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Building Knowledge Bridges

Introducing the Tokyo Development Learning Center

Policy makers from Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia and the Philippines get together to compare notes on community development projects at a conference organized by ASEAN and the World Bank.

Students from Tokyo interested in development issues in Asia hold a meeting with counterparts in Hanoi to discuss a joint field trip in Vietnam.

Events such as these are everyday occurrences at the Tokyo Development Learning Center (TDLC) in Uchisaiwai-cho, Tokyo. Quite often, participants from 4 or 5 countries are involved -- but of course, only a few of them actually appear at the Center itself. Most are connected by videoconferencing technologies and communicate with each other through the screen. When engrossed in a powerful presentation, the actual distance between the speakers seems to melt away.

As part of the World Bank's Global Development Learning Network (GDLN), the TDLC was inaugurated on June 1, 2004 with these ambitious goals:

  • To facilitate efficient knowledge exchange via video conference for the development community at large
  • To help adapt training and education material into distance learning programs for distribution in developing countries.
  • To incorporate the World Bank's wealth of intellectual resources to increase development impact

The large projection screen in the studio brings the connecting site right into the room

The Japanese government provided a generous grant of US $25 million for a period of 5 years to establish the TDLC, reflecting strong hopes that the Center would help unlock expertise in the Asia Pacific region as well as draw on Japan's development experience. The two pillars of Japan's ODA operations, the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), are major collaborators.


Global Connectivity

The GDLN is a World Bank initiative launched in June 2000 which uses information and communication technology to promote knowledge sharing within the development community. As of August 2005, the GDLN had 77 distance learning centers worldwide, some situated in affiliated institutions such as Australian National University in Canberra and Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

The Tokyo Development Learning Center, operated by World Bank staff, is located in the same building as the World Bank Tokyo Office. The videoconference studio, boasting facilities equivalent to that of a small television studio, is equipped with 13 cameras and chromakey screen. The walls in the studio can be folded away to connect it to adjacent conference rooms, creating a space large enough to accommodate 120 people. The conference rooms come with touch-screen operated cameras and simultaneous interpretation booths.

In today's world, it may not come as much of a surprise to learn that multinational companies hold internal meetings via video connecting their London and New York offices. The connectivity of the GDLN however, is entirely different in scale, and the World Bank was a leader in developing global video conferencing techniques in the 1990s. Via the GDLN, it is possible to connect a wide range of sites in any number of combinations to literally circle the globe. The GDLN makes use of three connecting technologies: satellite, most common in countries with less developed telecom infrastructure, ISDN, or Integrated Services Digital Network, a dial-up service provided by local telecom carriers, and IP, or Internet Protocol with implemented quality of service over the World Bank's private network within the global internet.

Within Japan, more and more connections are being made between universities and local governments. Connectivity options expanded further in November 2004, when the GDLN and JICA signed a Cooperation Agreement. JICA's own network, JICA-Net, was set up as part of a technical cooperation scheme to mitigate the information divide, and had been used primarily for its own development operations. In collaboration, JICA-Net and the GDLN boast the largest development network in the world, with a combined reach of 119 cities in 84 countries.


Utilization Rate Tops 60%

In the first year of operation, the utilization rate for the TDLC rose from an average of 20% in the first half to 60% in the latter half of the year, making it one of the busiest centers in the world. From June 2004 to May 2005, the TDLC connected most frequently to Sri Lanka at 57 times. Vietnam came second at 50 times and the Philippines, third at 48 times, followed by Washington D.C., Australia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Thailand, Mongolia, India and China. In the same period, 20 to 40 % of connections made each month were with sites outside the World Bank or GDLN.

A wide variety of clients within the development community have used the TDLC's services and facilities. As of May 2005, 33 organizations had worked through the TDLC. These include development agencies, UN organizations, regional organizations, central and local governments, universities and research institutions, NGOs, associations and foundations, as well as the private sector. Their purposes for working with the TDLC range from development agency operations to implementing learning and training programs, communication events such as dialogues and conferences, and networking to forge communities of practice with those who share common goals. In each case, the TDLC worked with clients to coordinate and produce activities to meet individual needs.

