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Hills finds technology gap between U.S., Namibian college students shrinking

When Fisher Professor Stephen Hills arrived in Namibia to spend a year as a Fulbright scholar, one of the most striking things he discovered was the use of new technology by students who couldn’t afford to purchase textbooks for his class.

With textbooks largely unavailable because of slow shipments or high prices, students at the University of Namibia often utilized USB flash drives to download Hills’ lecture notes from his personal laptop computer.

Hills, associate professor of management and human resources and academic director of the Center for International Business Education and Research, taught international business and labor relations courses at the university in the African country. Although Namibia might be classified as a developing country, Hills said the innovative use of technologies such as cell phones and flash drives can help accelerate the economic growth of the nation.

Innovative use of products has the potential to make an impact in developed countries, which could narrow the divide between rich and poor nations, Hills said. The mass produced, cheaper information technologies are transforming businesses in poor countries in vastly different ways than in the United States.

A majority of the 3,500 students at the university hailed from very poor or middle class families, he said, yet many had access to the small hand-held memory devices.

Hills said students accessed the downloaded notes at their parents’ offices, Internet cafés or used a neighborhood computer often housed in a tin shack. The university only had a small percentage of their computers connected to the Internet.

Technology is somewhat uneven because most Namibians only have dial-up Internet connections and incur a fee for a local telephone call. Wireless connections are available, but it is quite expensive for most people, he said.

Throughout the country, Hills found unique ways Namibians used other high-tech devices to overcome various barriers. Cell phones, also seemingly ubiquitous in the country, were used in remote villages as small computers, Hills said.

“It might be the only cell phone a family owns, but they used it to connect people to health centers and to do their online banking,” he said. “Technology has been a very positive thing for both the students and the country and it will be very interesting to see how far it is going to go.”