Distance Learning And Access Issues

Submitted to Dr. Linda Cannell
in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the DES 910
Distance Learning
at Trinity International University


Øyvind Økland

Cand. philol., University of Bergen



Deerfield, Illinois
July 2000


On television the week before Christmas last year, several top news stories about Christmas shopping on the Internet were presented. One of them was about president Clinton who said that he would do his Christmas shopping on the Internet. He communicated a strong optimistic view of what could be done by the Internet. This belief was unmistakably linked to business and the commercial interests. The other news stories before Christmas in 1999, linked the sales statistics up against the use of the Internet.

This corresponds with themes that will be dealt with here. What role will commercial interests play in the development of the Internet, and how will these influence the use of the Internet for educational purposes? What is the role of the United States and other developed countries, as opposed to developing countries?

The technological development has given reasons for optimism in the field of education, in the developing countries as well as in developed countries. One hopes that available technology can stop the brain drain from developing countries to the West. Today more than 50 percent of the students who go abroad to study never return. Now, using the Internet as a distance learning tool, the local university can be able to teach the students on the location.

Even before the age of the Internet, distance education has shown interesting prospects in developing countries, by applying available technology. Six of the largest distance learning universities in the world are situated in developing countries. The largest one is in Turkey, with 577 000 students, followed by China, Indonesia, India, Thailand and Korea. Of the eleven largest, only three belongs to the industrialized world, namely France, the United Kingdom, and Spain. These institutions are mainly built on correspondence courses and radio and TV-broadcasting. The second largest, China TV University System, was established in 1979, has 530 000 students and 31 000 faculty members (International Telecommunications Union 1999, 13; Daniel 1996, 166). In addition China has had their own academic network since 1994. It started with ten universities but it now connects more than one hundred educational institutions (Afemann 1997, 13).

This shows that it is possible to build the required communication infrastructure, even in developing countries. How are the prospects for distance learning, considering the new communication technology, especially the Internet?

This paper will give a brief outline of some of the issues involved. The focus will be mainly on the Internet, and it will concentrate on the situation in sub-Saharan Africa, since this part of the world illustrates the issues related to the Third World well.

First of all, we will discuss the issue of accessibility in general. Is it necessary to have Internet accessibility? If the answer is yes, why is this so? The factual situation will be examined in terms of numbers and statistics, in order to comprehend the real situation better. Secondly, some issues on the relation between technology and education will be examined. Finally, the political issues will be discussed. Who is in control of the development? Will this road lead to a better future, and develop better possibilities for improved distance education in the Third World? Against this background, some concluding reflections will be made.

We will now turn to the issues of rights to accessibility, and some examples of the present situation in the Third World, especially Sub-Saharan Africa.


Why is access to information such an important issue? In one way it seems to be an obvious answer to that question, and it is also a part of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights. Rifkin, building on MacPherson’s theories talks about two kinds of properties. The first one is the modern understanding of property, the right to exclude somebody from your property. Then there is a second kind of property, exemplified by public property like parks, lakes, forests and so on, where one has the right not to be excluded. Rifkin argues that it is the same understand one should have regarding access to global information.

The right not to be excluded, the right of access . . . becomes the baseline for measuring personal freedom. Government’s role in the new scheme of things is to be secure every individual’s right of access to the many networks – both in geographic space and cyberspace – through which human beings communicate, interact, conduct business, and constitute culture. Whether governments will, in fact, have the clout to ensue the right of access in an increasingly wired global economy is still, however, very much in doubt. (Rifkin 2000, 240)

The issues here is therefore what role the governments and the world community to regulate and work for this access to happen. In other words, to what degree should the Internet be a ‘public service’ medium, or to what degree should it be owned and governed by private and commercial interests.

The United Nations created a project on universal access to basic communication and information services in 1996, called “The Right to Communicate”. It was initiated by Dr. Pekka Tarjanne, Secretary General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Dr. Tarjanne states that “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets out the rights and freedoms that people everywhere should be able to enjoy. It is the best definition the world community has so far been able to develop of common elements of humanity shared by all people. Without action on the part of the world community, there is a very real danger that the global information society will be global in the name only; that the world will be divided into the ‘information rich’ and the ‘information poor’; and that the gap between developed and developing countries will widen into an unbridgeable chasm” (International Telecommunications Union 1999, 3).

The final statement from the project concluded that the introduction and use of information and communication technology must become a priority effort of the United Nations in order to secure sustainable human development and embraced the objective of establishing universal access to basic communication and information services for all. The whole UN system is committed to the objectives of the Statement as the member countries endorsed it on the General Assembly in December 1997 (International Telecommunications Union 1999, 3).

