Building on digital libraries’ growing momentum

Institutional repositories are increasing in number, improving access to online archiving and preserving and disseminating digital copies of the intellectual output of research institutions. Doors are opening for students in low-income countries to access instructional and tutorial materials from leading universities in the developed world at the touch of a button.

Digital libraries – collections of documents organised in an electronic form – encompass learning tools that could potentially enable huge strides in research, teaching and learning in African academic and research institutions.

They support the development of institutional repositories, open educational resources or OERs, and massive open online courses or MOOCs.

OERs are educational resources that are openly available for use by educators and students, without the need to pay royalties or licence fees, while MOOCs are a recent development providing free online courses aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web.

There is a proliferation of new private colleges and universities in Africa, largely based on income from tuition fees. OERs and MOOCs are competing with this business model.

Benefits vs pitfalls of online learning

Free online courses have been seen as a way to ‘democratise’ education by allowing more people in the developing world to gain access to expensive, ivory tower teaching and learning.

On the other hand there are concerns that MOOCs may create an unequal global education system, in which most students in affluent countries will continue to receive face-to-face instruction while many students elsewhere take classes only on the internet. Instead of reducing inequality in higher education, MOOCs have the potential to ‘reconsolidate’ it.

It is important to note that to date, MOOCs have been reported to be successful in affluent countries where they have been used to complement face-to-face teaching especially in distance education.

More and more materials are now available in English online and there is a motivation to learn and teach in the language. Does that have a negative impact on investment in materials in the myriad of languages in Africa? – only time will tell.

More and more higher education institutions across Africa are making use of OERs, with the aim of enhancing teaching and learning. The MOOCs and OERs movement is set to expand the capacity to meet growing demand for educational and learning materials on the continent.

But will these technologies empower and serve the needs of resource-poor communities of learners – those at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ in Africa – or will they fan the expansion of the educational gap between developed and developing countries, where the developed world has access to not only quantity but high quality, current learning materials and developing nations still struggle to get the quantity?

Many seem to agree that while we continue to uphold the benefits we must not forget the dangers and pitfalls of online learning, such as a possible reduction in the quality of learning and lack of access to the internet by students, especially in developing nations.

Libraries increase

There is no doubt that the growth of digital libraries in African higher education, which got off to a slow start in the last two decades, has increased. And with the improvement of internet access, growth is set to reach unprecedented levels in the near future.

Over the years, these institutions have taken advantage of improved access to the internet by providing users with a wide variety of digital library resources. Thanks to various initiatives, many African institutions have access to free or low-cost e-resources.

In the scientific, technical and medical disciplines, offline and online resources – such as The Essential Electronic Agricultural Library or TEEAL, Research4Llife programmes and eGranary – are allowing access to important content for educators, scientists and students in low-income countries and at a fraction of the cost.

TEEAL is a full-text and searchable database of articles from more than 300 high quality research journals in agriculture and related sciences spanning several years, accessible via an external hard drive – an offline resource used widely, particularly in remote research institutions in Africa where internet is still unreliable or non-existent.

The Research4Life programme gives free or low cost access to more than 44,000 peer-reviewed international scientific journals, books and databases provided by the world's leading science publishers.

Materials available from research and educational institutions via institutional repositories are growing – though some still have issues of quality, currency and relevance.

Grappling with regulations

Many factors have been stifling growth in the academic and research sectors. Some of these factors in Africa are regulatory environments, the shifting role of library professionals, low levels of commitment to institutionalising open access and problems of economic sustainability.

The World Bank's Country Policy and Institutional Assessment, or CPIA, argues that weak public sector management, particularly in the area of intellectual property rights and rule-based governance, hinders the development and implementation of open access scholarly resources.

Many legal systems in Africa are yet to support and encourage researchers to adopt open access policies because they are unsure of whether their intellectual property rights will be upheld or enforced.

As a result, obligation to institutionalise open access is low, and belief in its benefits, awareness and use of these resources is also low.

In spite of these challenges the entry of large licensing initiatives, such as Creative Commons, into the African market could strengthen existing legal frameworks and sensitise communities on intellectual property and copyright law.

It is still early days on this – we have a long way to go to real open content.

Change to suit higher education

The proliferation of information and communication technologies, or ICTs, and e-resources has provided benefits to higher education.

The continuing reduction in the digital divide is supporting reduction of the research gap. According to publisher Elsevier, the research output from Africa has doubled and the continent is moving towards a knowledge-based economy.

Investments in ICT infrastructure and developments with the undersea fibre optic cables have seen more African scholars accessing moderate internet connections. Already, internet penetration rates in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Nigeria and Kenya are above or close to the world average of 34.3%.

Smart phone penetration has been reported in double digits in all the regions of Africa – the spread is growing in leaps and bounds. This has encouraged the use of electronic academic resources and open educational resources.

Although e-learning is a significant feature of education and training, there are still many challenges in developing a clear model of what services institutions provide.

It is necessary for information specialists and faculty to acquire relevant skills in order to support the transition to ‘openness’ – shifting from, for example, cataloguing to creating and maintaining interoperable, web-scale metadata, advising scholars on the complexities of licensing and communicating with other open access repositories.

Therefore, there is a need for intensified training and skills building in this area. Users still do not know enough about what is available and for whom. Are we innovating to encourage use or access, or both? Not much has been done in information literacy training, which is invaluable for professionals and users to become skilled information users.

Raising the bar

Library development and digital education have not been a priority of many governments in Africa. This is because there are still many challenges like food, water, health, electricity, sanitation and transportation.

As a result, libraries lack technology and adequately trained staff. They suffer as shrinking budgets limit maintenance of library services and use of new technologies, online databases, e-journals and general access to the internet.

With more investment, trained employees and high information literacy, digital libraries will flourish.

No doubt, within a decade digital libraries will significantly shape and influence the structure of higher education in Africa – especially in improved access, knowledge sharing and materials preservation – and the library will be at the centre of this development.

* Gracian Chimwaza, Blessing Chataira and Chipo Msengezi work for the Information Training and Outreach Centre for Africa, a capacity building organisation that promotes ICT skills for African librarians, information specialists, scientists, researchers and students in Sub-Saharan Africa.