs of all students

  • Politicians must understand the role of communications, computers, and ICT education in the future of Moldova
  • Increase educator salaries and benefits to the level being a teacher in Moldova is an attractive profession
  • Many instructors are already working in private companies part time, allowing them to not only increase their income to the point of survival, but also to keep on top of new and emerging technologies
  • They are changing the university curriculum every 2~3 years based on technology and emerging ICT trends
  • Provide more opportunities for student internships in local companies to give them more practical knowledge of the concepts and theory learned in classrooms
  • Continue tracks within the ICT faculty that allow students to take courses to the degree level taught entirely in a foreign language, including French and English
  • Continue to emphasize beginning Internet and computer exposure into education system from the beginning – young students need to develop tacit knowledge of this technology and become computer/Internet literate not only to function in the workplace, but also in normal society

On a positive note, Dr. Besliu acknowledged many of MTU’s graduates are now well-positioned in Moldova companies, and that trend is expected to continue.  In addition, Many Moldovan expatriates are now returning home, further reinforcing Moldova’s ability to support development of a knowledge economy.



Please check Moldova technical University’s website for more information on their programs and activities.

Audio file for entire interview (in Romanian language) HERE

Social Media Enabling Asia

The Huffington Post recently posted a blog by Thomas Crampton highlighting some of the differences between social media use in Asian countries vs. the United States. Much of it driven by broadband deployment in technically advanced countries like South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong (yes, I know…), much of it a burning desire by young people in developing countries who want to expand their social and intellectual evolution.

Indonesia is now the second largest user of Facebook in the world. Poor broadband access (generally), low disposable income to buy personal computers, and moral guidelines pressuring young people to follow religious values. How is it possible they could develop that fast?

Growth rates in broadband and mobile access are astounding, with statistics such as Vietnam’s mobile Internet users growing 846% in 2009, 84.3% of Japanese online to the Internet with a mobile phone, and 48.6% of Hong Kong mobile users connecting with a smart phone.

Oh, and mobile phones in Asia are inexpensive. Really, really inexpensive. Almost anybody can afford a mobile phone, and many do – occasionally at the expense of clothing, food, and shelter. In fact, I was able to buy a prepaid phone with around 250 minutes in Jakarta for less than US$20, with messaging, simple data access, and other net-enabled applications.

So the mobile phone represents a means of communication, added to a basic social status issue, and a door to emotional and intellectual exploration and freedom.

What is different in Asia than in the US?

Well, a couple of things for certain. When you start with nearly zero social and technical penetration, and you have the benefit of receiving a relatively mature technology, then it is easy to statistically go from zero to nine hundred miles an hour.

Also, consider the average young person in a country like Indonesia or Vietnam. You go to the occasional movie, you have an opportunity to watch foreign television shows, and you realize it is a very, very big world. Lots of diversity you would not be exposed to without the benefit of technology. Even more, you understand there are real people living in that huge world who are not simple digital renditions of a movie producer’s fantasy.

The Internet helps bring a young person in Jakarta, Samarinda, Semarang, Banda Aceh, or Merauke to Paris, Cape Town, or Burbank. Facebook puts a name and face to distant lands, cultures, and people. And when that young person goes home to their dormitory, house, or relocation home they have a glimmer, even if it is a faint glimmer, of hope that life could be better than it is today.

And Internet access, with social networking provides an additional escape. Whether it be joining a virtual gaming community, or chatting with persons on a different continent, you are able to escape your surroundings for a brief moment. That moment may be in an Internet café (WarNets in Indonesia), it may be in a home, or it may be at school.

Of course, not everybody in Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, or Laos are poor or underprivileged.

Social Freedom

Asian culture is different than western culture. In many countries it is not easy to be open with relationships, activities, or personal preferences. While American kids certainly find their escape in gaming and social networking, it is even more of an outlet for many young people in Asia.

If you live in a strict religious environment – as many in Asia do, which restricts your ability to freely express yourself in the local “real” community, being able to develop new ideas, discover new ideas outside the control of your “thought leaders,” is an attraction. Facebook and other social networking sites offer a global conduit of hundreds of millions of other people who may also desire to share experiences and ideas.

And the Future

In the past, Americans enjoyed a fair level of economic and social security based on high levels of education, and the desire to increase their status and quality of life. We looked at developing countries with little interest, and in fact many Americans still cannot find more than a dozen countries on a world map.

Young people in developing countries such as those in Asia, who are included in those astonishing statistics of locations rapidly embracing technology and social networking, are hungry. Hungry not only for knowledge, but also hungry to improve their quality of life, with an added hook of national identity and pride.