Despite these noble commitments, some authoritarian nations are caught in a dilemma. They want to belong to a modern and successful world community, and the Internet is definitely a part of that. But the Internet is very difficult to censure. One way to deal with this is to limit the general access to Internet, and a close supervision of its content. This has been China’s solution since 1996. About 40000 Internet subscribers have had to register at the police stations. Singapore practices similar rules, as well as Indonesia (Afemann 1997, 21).

Even though most countries are committed to universal Internet access, the actual facts are very different. Internet has grown from 213 host computers and several thousands users in August 1981, to more than 56 million Internet hosts by July 1999, with an estimate of 190 million Internet users. In 1990, around 20 countries used the Internet. By July 1999, more than 200 countries were connected (Männistö 1999b). It took the telephone 74 years to reach 50 million users, the radio took 38 years, the computer 16 years, the television 13 years, and the World Wide Web took only 4 years.

However, the division among the countries of the world is very uneven. There are more Internet hosts in France than in the whole of Latin America and the Caribbean together, and there are more in New York than in all of Africa. Australia, Japan and New Zealand have more Internet hosts than the rest of the Asia-Pacific region.

The Internet users are on average wealthy, educated, young, urban and male. Of the 56 million Internet hosts, Canada and the United States have 65 percent, Europe has 23 percent, Australia, Japan and New Zealand have 6 percent, and the rest of Asia and the Pacific have 3.7 percent. Latin America have 1.9 percent and Africa 0.3 percent. To put it in another way, the developing countries have around 6 percent of the hosts, but 84 percent of the population, while the developed world has 94 percent of the hosts with only 16 percent of the population (Männistö 1999b).

In Africa, at the end of 1996 only 11 countries had Internet access, but by March 2000, the number was 51 countries, with only Somalia and Liberia remaining. It is however, mostly the capital cities that so far have Internet access. In Africa all together there may be 650 000 subscribers, but only 100 000 of these are in Sub-Saharan Africa. The rest is in North African countries and South Africa. The estimate is that each subscriber has three users, which brings the number of Internet users in Sub-Saharan Africa to about one million, or one Internet user for every 750 people. The world average is one user for every 35 people, or one in three for North America and Europe (Jensen 2000, 1).

The relative share of the Internet hosts is actually increasing in the developing countries. In 1993 they had 0.1 percent of the Internet host, while in 1999 they had 1.7 percent. The Least Developing Countries (LCDs), however, are falling even further behind, for example Afghanistan, Armenia, Burundi, Congo, Haiti, Kazakstan, North Korea, Kyrghystan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Tajikiststan, Uzbekistan, and Zambia.

Why is accessibility so uneven? There are mainly four reasons that influence the uneven accessibility. First, the prices of Internet access vary. Access may be broken down to three components: hardware and software, Internet access, provision and the telephone service charges. The costs to be able to get connected are relatively much higher in developing countries. The actual prices are much higher in Africa than in North America and Europe. Considering the differences in income, it is self-evident that this prevents a very rapid growth in Internet subscribers. For 50 hours access in America, it costs on average 29 dollars a month, while an Internet account in Africa may cost about 50 dollars a month, for only 20 hours (Jensen 2000, 2; Männistö 1999b).

Second, the market structure is not developed. Third, the general lack of infrastructure and finally, the lack of understandable or relevant content. The Internet language is English with more than eighty percent of the content. If there should be anything in one’s own language, it most often is irrelevant information (Männistö 1999b).

The speed on the servers in Africa is usually considerably slower than in other places in the world. One solution to this problem, has been to offer cheaper e-mail services only, and this is becoming increasingly more popular. Some make use of the free e-mail services of Hotmail, Yahoo, Excite, and so on. These services, however, require that you spend time online in order to maintain the remote connection as you are composing the mails. Others use the increasingly more popular Internet cafés and kiosks that are coming into existence (Jensen 2000, 2).

Another major problem is to get sufficient international bandwidth. Except for South Africa, very few countries had until recently bandwidth larger than 64Kbps, but this is changing rapidly now, and 24 countries have now 512Kbps or more.

With all these restrictions, who is really using the Internet? It is mostly Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), private companies and universities that are connected. The typical user is a well educated male, with good English skills, good income, living in an urban area, and between 26 to 30 years of age. In Ethiopia 86 percent were male, and 98 percent had a university degree. There is, therefore, no doubt that so far the development of Internet has only reached the part of the population that already was privileged. In 1999, 20 countries had universities with full connectivity to the Internet, but usually this connectivity was restricted to the staff, some places extended to the post graduates, but only rarely to the general student population. Five factors, therefore, stand out as decisive reasons for being connected to the Internet or not: wealth, education, age, location and gender (Jensen 2000; Männistö 1999b).

