Academia set to benefit from two new digital initiatives

Two new initiatives are expected to enable the African academic community to access the internet using their own languages and scripts while also facilitating knowledge exchanges between a range of African and European digital actors, including academia.

The Coalition for Digital Africa (CDA) and D4D Access, an e-knowledge sharing platform, were launched by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the African Union-European Union (AU-EU) Digital for Development (D4D) Hub respectively, during the 17th Annual Internet Governance Forum, which took place under the theme ‘Resilient Internet for a Shared Sustainable and Common Future’ at the United Nations Conference Centre in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, earlier in December.

The CDA and D4D Access initiatives are in line with the African Union’s digital transformation strategy for the continent which focuses on digitalisation of the education sector, among others, through harnessing digital technologies and innovation to develop digital skills for achieving sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Coalition for Digital Africa

The Coalition for Digital Africa is an alliance of like-minded local, regional and international organisations committed to building a robust and secure internet infrastructure to bring more Africans online, including members of the Ghana-based Association of African Universities (AAU) and the African Network Information Centre.

The coalition aims at creating connectivity throughout Africa to enable digital inclusivity and creating opportunities to fuel the growth of local content.

Despite the growth of internet use in Africa from 39% in 2020 to 43% in 2022 as indicated in internet world stats, Africa still has the lowest penetration rate worldwide, according to the 2021 edition of Measuring Digital Development: Facts and figures.

This will be done through working on universal acceptance, or UA, which ensures that all valid domain names and e-mail addresses, regardless of length or script, can be used by all internet-enabled applications, devices and systems.

With UA, people who are already connected, and those who will be connected in the future, can communicate over the internet and access local content in their preferred languages and scripts.

The UA approach is in line with recommendations in a 2016 report entitled, Promoting Content in Africa, which called for increasing local-language content to enhance Africa’s internet adoption.

A project led by the AAU will focus on making e-mail and other systems within higher education UA-ready to ensure that the internet is both useful and empowering for all people.

Olusola Bandele Oyewole, secretary general of the AAU, was quoted as saying: “This is an important and welcome initiative for Africa. Improving the technical capacity of higher education institutions across the continent is imperative for a digital Africa.”

E-knowledge sharing platform

D4D Access is a knowledge-sharing initiative that centralises, promotes and disseminates African and European best practices and lessons on the Digital for Development (D4D) platform for policymakers and experts from academia, among others.

Managed by the AU-EU D4D hub, D4D Access covers a wide range of topics, from digital skills to digital entrepreneurship and cyber security, and contains many resources, including reports and case studies to support digital stakeholders in Africa and Europe – including academia – to advance an inclusive and sustainable digital transformation.

The e-platform is open to all African and European organisations, including universities as well as research and academic institutions, to share their knowledge resources on D4D, allowing them to reach new audiences, increase their visibility, host their content and showcase their expertise.

E-knowledge sharing platforms are key to the achievement of the SDGs, as stated in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Strengthening virtual collaborations

Professor Juma Shabani, the director of the doctoral school at the University of Burundi and the former director of development, coordination and monitoring of UNESCO programmes with a special focus on Africa, told University World News the two initiatives will enable African universities to benefit from robust and secure internet infrastructures to help virtual collaborations in Africa and beyond.

“African students and faculty will now have easier access to globally available virtual libraries and online courses. They will also be able to collaborate more easily with the best experts working in Africa and beyond,” said Shabani, who is the former co-director of the Virtual Institute for Higher Education in Africa.

“The CDA will also help in enhancing access to the internet and its integration into learning through accommodating the use of diverse African languages and greater potential to tap the linguistic wealth of the continent for higher education development,” he said.

There are more than 2,000 languages in 54 countries in Africa representing about a third of the world’s 7,000 languages, according to a 2022 study titled, ‘Participatory Detection of Language Barriers towards Multilingual Sustainability(ies) in Africa’.

Initiatives like CDA and D4D Access will help in “bringing more Africans out of the digital desert” and, consequently, can make the UN SDGs, including SDG 9, which is about building resilient infrastructure, promoting sustainable industrialisation and fostering innovation and increasing access to information and communications technology more realistic, he said.

Boosting e-learning

Dr Tola Bekene Bedada, an assistant professor in mathematics education at Wachemo University in Ethiopia, told University World News the initiatives will encourage e-learning.

“Strengthening the African technical capabilities for e-learning as an alternative to traditional classroom education is the best for African universities because it reduces costs and enables students to access course information without time restrictions or geographical constraints,” Bedada added.

“The new digital initiatives will also help in emergencies as the majority of African educational institutions were obliged to transition to an online method of teaching and learning because of the lockdowns implemented in many African countries to combat the COVID-19 pandemic,” he concluded.

Bedada is the co-author of the 2022 study ‘University lecturers’ preparedness to use technology in teacher training of mathematics during COVID-19: The case of Ethiopia’.