Avia Collinder, Business Writer
Ken Sylvester, CEO of the Caribbean Knowledge and Learning Network (CKNET), a new high-capacity fibre optics research and education network, will now connect colleges and universities in 21 regional countries.
The programme will operate under the brand name, C@ribnet.
Regional telecoms LIME was paid US$7 million to build out the network under contract from CKNET, said Sylvester.
The network is wholly owned by CKNET which is itself an agency within CARICOM financed by the 21 member countries that the network will serve.
The project creates the region's first research and education network, connecting all CARICOM member states, among others.
"The network is owned by the governments of the Caribbean. We have bought the circuits from LIME and we do our own maintenance," said Sylvester.
His agency has also spent US$5million connecting five colleges and universities in every country.
Sylvester acknowledged that the CARICOM region was in fact the last in the world to develop national research and education networks facilitated by a high speed data network and dedicated fibre optics connections, but said now that the system has gone live, it should bring down the cost of tertiary education significantly given that centres of excellence will now be accessible to all on the network.
"In 2006, the heads of government of CARICOM took a decision that we had to increase access to education to a much larger percentage of Caribbean people and they took that position based on an understanding that the world economy is changing to one that is driven by knowledge and not sun, sea, agriculture and manufacturing," said Sylvester.
"Knowledge is the currency for developing our economy and in the future. The creation of C@ribnet was therefore to increase the competitiveness of the region, by diversifying the skills and competencies of our human resources through the use of information and communication technology and collaboration among the region."
Subsequently, the EU made a grant to CKNET of €12 million - money used to bridge a digital divide that existed in the Caribbean and the rest of the world as relates to opening up access to education.
"In 2006, the rest of the world had all developed National Research and Education Networks (NREDS). There were over 120 NREDS in the world including US, Europe Latin America, and Asia Pacific. We in the Caribbean were the last space that did not have a research and education network - that is why we had the digital divide."
With the creation of C@ribnet, the Caribbean is now a part of the global network of REDS.
"Any institution that is connected to national network becomes connected to C@ribnet and because C@ribnet is connected to rest of world, it means that a student at Sam Sharpe Teachers' College in Montego Bay can stay in Sam Sharpe and take a course from any university in the world connected to the network," Sylvester said.
Noting that many smaller colleges are struggling to deliver quality courses because of limited resources and students often spend significant sums to go to the region's best schools, he said that all this would now change.
"Because we all are connected, they can all take a course which is a world-class programme. The idea is we want to create centres of excellence, first at the national level then at the regional level, allowing institutions to work together in sharing resources that they have," said the CKNET CEO.
"It brings the costs down enormously in the Caribbean. There are lots of small colleges but none are delivering quality programmes because of costing."
He noted as well that students who have to leave their island homes, spend years abroad and incur high tuition, boarding and travel costs will now have an alternative, as every island will now be connected directly to the UWI Mona campus and other universities in the region.
"In smaller Caribbean islands, a student in St Lucia would have to leave St Lucia, fly to Jamaica and stay abroad for four years. Now because St Lucia is connected to Mona, the student no longer has to come to Mona," he said.
Under a full national build-out of the network, high schools are also likely to benefit as top math teachers can lecture to students in all schools at the same time, even though they might be located at Campion College or another high school in one physical location, Sylvester said.
The target is to connect, as well as hospitals and other centres of research and learning.
In Jamaica, the objective is to connect 33 colleges, including teacher-training institutions.