Franco-phone Africa has actually a higher profile on the Internet than English speaking countries in Africa. The Canadian and French governments and French support agencies, have acted on their concern for the English-speaking dominance, but still few institutions, and even few governments, are using the Internet actively for information purposes. News media are relatively well represented, and foreign media correspondents in Africa are using the Internet actively in order to communicate effectively back to their connections in their countries of origin (Jensen 2000, 5, 7).

UNESCO has just established a project to assist teacher training colleges to develop computer literacy for educational purposes, and to connect them to the Internet. The intention is to implement this program in twenty countries in Africa. So far it is started in Zimbabwe and Senegal (Jensen 2000, 13).

A legitimate question to ask would therefore be if there is any hope of improvement. Many analysts reveal a pessimistic view of the future in this respect. Herman and McChesney, in their assessment of the development, conclude that

the less-developed nations are gaining some ground relative to the United States – it would be difficult to move in any other direction – but left to the market it is difficult to see Internet access becoming very widespread. In the less-developed countries, the strategy of Internet access providers is to go for business customers first and then, in theory, add customers later. (Herman and McChesney 1997, 134)

In the following we will examine the policy issues which govern this development.

Policy Issues

Before we discuss the policy issues, however, it is important to understand some of the Internet’s history. It was developed as a part of the American Defense Department from the late 60s. In 1989 it opened up for commercial interests, but the technology was still not very user-friendly. In 1990, the Swiss nuclear physics laboratory, CERN, developed the World Wide Web, with a new language, hypertexts, which revolutionized the possibilities to find one’s way to information that was laid out on the Internet. By the early 1990s, university campuses started using it, and an alternative cyber-culture developed. So far the Internet was used mainly for educational purposes, and commercial use of the Internet was not widespread or commonly accepted. A survey from 1995 showed that two thirds of the American population opposed advertising on the Internet (Herman and McChesney 1997, 117).

What are the real policy issues involved in creating greater access to the Internet? The two main views are those for and those against governmental regulation. Those who advocate a regulation, regard the Internet as a new method of communicating and doing business. It should be treated as any other industry and, if necessary, be regulated. The opposing viewpoint is that the Internet is a special case and should not have any interference from governments. Männistö does not see regulation or not as the issue, but the question is rather “which aspects of the Internet require regulation, and which do not?”. For him regulation is necessary to remove some of the existing barriers to Internet development, such as cost of services and the basic infrastructure, for example promotion of the Internet providers’ infrastructure (Männistö 1999b).

Many predictions have been made of all the good things Internet can do for regions that traditionally have a very limited access to information and communication technologies (International Telecommunication Union 1999). It may broaden and improve the access level in developing countries, and help local business that otherwise would have been isolated to take part in the world market.

Internet is considered a global medium, but not only the language is English. Ninety percent of Internet commerce, seventy percent of commercial websites, and ninety-three percent of web revenues were related to the United States in 1997. This has led to strong reactions from other strongly industrialized societies, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which counts the twenty-nine richest nations in the world, and the European Union (EU). Although they oppose US dominance, they do not oppose the commercial development. With these strong forces against any regulation, no pattern of Internet governance has emerged so far.

Other reactions against the dominance of English have been the fear of losing one’s cultural identity. Spanish has only 2 percent of the information on Internet, 5 percent exists in French, and very little in German, let alone all the other 6000 languages of the world. The rest of the world fears that globalization, or rather Americanization and Westernization may be a second conquest of the Third World (Afemann 1997, 21). Are these issues worthy of any regulation reflections?

In January 1999, one hundred of the largest Internet and telecommunication companies formed “Global Dialogue on e-Commerce”. The goal was to prevent any regulation. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), traditionally a public service organization, have exposed a more commercial-oriented side, as they encourage business to have “a stronger say in the policy-making process” (McChesney 1999, 135).

The Clinton Administration and Vice-president Al Gore have been advocating a “network of networks”, A Global Information Infrastructure, a G II. This network will “be essential for expanded business and trade opportunities, improved education and health care, preservation and promotion of democracy (Cozic 1996, 95). And Gore goes on to say that G II was a metaphor of democracy itself. Concerning some of the benefits to this in the educational field, Gore says that G II should determine “how every school and library in every country can be connected to the Internet, the world’s largest computer network, in order to create a Global Digital Library”. This idea of a “network of networks” is seen as a part of the commercialization.

