Franken-Food and E-Learning
The latest WTO scuffle over genetically modified food (GMF) could be replaying itself almost word for word at some point as an e-learning standards dispute. The GMF case is an excellent opportunity to view WTO mechanisms in action.
The Context: We are near the end of a 5-year moratorium imposed on GMF imports by the European Union (EU). The EU shows no strong indication of wanting to lift the moratorium. The United States and several co-filers will lodge a formal complaint against the EU, instigating a WTO investigation. It will be an 18-month process, undertaken and decided by unelected officials, and its decision will be binding. No matter how people in Europe may or may not feel about Franken-Food.
Here's the interesting point on which the decision will hinge:
Under the Sanitary and Phytosanitary rules of the World Trade Organisation, a state can ban the import of goods if it has scientific evidence that they are harmful. The EU has not even suggested it has such evidence.
That reads an awful lot like "It's OK to do it unless you prove it's harmful"
Switch to e-learning.
A nation or a group of nations might wish to regulate delivery methods at various levels of education. Some heavily promoted educational services may not be based on the right teaching models for a given culture. Or at the very least -- the teaching models warrant further research before they are allowed into the marketplace. Which is how the EU is attempting to proceed with GMF.
But the time is up and they couldn't do the impossible -- they couldn't prove GMF is bad for you. What is bad for you is so complex that statistical correlations rather than smoking guns are the best that can be expected, and that only after decades of expensive work. The anti-smoking research effort is a demonstration.
Thus, the pro-WMF side can make statements like this one, from US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick:
"The EU's persistent resistance to abiding by its WTO obligations has perpetuated a trade barrier unwarranted by the EC's own scientific analysis, which impedes the global use of a technology that could be of great benefit to farmers and consumers around the world."
Proving that a given form of e-learning is bad for learners will be even harder than proving cigarettes cause cancer. Forget it. It can't be done within the framework of experimental research. This means that anything goes. Ultimately, nations will not be able to restrict the e-learning formats offered to its citizens under the terms of the WTO.
Ah, but under the GATS, committing service sectors is voluntary. So far, about 40 nations have thrown higher education into the GATS pool; education in general is an under-subscribed service in GATS World.
Ah, but the GATS is also inexorable. There will always be more rounds and there is an explicit commitment to open more sectors during every round.
I predict that within 5 years, anyone will be able to obtain a complete, self-contained undergraduate degree program on a single unit of media. Every course will be there, available in sequence based on passing pre-requisites. The content will be included, as will self-review quizzes and examinations on which university credit is based. These assessments will be self-scoring and auto-reporting with an Internet connection.
How will the EU feel about that, assuming they don't invent the first Degree-on-a-Disk? Will that be Franken-Learning?