The Asian Productivity Organization (APO), for instance, which has its secretariat in Tokyo, began to use the TDLC in order to conduct training programs for its 20 regional members. In September 2004, the APO held its first videoconference called "A Multinational Study Mission on the Media and Productivity" which connected Bangkok with Tokyo. In December 2004, instead of convening a meeting as before, the Organization held its "Total Quality Management Seminar" as a distance learning program connecting Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan.

The four-day program combined lectures and exercises delivered by videoconference and field work for a more effective learning experience. During the Seminar, participants conducted field work in their respective countries and brought their findings back to the videoconference for an interactive discussion with counterparts. Many advantages were noted with respect to traditional methods; reduction of cost, a greater number of participants, and increased effectiveness (see table 1). The APO plans to hold additional distance learning seminars this year and is considering incorporating the TDLC's services in its long term operations plan.


Table 1: APO Total Quality Management Seminar
Comparison between conventional and distance seminars
Conventional Seminar Distance Seminar
No. of participants 10-15 countries, 20 participants 5 countries, 80 participants
Duration 5 days 4 days
(including 1 day of field work)
Location Host city Participating countries
Average cost
(per person per day)
$400 $127

There are many ways in which distance learning can be conducted. One approach that the TDLC has focused on is combining, or "blending", technologies such as the internet, CD-ROMs and videoconferencing to develop innovative and effective programs. For example, beginning in February 2005, the TDLC, Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI) and United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) collaborated to deliver a 12-week microfinance training course.

Microfinance is a subject for which there is great demand among developing countries, and UNCDF had created a self-study program using CD-ROMs and textbooks. This became the basis for lectures via videoconference connecting the TDLC with GDLN centers in Afghanistan, Mongolia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, East Timor and Vietnam.

By adding this dimension, participants were no longer limited to self-study. They were able to benefit from interactive discussions with the instructor on-screen which was supplemented with advice and encouragement delivered by e-mail. The GDLN centers themselves became "classrooms" where participants could meet with colleagues and exchange opinions. The UNCDF added incentive by providing accreditation for those who finished with high marks, and the course recorded a high completion rate.


Developing Partnerships

"Appropriately for Tokyo, this Center is the most modern of its type and holds tremendous possibilities," said World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn at the TDLC's opening ceremony. "With support from colleagues and partner organizations, we will develop important and innovative ways in which to exchange ideas."

The mission that lay ahead for the TDLC was exactly that -- to develop important and innovative ways in which to exchange ideas for the benefit of poverty reduction and sustainable development. Because of the novelty of this idea though, the TDLC had no model to emulate, and had to begin by identifying and evaluating specific supply and demand for information and defining its role as a knowledge "broker".

Since its infancy, one thing that has been recognized at the TDLC is the importance of cultivating good partnerships. Clearly, in order for the TDLC to perform its function, it needed to establish long term, cooperative relationships with partners who were willing to provide high quality content such as training and learning courses or audio visual programs.

What are some of the qualities that the TDLC hopes to find in its partners? It seeks organizations that intend to contribute to poverty reduction and sustainable development, who hope to develop or adapt their programs to distance learning methods, who are able to make a significant financial or in-kind commitment, and who wish to work with the TDLC as a long term partner after an initial pilot period.

Working with such partners, the TDLC can help develop and deliver programs to those in need by providing coordination and instructional design services. The ultimate goal for the TDLC is to convince clients of the value of its services and have them incorporate them in their day-to-day operations.


Working for Disaster Management: Kyoto University Graduate School of Global Environment Studies

The Kyoto University Graduate School of Global Environment Studies is one TDLC partner that has made use of the GDLN in its activities to support reconstruction in post-disaster areas.


The Control Room at the TDLC

In January 2005, Kyoto University participated in the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Reduction held in Kobe, Japan, in the theme group "Knowledge, Innovation and Education". The TDLC cooperated with JICA to set up video conferencing facilities at the venue, connecting Kobe with Vietnam, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Participants from these Asian countries reported on their view of disasters and enriched discussions between policy makers and researchers.

Prior to working with the TDLC, Associate Professor Rajib Shaw at the School had not experienced video conferencing. He discovered that it was an effective way to expand the audience, particularly in developing countries. Dr. Shaw suggests that when conducting training programs via video conference, it could be combined with actual fieldwork for greater effectiveness.