To promote, to protect to preserve freedom and democracy, we must make technological advancement an integral part of every nation’s development. Each link we create strengthens the bonds of liberty and democracy around the world. By opening markets to simulate the development of GII, we open lines of communication. By opening lines of communication, we open minds. (Cozic 1996, 96)

McChesney argues that the development of the Internet toward a pure commercial enterprise, is taken completely behind closed doors without any public debate, despite the fact two-thirds of Americans did not want to have advertising on the Internet, as mentioned before. It is, however, in the year 2000, clear that “corporate dominance and commercialization of the Internet have become the undebated, undebatable, and thoroughly internalized truths of our cyber-times” (136).

McChesney states very clearly that “the Clinton administration aggressively promoted commercialization of the Internet, proclaiming that the commercial development of cyberspace is the key to current and long-term economic growth” (1999, 132). He draws parallels between the commercial takeover of the Internet, with the commercial takeover of the radio and television in the United States (1999, 126).

There is, however, another side to it, too. Some ideals are expressed by the same administration. Vice-president Gore has been particularly occupied with the building a global infrastructure that can benefit democracy, economic growth and education worldwide. A good example of this was the recent primary election in Arizona where it was possible to vote from your computer at home or elsewhere. This was an overwhelming success, and it was said that this was the way for the future, and it would heighten the political interest and strengthen the democracy.

The US government, however, seem to pay only lip-service to a stronger public interest in the development of the Internet. Given the fact that it would cost billions of dollars to materialize universal access, it has so far not been a strong will behind such a policy, although some minor attempts have been made. One is a program to give all schools and libraries in 20 African countries Internet access. This program was, however, cut in half during 1998, down to 1.28 billion dollars. Moreover, the program is not merely a development project. It is closely linked with commercial interests, including e-commerce, telemedicine, distance learning and improved access to government services (Jensen 2000, 13).

Against this background, we will now turn to see how this affects the Internet’s possibilities of being a tool for distance learning.

What can the Internet do for Distance Learning?

The possibilities to create better conditions for the use of Internet for distance learning purposes in the Third World, do not seem bright. The reality may even be more dismal. The facts and numbers have shown that there is a lot of money that need to be spent, from governments as well as from individuals. As a rule, thinking of the Third World countries in general, the money is not there. Speaking for the rest of the world, the money exists, but there is a lack of political will to ensure a righteous distribution of the Internet technology.

ITU has stated an objective to connect thousand persons with telephone mainlines in Sub-Saharan Africa. This would alone consume 28 billion dollars. And considering that the foreign debt burden already is 2000 billion dollar, it does not seem likely that they can do it.

University libraries in most developing countries have only a few books available for their students, and they cannot afford to buy any books themselves. But if they had all the all the information they can get from the industrialized world if the Internet development reaches them, do they really need all of it?

Another question is if this is the way to go. What should the relation between public interests and commercial interests be? Owen describes the situation in Ghana, with purely commercial interests involved as well as non-commercial or community-oriented enterprises. He also gives some examples of some units trying to balance a commitment to commercial viability as well as to community service. His recommendation is to follow the third way. This solution implies income that is used for cross-subsidizing public access computing, and donor financing for instruction and information services to the community. For rural Ghana to go global, this is the solution, according to him (Owen 1998, 2).

Afemann is very pessimistic in his conclusions, when he states

I do not believe that providing Internet access to students in poor schools is feasible or useful. Most schools can not afford even to provide books for their students, and in some areas the perspective of receiving a meal is still the most powerful attraction for students. Putting computers connected to telephone lines, under these conditions, is completely unreal.” (Afemann 1997, 14)

Another concern is what the cyberworld will do to the next generation. What does it mean when they increasingly are educated in front of a screen rather than in society itself. Will they lose crucial social skills that previously were taken for granted? According to Rifkin, the struggle that the postmodern world faces is between culture and commerce, and it is “a struggle between intrinsic and utility values. While both values have played roles in social discourse over the past several hundred years, it’s only in more recent times that intrinsic values have become secondary to utility values in human affairs (257).

The challenge will be to find these viable links between technology and underprivileged groups, either locally of globally, so that technology may serve as a link and an equalizing factor, rather than building even higher barriers and greater distances. Mitchell argues that effective access consists of access to the “pipes”, the “affordable appliance, “the user-friendly software” and the “will and motivation to exploit all of the above”. One of his policy recommendations to achieve this, is to provide “appliance availability” in public spaces such as schools, community centers, and libraries (Mitchell 1999).

