The internet – A transformative power in higher education
According to Dr Lishan Adam, an expert in ICT in development, and one of the authors of a new report by the Internet Society titled Internet for Education in Africa: Helping policy makers to meet the Global Education Agenda Sustainable Development Goal 4, connectivity is the basis for scientific collaboration in the higher education sector – a key factor in meeting developmental challenges.
“By building advanced connectivity to universities, administrators and policy makers can promote access to live lectures from Ivy League universities, thereby upgrading the quality of teaching and learning,” Adam told University World News.
Research and education networks
The Internet Society’s goal is to make the internet available to everyone. The society’s latest report, launched on 8 May at the Africa Regional Internet and Development Dialogue in Kigali, Rwanda, examines all levels of education from pre-primary to primary, secondary and tertiary, including work place and lifelong learning. It discusses the higher education sector largely within the context of national and regional research and education networks, or RENs.
Because of donor attention to REN development, particularly through the European Union’s Africa Connect programme, there has been significant progress in this area compared with education in general.
The findings suggest that higher education connectivity should be promoted within the context of national RENs. In other words, universities need to pool resources and attain some form of economy of scale to achieve advanced connectivity for collaboration, teaching and learning at an affordable rate, according to Adam.
While this has been happening in nine leading REN countries, namely Algeria, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia and South Africa, the rest of the continent needs to speed up efforts in financing national RENs, developing business models, resolving connectivity challenges at campus level and, more crucially, bringing university leaders together towards common goals of connecting for collaboration, said Adam.
RENs in the nine countries listed above have already shown that advanced connectivity to scientific gateways can foster global collaboration by providing access to the latest data and instruments, thereby raising the quality of research of universities, said Adam.
Another way in which ICT transforms universities is by increasing access to learning and research resources, often leading to a reduction in duplication of theses on same subjects and increasing access to the latest scientific content. Further, ICT has made it easier to collect data on teachers, students and resources, making management and planning easier.
The report, intended to be a policy makers’ guide to ICT in education, looked at the following questions: Why does the internet matter for education in Africa? What experience exists elsewhere in using ICT and the internet for education that can be tapped into by policy makers in Africa? What is the current context of ICT/internet use in education in Africa? It also delved into what policy makers should do to unlock the transformative power of ICT/internet for learning over the next decade.
The authors found out that the internet is used by about a quarter of Africans, with 43% of that usage being for social media and other forms of communication. The use of ICT/internet for education purposes is limited and constrained by factors ranging from high internet subscriptions and equipment costs, to taxes, absence of electricity and limited investment in large scale e-education programmes.
“Where countries invest massively in ICT in education, especially in one-to-one computing (laptop to students and full internet access) as opposed to computer labs, progress has been made in integrating ICT in education,” said Adam.
He said a UNESCO survey in 2014 indicates that countries such as Egypt, Kenya, Mauritius, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia that have made progress in the ICT sector in general have also seen growing use of ICT in education.
The study identifies 10 major areas that need to be addressed for expanding the use of ICT in education in order to speed up the progress towards attaining the SDGs. These include infrastructure expansion and provision; teachers’ professional development; capacity building for decision makers, college and school leaders; stimulation of national research and education networks; data collection; monitoring; evaluation; research; and learning.
“The major obstacle to use of the internet is lack of access to well-organised, accredited learning resources. Organising content and delivering it over the internet requires coordination at all levels: schools, universities and central government, creating a central repository and accreditation,” said Adam.
It is a resource intensive endeavour. Universities and schools need to launch alternative learning options over the internet. Courses need to be accredited so that those who take them can transfer credits and earn recognised degrees and diplomas – all of which takes a lot of effort and central coordination, the report notes.
Education ministries are generally responsible for putting together the vision and strategy for the allocation of resources for ICT in education. According to Adam, these ministries need to work with other ministries in expanding connectivity to schools and universities.
“Leaders can also emerge from the universities’ administrations. Countries that have made progress had dozens of like-minded people in the policy making circle that believe in ICT-led education,” he said.
At the heart of this is the importance of acknowledging connectivity to education as a public good at national level – by the leader of a country, he said.
Adam said it is difficult to predict how ICT in higher education can promote competitiveness in Africa, but experience from countries such as Brazil, Mexico, and Costa Rica that have benefited from advanced research and education networks indicates that expanded access promotes scientific collaboration among scientific communities.
“It is hoped that as African higher education institutions, students and faculty get advanced connectivity, there will be opportunities for improved collaboration on solving development challenges in health, agriculture, environmental management, and conflict prediction and management,” he said.
One area where advanced connectivity in higher education can bring positive change immediately will be the improved use of ICTs in universities by students who will graduate with the latest insights and capabilities, both in the computing field and in ICT applications in fields such as GIS and medical informatics. This will improve the competitiveness of young graduates who compete at global levels and also develop ICT applications that can positively impact other development sectors, the report notes.
Dealing with inequality
Advanced broadband connectivity is also an equaliser and can easily eliminate geographical barriers.
Approaches like one-to-one computing (with all students having access to laptops and the internet) can also help to reduce the gender barrier. Men and women can access the same services. In the same way people with disabilities can benefit if appropriate assistive computers and internet access are available to them.
“Reduction of inequalities cannot happen by itself. Governments need to take conscious efforts to increase access to these groups, for example, by subsidising internet access for those who need it most, including students and educators in rural areas, people with disabilities, and girls,” Adam said.