Frequent internet disruptions impede virtual learning
This was one of the findings in a recently released report Targeted, Cut Off, and Left in the Dark. The #KeepItOn report on internet shutdowns in 2019, published by digital rights advocacy group Access Now.
The report found that compared to 2018, internet shutdowns in Africa grew by 47%. While there were 17 incidents recorded in 2018, at least 25 were documented in 2019.
The technical definition used by Access Now to determine an internet shutdown is “an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information”.
"Internet shutdowns have a negative impact on access to information in general, and on the ability of individuals to access and share knowledge," said Chadian ICT expert Abdelkerim Yacoub Koundougoumi, Central Africa division director at Internet Without Borders, a Paris-based non-profit organisation championing freedom of expression on the internet.
"Shutdowns are slowing internet penetration on the continent and the development of infrastructure that otherwise would allow the digitalisation of African education systems and facilitate access to good quality, affordable and secure internet," Koundougoumi told University World News.
Shutdowns by country
According to the Access Now report, there was a significant increase in the number of African countries that shut down the internet last year. There were 10 such countries in 2018 and at least 14 in 2019, including Benin, Gabon, Eritrea, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritania, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Sudan, Chad, Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Compared to 2018, internet shutdowns in Africa grew by 47%. While there were 17 incidents recorded in 2018, at least 25 were documented in 2019.
Among the six worst internet shutdown offenders in 2019, two countries were in Africa – Algeria and Ethiopia, which shut down the internet six and four times respectively.
"The majority of the shutdowns in Africa (21 out of 25) were not targeted at a specific location or minority groups, instead impacting entire countries," the report said.
Only in three cases did a shutdown target a specific region, city or province. One example of a targeted shutdown was carried out in Ethiopia.
According to the report several African countries cut off access to the internet for more than seven days including Chad, Ethiopia, DRC, Eritrea, Mauritania, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
With a 472-day internet shutdown, Chad had the longest documented blackout during the period from March 2018 to July 2019.
The report said the most common official justification for ordering shutdowns in 2019 was “fighting fake news, hate speech, or content promoting violence”, followed by “precautionary measures”, public safety, national security, third-party actions, school exams, and technical problems.
The report indicated that governmental justifications “rarely match what observers conclude is the actual cause".
The report argues that internet shutdowns have a harmful impact on people's human rights in the digital age, and a disproportionate impact on people's lives along with disproportionate interferences with the right to free expression and access to information.
For online universities, it means a basic inability to fulfil their missions.
"Although new online universities are spreading in Africa, this report set alarm bells ringing,” Hamza Alfrmawi, ICT expert at the Islamic Development Bank Alumni and Science Development Network, told University World News.
He said there was a need for “new tactics to circumvent or prevent future shutdowns".
"Failing to do so will hamper African virtual universities in delivering their missions and negatively impact the current growth of the e-learning market in Africa," Alfrmawi said.
"Online universities are a fundamental pillar of educational inclusion on a continent like Africa where more than 70% of young people do not have access to education and training because of a lack of means and infrastructure.
"African youth are facing mobility difficulties, because of visa problems and high costs of higher education outside the continent. Online courses are a great solution to the isolation African youth are facing," said Koundougoumi.
"That is why we must encourage and support exchanges between African universities and other universities around the world to harmonise knowledge sharing, and break politically oppressive methods of shutting down the internet," Koundougoumi said.
The Africa e-learning market reached a value of more than US$792 million in 2018 and is further expected to reach US$1,813 million by 2024, according to forecasts.
South Africa, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia, and Kenya emerge as countries where e-learning is gaining prominence rapidly. South Africa represents the largest region, accounting for nearly a quarter of the African market.
On the impact on the African academic community, Felicia Anthonio, Ghana-based Access Now campaigner and #KeepItOn lead, claims that internet shutdowns, regardless of their justification, stall progress in many areas including the education sector.
“Network disruptions threaten the performance of students in countries where shutdowns are weaponised by governments," she said.
A real impact
"Students undertaking virtual or online courses will be unable to access reading materials, interact with their lecturers and colleagues, conduct research, among other activities, as compared with their counterparts in countries with reliable and free internet access. Some students are even forced to defer or drop courses because of internet shutdowns," Anthonio told University World News.
"Falling back on internet shutdowns or network disruptions during critical moments is like shooting oneself in the foot. Aside from the fact that internet shutdowns are a violation of the fundamental rights of the people, they cause more economic, social and financial havoc to countries that trigger them during such critical moments," Anthonio said.
"Many governments will not be able to achieve digital transformation or ‘leapfrog’ tech and innovation without a secure, accessible and open internet.”
However, she said academia in general and virtual universities in particular can help end shutdowns on the continent by supporting the #KeepItOn campaign, and other efforts, through documenting and conducting research on the impact of the shutdowns.
Samir Khalaf Abd-El-Aal, research professor at the National Research Centre in Cairo, said the scientific community could get around governments’ roadblocks by developing relevant technological tools.
"The educational community must be prepared to use tools like Mesh-based apps, virtual private networks (VPNs) and web-based proxies to help circumvent internet blackout restrictions," Abd-El-Aal said.
Koundougoumi also said academics should join forces with civil society.
"[They] should raise awareness together on this issue, and academic institutions should also join their voices to those that are already fighting against shutdowns," he said.
"We also must educate politicians and decision-makers in Africa about the importance of the youth giving access to knowledge and tools that will equip them to be ready and take part in the digital revolution," Koundougoumi said.
"African youth, being 50% of the world’s youth, cannot be excluded from this momentum and must be connected to unleash its full potential."