Internet has sometimes been portrayed as crucial in reaching the masses in the Third World with education. The literature raises many concerns here, regarding the links between technology and education. So far it is the technology and commercial interests that have driven the development of distance learning via the Internet. It is not the educational needs that have laid the premises for technological innovations. The same skepticism of the what new technology can achieve for education, or rather what problems that are involved, is shared by a number of others with the educational field (Cannell 1999, 25-26).

Another question worth asking, is how useful the technology is in a Third World context, where large parts of the population lacks computer literacy and skills in critical thinking. A research performed to study international collaborative learning on the Internet, concluded that

simply incorporating Web-based instruction unproblematically into the classroom, or worse, outside of it, is unlikely to instill in students a sense of criticality, an awareness of the social origins and consequenses of information, the role of the message’s purpose and audience, and so forth. Only students who are highly motivated, emotionally mature, and possessing a spirit of intellectual adventure are able to benefit to the full extent from such an independent, unstructured form of learning (Warf, Vincent and Purcell 1999, 147).

Cannell reaches a similar conclusions in her review of recent literature on issues involving distance education, as she states,

Distance education with a global reach is a desirable goal, but suitable infrastructures for the emerging technology need to be developed in many developing nations. Further, even though peoples are connected, the skills of interaction, group process and information access and use will need to be part of distance learning. Interactivity doesn’t guarantee a learning community or quality of dialogue. Helping students make sense of information they have acquired but do not yet understand is a critical task. (Cannell 1999, 53)

Van der Perre is also skeptical about an uncritical embracing of the new technology. He states that “any educational innovation can lead to more pitfalls than benefits unless those involved have a grasp of the complete picture and act accordingly” (van der Perre 1999, 108). He discusses two possible reactions to the new technological innovations in communications, and the impact they may have on education. The revolutionary response is a response from the governmental bodies in a society, such as the government, national networks of schools and so on, that the innovations are good and should be implemented by active help, guidance and support; a top-bottom approach. These responsible authorities design, develop and implement a plan where the objective is to create a new educational system.

The other approach, the evolutionary, is skeptical about the new potential, and warns against a ‘technology-driven’ approach. It states as a basic principle that any technological innovation in learning should start from a clearly defined learning need. It aims at implementing changes that have an immediate added value for the existing educational system. The government and other policy making bodies should only describe a general framework, indicating sectors for potential innovation. On this basis, it should give financial support to selected projects submitted by actors in the field. This is, therefore, a bottom-up approach.

Van der Perre himself argues for an integrative revolutionary approach. By this he means building on the existing system, but being able to think innovatively and experimentally regarding new technological advances. The schools should be learning communities and “open learning centers” which provide learning materials and Internet services meeting international standards. They should be project-based and facilitate, support, and co-ordinate the group activities of the learners (Van der Perre 1999).

A similar perspective is shared by Howley. He describes the historical shift in educational focus from nation-building to globalization. Accompanied with the globalization, the purpose of mass education is undermined, because the issues should be on local concerns, such as attachment to rural places; rural sociology, rural history, the relationship between school and community sustainability, and so on (Howley 1996). This should also be the focus on planning for the use of the Internet and advanced communication technology for distance learning purposes. As well as giving a valuable tool for studying the local community, the Internet creates vast possibilities to build links from local communities to the global community.


It seems, therefore, crucial that education is closely linked with local culture. Although the sentence, “Think globally and act locally” has become a cliché, it may be a true way of stating a sound use of the Internet. It has huge potential. If the funds, and the political will to develop it in the public’s interest, existed, it could be used to benefit the local communities, and be linked to other learning communities globally.

The perspectives of Van der Perre and Howley, among others, are important as one considers policy issues related to the Third World’s use of the Internet for distance learning purposes. Van der Perre’s skepticism to an uncritical use of the new information technology as a solution to fundamental education problems in the Third World is well stated. His suggestions should be studied carefully. The use of the Internet must come from, and be based on the real needs of the community. Financial help and support is needed from all possible sources, but this support must also be implemented according to expressed needs of the community, and be spent where they will be used for constructive educational purposes, and benefit learning communities.

The conclusion here is, therefore, two-fold. Firstly, the Internet will not be a common good for all people as long as commercial powers are in charge of the development. Public authorities and non-profit organizations have to be involved to give larger portions of the global population access to the Internet. Secondly, the Internet will not necessarily improve the educational system, and the general knowledge level of the people. If the Internet shall be used toward this end, it must be used wisely, in a collaborative learning effort that is built on the needs of each particular community.




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Copyright © 2000 Øyvind Økland