The intellectual skills gained through accessing Internet and diffusing global communications into their life will give those persons in developing countries the same intellectual tools American enjoy, putting them on a level intellectual playing field. With the additional ability to participate in eLearning, those intellectual tools become more important – particularly when compared to the dwindling education levels and achievements in America’s education system.

Social networking sites may help draw young people to the Internet, but once there the skills learned far outweigh the social value Facebook or other sites provide. With the largest countries in the world representing the fastest growing component of the internet (China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand), within another generation or two those young people may intellectually match or exceed the capabilities of their age group counterparts in the United States and Europe.

This is all good, as educated people generally are much more likely to quickly recover from disasters, are less likely to become involved in extremist movements, and are more likely to break down political, cultural, and secular barriers that have polarized nations in the past.

It is scary to Americans, as we will need to prepare ourselves to accept the rest of the world as our intellectual and economic equals. It is inevitable.

Developing Countries in the Cloud

Developing countries may be in a great position to take advantage of virtualization and cloud computing. During a recent visit to Indonesia, it was clear the government is struggling with the problem of both building a national ICT plan (Information and Using Cloud Computing to Support EGovernment and eLearningCommunications Technology), as well as consolidating a confusing array of servers, small data centers, and dearth of policies managing the storage and protection of data.

When we consider the need for data protection, considering physical and information security, decentralization of data without adequate modeling for both end user performance, as well as data management is essential in giving the national tools needed to implement eGovernment projects, as well as fully understand implications ICT planning will have for the future economic and social growth of the country.

Considering an E-Government Option Using Cloud Computing

If, as in the case of Indonesia, each governmental organization ranging from the Ministry of Education, to the Ministry of Agriculture, to individual licensing and tax administration offices are running on running on servers which may in fact be connected to normal wall outlets under a desk, you can see we have a challenge, and great opportunity, to create a powerful new ICT infrastructure to lead the country into a new information-based generation.

Let’s consider education as one example. Today, in many developing countries, there is very limited budget available for developing an ICT curriculum. Classrooms consolidate several different classes (year groups), and even text books are limited. However, in many, if not most developing countries, more than 95% of the population is covered by mobile and cellular phone networks.

This means that while there may be limited access to text books, with a bit of creativity we can bring technology to even the most remote locations via wireless access. This was very apparent during a recent conference (Digital Africa), where nearly every country present, including Uganda, Rwanda, Mali, and Chad all indicated aggressive deployments of wireless infrastructure. Here are a couple of simple ideas on the access side:

  1. Take advantage of low cost solar panels to provide electricity and battery backup during daylight hours
  2. Take advantage of bulk discounts, as well as other international donor programs to acquire low cost netbooks or “dumb terminals” for delivery to remote classrooms
  3. Install wireless access points or receivers near the ubiquitous mobile antennas, and where necessary subsidize the mobile carriers to promote installation of data capacity within the mobile networks
  4. Take advantage or E-Learning programs that provide computer-based training and lessons
  5. Centralize the curriculum and student management programs in a central, cloud-based software as a service (SaaS) model in a central or distributed cloud architecture

Now, we can further consider building out two or three data centers in the country, allowing for both load balancing and geographic data backup. Cloud storage, cloud processing, and a high capacity fiber optic backbone interconnecting the facilities. Again, not out of the question, as nearly all countries have, or are developing a fiber backbone that interconnects major metropolitan areas.

So, starting with our eLearning SaaS model, let’s add a couple more simple applications.

If we can produce terminals and electricity for small schools anyplace in the country, why can’t we extend the same model to farmers (eAgriculture), local governments, and individuals through use of “Internet Kiosks” or cafes, possibly located near village offices or police stations? We can, and in fact that is a model being used in countries such as Indonesia, where Internet cafes and kiosks called “WarNets” dot the countryside and urban areas. Many WarNets supplement their electricity with solar energy, and provide Internet access via either fixed lines or wireless.

Cloud Computing Drives the Country

While some may reject the idea of complete standardization of both government and commercial applications at a national level, we can also argue that standardization and records management of the education system may in fact be a good thing. In addition, when a student or adult in Papua (Indonesia) gains the necessary intellectual skills through local eLearning programs, and is able to spend the weekend watching videos or reading through transcripts from the Stanford Education Program for Gifted Youth, the Center for Innovation, or Entrepreneur series.

However when a nation is able to take advantage of an economy of scale that says compute capacity is now a utility, available to all government agencies at a fixed cost, and the nation is able to develop a comprehensive library of SaaS applications that are either developed locally or made available through international agencies such as UNDP, the World Bank, USAID, and others.

