Tomorrow’s Internet users today – African universities play catch-up with online content

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African universities are crucial to the future development of the Internet on the continent in two ways. Firstly, they contain one of the largest groups of existing and potential users: today’s student user is tomorrow’s future decision-maker. Secondly, universities should be generators of content that will be used by the same students to increase their knowledge and skills. The Kenyan Government and Google have both said they want to provide free Internet connectivity to students. Russell Southwood looks at what the Webometrics rankings can tell us about how far Africa’s universities have to travel.

It provides a raking of over 4,000 universities worldwide based upon four “content” metrics: the number of pages recovered from the four main search engines; the number of unique external links; the number of rich files to download (pdfs and .ppts, etc); and a Google Scholar scoring of the number of papers and citations for each university domain. These scores are turned into a metric for ranking universities globally. Not surprisingly, the premier league globally (top 100) is almost entirely composed of US institutions, with only a sprinkling of European institutions. But the separate African Top 100 contains more surprises and questions.

Against fierce global competition, the top 5 South African universities (also top 5 in the Africa Top 100) achieve a particularly high ranking: University of Cape Town (349); Rhodes University (624), Stellenbosch (653), University of Pretoria (686) and University of Witwatersrand (703). This is not just a plus for South Africa in terms of its own ability to create knowledge through academic content but must be something that may attract students from across Africa in greater numbers in the future.

These are followed rather more predictably by institutions from the other larger economies of the continent like Egypt and Morocco. Given current circumstances, it is perhaps surprising to see the University of Zimbabwe achieving the 15th place in the top 100.

Another pattern throughout these listings is that private universities seem to be more effective than publicly funded institutions in generating university content. The American University in Cairo (9th) outranks Cairo University (13th). Kenya’s Strathmore University (21st) outranks the University of Nairobi (25th). Whilst each country has its own special circumstances, it is worth observing that private universities seem to be faster at understanding and using the web. There is an issue of resourcing but it cannot be the only factor to explain this difference.

Another unexpected finding is that there are only 4 Nigerian universities in the listing – University of Benin (42nd), Awolowo University (58th), the Pan African University (83rd) and the University of Ibadan (100th) – and one of them is listed last. With a national economy of the scale it is, you would expect its universities to be generating more work of this kind so the Nigerians are really the laggards in this particular race.

Internet company Google recently announced that it would be keen to offer free connectivity to Kenyan universities, as well as start a comprehensive programme that would allow students at facilities around the country to utilise its free-to-use software. In Kenya, 50,000 students at the University of Nairobi will be offered Google Apps, with the services to be extended later to 150,000 students at other universities. Even in smaller countries, university students are a substantial potential user community.

The offer to higher education units also includes free online tools, hosted by Google, which allow students to work on files from any Internet-connected computer, on campus, at home or anywhere else.

Africa needs universities that can generate original knowledge about the continent that both its own students and others globally will want to use. The first flush of African nationalism almost swept away the original generation of African universities. Now online tools offer the opportunity for them to create online libraries that will enable both their staff and students to mark out their own place in the fierce competition between global knowledge economies.