Students favour digital resources to boost quality education

Students and teachers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) can, for the first time, access a free online library after the ministry of education launched the National Digital Library in a bid to boost the availability of educational resources, books and scientific articles for teaching staff and students.

In nearby Rwanda, the uptake of using online libraries and e-resources has been growing at various universities. After the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges it brought when universities had to close, the institutions are realising the need to promote online resources for teaching and learning activities.

In the DRC, Minister of Higher and University Education Muhindo Nzangi Butondo said the creation of this library, which opened in October, is in line with the plan to revamp the education system. He said the system will help students acquire all necessary skills and be ready for the job market once they graduate.

“This is the greatest gift that the government gives to higher and university education. We take this opportunity to encourage students to adapt to the research culture and teachers to update their courses,” he said at the launch of the online library.

Students need devices and internet access

Access to the National Digital Library is through an online portal. A student or teacher must use an Airtel Academia SIM card to access the portal, according to the officials. “This is a source of the millions of books and, to access the books, thanks to Airtel, you just need to have a smartphone or a computer to access this online library,” Muhindo said.

He said that, by the start of the next academic year, each student must have a device, not just to access the resource, but also because the job market expects people to have mastered information technology.

Computers will be distributed to students on credit and reimbursement will be made monthly throughout the year at the rate of US$15 a month. A batch of 150,000 computers already available will be distributed from the start of the 2022-23 academic year.

However, there are numerous challenges. The DRC, which has 26 provinces covering an area of 2,345,409 square kilometres, does not have a mobile phone network that fully covers the entire country.

Wilfried Akilimali Linjanja, who represents students in the province of North Kivu, said: “We want to know if Airtel is the only network we can connect students to, because there are several areas that are struggling with connecting to this network. Why not take the other mobile networks in the country to facilitate students from those areas where the Airtel connection is often not good? But, all in all, I can say that the approach is good – trying to connect all the students is already a good approach.”

Regarding the distribution of computers on credit, the supervisory authority should consider the socio-economic situation of the country, especially in the eastern part of the DRC where armed groups have been raging for several decades, Linjanja said.

“Families are affected, and students are also indirectly affected by this situation. Let us go, for example, to Jomba in Rutshuru to the parents who do not work, and then ask them to pay for a computer at US$150 or more; it is not easy,” he said, adding that the socio-economic reality of the country has to be considered.

“The ministry should reassure us that devices will be distributed free of charge to underprivileged students because the system will already be in place this year.”

Students prefer digital resources

The culture of reading hard-copy books is gradually disappearing among students. Given the evolution and revolution of technological means of documentation, many books are now available online. This makes their work a lot easier, students said.

Chokola Bushunju, a first-year civil engineering student at the Free University of the Great Lakes Countries in Goma in the DRC, has never been in the library of his university. He only consults the books he needs for his training and learning online. He specifies that certain sites are accessed free of charge. All you need is an internet plan.

“There are many free sites that put books on the internet. I see that going to the library takes a lot of time. I can have everything on my phone without moving,” he said.

But librarians feel that physical libraries still have an important role to play. These libraries remain reliable sources for students and researchers, said librarian Jean-Claude Nondo. “It is difficult to total 20 readers in one day,” but, he said, “we feel the desire to learn in those who come to consult the works. Here, it is really very quiet. If someone wants to be free from distractions, they must go to the library,” Nondo said.

“There is silence that improves concentration. As you noticed, my library is almost empty. But I always advise students to read hard-copy books,” he added.

One of the challenges some Congolese students face remains access to works in their fields of study and research. In certain fields, such as information and communication sciences and agronomy, books are rare, and their price is not within the reach of students and certain educational establishments. For this reason, several universities do not regularly update their libraries.

Students encouraged to use libraries

Elsewhere, in Rwanda, universities have been working on promoting online libraries. For instance, at the University of Rwanda, students and academic staff can access e-learning materials.

According to Dr Marguerite Umubyeyi, the library director at the University of Rwanda, students can access most e-resources via the university website. “Our students can access e-resources from the database the university has subscribed to,” she said, noting that students from all the six colleges of the University of Rwanda have access to e-resources.

“Such e-resources are also accessible remotely and students can access them from outside the campuses as we have an inside box that facilitates access,” she added.

However, she said that the University of Rwanda encourages students to use physical libraries because they are equally important and have rich resources which are sometimes unavailable online. “So, we do have both rich printed and electronic resources which complement each other. We keep both together because there are books you can’t get online and we need to have the hard copies,” Umubyeyi said.

“I can say that we are at the point where we are satisfied, not 100%, but there is a milestone we have achieved: moving from manual systems to physical libraries and to digital libraries,” she said.

At the University of Rwanda’s College of Arts and Social Sciences, 70% of reading materials are online, and efforts are ongoing to ensure that more are uploaded, according to Marie Chantal Uwizeyimana, the assistant librarian. She said that about 800 students visit the library each day.

But students welcome the use of e-resources, saying it benefits them in daily learning without having to visit physical libraries. They said they received training on how to access the resources.

“We are encouraged to use the e-library because almost everything is there. I have subscribed to e-resources and I have no difficulties using them. It is a great achievement, and we no longer depend on physical libraries,” said Innocent Nduwimana, a third-year student in public administration.