With effective use of SaaS, and integration of the SaaS applications on a standardized data base and storage infrastructure, agencies and ministries with small, inefficient, and poorly managed infrastructure have the opportunity for consolidation into a centrally managed, professionally managed, and supported national ICT infrastructure that allows not only the government to operate, but also support the needs of individuals.

With a geographic distributed processing and data center model, disaster recovery becomes easier based on high performance interconnecting backbones allowing data mirroring and synchronization, reducing recovery time and point objectives to near zero.

The US CIO, Vivek Kundra, who manages the world’s largest IT organization (the United States Government), is a cloud believer. Kundra supports the idea of both national and local government standardization of applications and infrastructure, and in fact in a recent Government Technology News interview said he’s “moving forward with plans to create a storefront where federal government agencies could easily acquire standard, secure cloud computing applications.”

This brings a nation’s government to the point where online email, office automation, graphics, storage, database, and hosting services are a standard item that is requested and provisioned in near real time, with a secure, professionally managed infrastructure. It is a good vision of the future that will provide tremendous utility and vision for both developed and developing countries.

I am thinking about a school in Papua, Indonesia. The third year class in Jakarta is no longer in a different league from Papua, as students in both cities are using the same lessons available through the national eLearning system. It is a good future for Indonesia, and a very good example of how cloud computing will help bring developing countries into a competitive, global society and economy.

Do You Mean We Import Chalk?

Dr. Gilbert Balibaseka Bukenya, Vice President of Uganda told a story during the opening session of Digital Africa 2010. While traveling within the country, he paid special attention to small schools. While lacking nearly every normal school resource, each school had one common denominator – they all had black boards and chalk.

The question started nagging him. As the VP, he was in pretty good touch with imports, exports, and manufacturing within Uganda. But chalk, as an ubiquitous tool, was nearly completely imported from China. Something as simple as chalk, a tool used by nearly everybody n the country, was not being produced in the domestic business sector.

Primary school in a small village near KampalaDr. Bukenya changed that. The chalk problem was quickly rectified, and a new program of “can we make it in Uganda” started. The basic idea is if the product is capable of being made in-country, then Uganda should not pay another country for the product.

Reward local innovation, but don’t forget we are part of a global community

It is very easy to slap a flag on a cardboard box identifying the origin of contents with a “Made with Pride in ____.” And a good idea. If the materials and labor force are available, those things should not be imported, and the product may actually be robust enough for export. In the US we are nearly militant in our enthusiasm supporting “Made in America” campaigns, almost to the point of being accused of a shortfall in patriotism for buying foreign materials.

But let’s keep in mind we are part of a global economy. Innovation and entrepreneurship occurs in every nation of the world, and although it is difficult to admit, some ideas are better than ours. And at some point we like variety. And we can call this world trade.

Be a Hunter, not a Gatherer

Dr. Bukenya further challenged the delegates to change our minds (as a society) from accepting handouts from others, buying everything we use from others, and being dependent on donors for our livelihoods. Take control of our own destiny, and start producing. Nurture entrepreneurs, nurture innovation.

This includes innovation in the ICT sector. Dr. Aggrey Awori, Uganda’s Minister of ICT, stated “broadband (communications) and ICT are now the greatest enablers of modern society.” He went to make an even stronger statement “access to ICT is a basic human entitlement.”

Evidence indicates this is not idle rhetoric, but actual policy. The Open Internet Initiative (ONI) does not find any evidence of government filtering or censoring within the country. The major obstacle in Uganda’s efforts to bring Internet to the people being a lack of basic infrastructure, including both telecom and electricity.

The eLearning Component

Ugandans enjoy government mandated education up secondary school. However, while the basic literacy rate is high (66.8%), there is little wide spread access to advanced education tools such as Internet. Thus students complete their education at a great disadvantage to students in other countries with much greater access to network applications and technology.

Chalk is easy, producing software or manufacturing consumer and industrial goods for export is not. While Dr. Bukenya’s “can we make it in Uganda” idea is worthy, to make it work will require considerably more attention to building basic infrastructure needed to prepare workers for the global marketplace.

As we’ve discussed in previous articles, ICT is the 4th utility. Roads, power, and water are now joined by information and communications technology. Without ICT infrastructure as a basic requirement, a country cannot compete in the global marketplace, and will be restricted to depending on global donors for its existence – not to mention the vulnerability such as country has to political upheaval and violence.

Uganda gets it, and the delegates of Digital Africa 2010 get it. Now it is our job to make sure the rest of the world gets it.

Previous article in this series:

Digital Africa 2010 and Cloud Computing in Developing Countries

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