At the time of the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004, Dr. Shaw felt that knowledge sharing between affected countries could boost reconstruction efforts. "The GDLN can be used very effectively in cases like this, when those concerned are too busy to gather in one place to take part in a workshop" says Dr. Shaw.

In order to determine local needs and understand how the GDLN could be utilized, Dr. Shaw visited Aceh, Indonesia in July 2005. He found that although housing had priority in the short term, the GDLN could contribute in the long term by supporting efforts to create a community-based disaster management plan and training systems.

"This is essential for reconstruction to take place successfully" says Dr. Shaw. "Countries such as Sri Lanka and India are conducting similar activities. The GDLN can transfer their experience to Indonesia, and the local community can work out their own plan based on what they learn."

In Kyoto University's case, working with the TDLC facilitated coordination with the World Bank and UN organizations, enabling it to network with others who could contribute to the program's profile and effectiveness. In turn, the GDLN benefited from an enlarged network of supporters and specialists through Kyoto University's efforts.


A Focal Point in East Asia Pacific

The TDLC is part of the GDLN's East Asia & Pacific Association which consists of 14 distance learning centers, and works to raise the performance of the region's network as a whole. GDLN center managers and development agency officials have met at 10 conferences for greater cohesive action. At a meeting held in Hanoi in July 2005, members agreed to draft a regional business plan within 6 months, and discussed standardizing services and fees.

Issues for the Future:
"Increase sustainable programs and strengthen domestic network"


Ryu Fukui, TDLC Partnership and Programs Manager, on issues for the future

An interview with Ryu Fukui, TDLC Partnership and Programs Manager. Adapted by the author for this article.

The TDLC strives to create a business model which "brokers" content owned by someone else. Initially, doubters wondered whether such a model could exist. Particularly in Japan, distance learning is still in its early stages and not universally understood, so the contents stocked within the country tend to be by the Japanese, for the Japanese, in Japanese. When you think of the exchange of knowledge in market terms, the TDLC was to act as broker, but found it necessary to pursue content providers and match them with demand at the same time - in other words, we first needed to develop the market itself. Through these efforts, we hoped the TDLC would take root, increase content providers and long term users. A very ambitious, yet exciting project indeed.

A year after the TDLC's establishment, we found that there definitely was a "market" for our services. This is reflected in our utilization rate and the number of partners we have cultivated. We also confirmed a need within the Japanese development community to connect with Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. For our Japanese partners, the TDLC functions as a "global gateway" to regions outside Asia.

Will the TDLC/GDLN be accepted as an invaluable tool for the development community? What can be done to foster widespread use within society as a whole? At the end of the 5 year period that the Japanese government has committed funds for, we must be able to make a proper assessment and propose concrete steps for the future.

Some suggest that soon, technologies such as videoconferencing and distance learning will become as mundane as telephones, and I believe we are heading in that direction. That, however, is only half the story when considering a World Bank project. Telephones and videoconferencing are both tools for communication, but I must underscore the significance of the World Bank's role.

In that sense, the World Bank can mobilize a great range of partners as a multi-lateral development institution. It has access to networks covering government officials to private entrepreneurs in almost every developing country, creating added value. Take disaster recovery, for instance. The GDLN can bring together local groups within the disaster area, Japanese experts with experience in reconstruction and World Bank specialists to provide crucial information. This is the kind of experience sharing that is only possible through distance methods. When timeliness is a major concern, the value of our "brokerage" becomes even greater.

Of course, there are many issues to overcome. Within Japan, there are plenty of content providers, but not necessarily in Tokyo alone. In order to make it easier for those in local areas to disseminate high quality programs, the TDLC is working to strengthen its domestic network. For example, we hope to make use of next-generation Internet 2, IP version 6, which is reliable and fast. Becoming a member of the Science Information Network, or SINET, Japan's high speed research network, would make it easier for universities and research institutions to use our services.

The utilization rate of our Center has risen considerably in recent months. What needs to be considered now is how to create more programs with a sustainable framework, and convince more clients to bear financial costs. We must also think of a set of appropriate indicators to measure the quality and effectiveness of our services.

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Tokyo Development Learning Center
A Japan/World Bank Distance Learning Partnership Project
The World Bank • Fukoku Seimei Bldg. 10F • 2-2-2 Uchisaiwai-cho Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, 100-0011
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