Internet lifelines for a continent

July 11, 1997

Wachira Kigotho reports on first steps in sub-Saharan Africa to develop a virtual university that will provide students with a springboard to the IT age

Nairobi and Moi universities in Kenya are among ten tertiary institutions from six countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have formed the nucleus of the African Virtual University.

The university is a World Bank pilot project that is linking selected African universities to European and United States institutions by satellite.

The aim of the project is to improve academic standards in universities in sub-Saharan Africa through better uses of information technology.

According to Edward Jaycox,the project coordinator, budget constraints that mean low spending on higher education have crippled university education in many countries in Africa.

"Many libraries are empty shells and broken science facilities litter most of the laboratories there," says Jaycox, a former World Bank vice-president for Africa.

However, Jaycox and other academics who met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia recently is quite optimistic. They noted that with planning and commitment these dilapidated universities could make use of the lifeline from cyberspace.

"We intend to make full use of the programme and improve on our resources," says Florida Karani, a deputy vice chancellor at the University of Nairobi.

The idea is that students from the selected African universities will be able to take identical courses with their counterparts at the University of Massachusetts, and New Jersey Institute of Science and Technology in the United States and University College Galway in Ireland through satellite communication.

This means that the participating African universities will have to invest in computer technology. They would also have to integrate basic computer studies as a mandatory non-credit course in their programmes.

However this will not be easy. Thus far few universities in sub-Saharan Africa have computer clinics. The installation of the project facilities means that universities and students will have to learn proper management and usage of the high-tech equipment.

Initially, the African Virtual University will teach undergraduate courses in physics, mathematics, electronics and statistics. Also on offer are courses in business administration and computer studies. According to the project manager, Etienne Baranshamaje, courses will be offered through video and email.

Through Internet links students and lecturers from the African universities will interact with their counterparts in the US and Ireland using a computer conferencing network.

Adopted from the distance education programme of the Open University in the United Kingdom, this system will also enable students to acquire credits that are transferable among the participating institutions.

Jaycox, an expert on the region's poverty crisis, says the virtual university will increase the number of science graduates in participating countries. On average universities in sub-Saharan Africa maintain admission ratio of 20:80 which is too low even when compared to other regions of the developing world.

This has resulted in the region having far too few students whpo graduate in engineering, medicine, architecture and science and technology. The World Bank estimates that if this trend was to continue then sub-Saharan African countries would not join the industrialised world for at least another 30 years.

Jaycox points out that there is a need for science education in sub-Saharan Africa if poverty and other moving forces of underdevelopment are to be eliminated in the region. He thinks that by improving standards of science and technology in the universities many countries will be able to initiate research and development programmes that would be crucial to industrialisation of the region.

So far, on average, the region allocates less than 0.4 per cent of its gross domestic product to research and development programmes. However, the Unesco African regional office for science and technology in Nairobi estimates that there is need to increase this figure to 5 per cent if science education is to play a pivotal role in overcoming developmental crisis on the continent.

For the African Virtual University to be more relevant to the continent, the World Bank is encouraging many countries in the region to build a robust online environment by harnessing the networks of their own telecommunications systems. As a first step, the World Bank has established a website for the new university.

The World Bank is also encouraging private information technology bodies to provide Internet links to universities and research institutions in sub-Saharan Africa. Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe have so far established such linkages

During the first phase of the $1.2million project, Makerere (Uganda), Haille Selassie (Ethiopia), Dar-es-Salaam (Tanzania), Nairobi, Moi (Kenya), Legon, Kumasi (Ghana)and Zimbabwe universities will form an examination faculty for the African Virtual University.

The University of Massachusetts, University College Galway and New Jersey Institute of Science and will provide lectures and course materials However, a second phase of the programme will start early next year with a comprehensive programme that will lead to a full awards system for degrees and diplomas from the African Virtual University.

By then, participating universities are expected to initiate parallel programmes with those of the African Virtual University in various faculties. "The basic idea is to build a science culture in African universities and help to improve academic standards," Baranshamaje says.

In the project's later stages other universities in the region will be co-opted into the programme. Jaycox sees this medium-term development as the most exciting. He believes this will will catapult sub-Saharan Africa towards a global initiative of establishing a university without frontiers or barriers that will lead to the advancement of knowledge worldwide.

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