Schoolnet - building tomorrow's digital generation

21 July 2000

Top Story

The current generation of African leaders is not really "internet-ready". There are exceptions but they are not at the top of the political pile. There is no widely dispersed, technically literate management elite to argue for a digital tomorrow. Much of this task will fall to the next generation: it is often school children who persuade their parents to take an interest in a particular subject. For this reason our top story focuses on an organisation that supports the creation of the next internet generation: Schoolnet. Shafika Issacs outlines the organisation's ambitions.

The mushrooming of school networking projects (SchoolNets) across Africa offers a beacon of hope in bridging the digital divide, a chasm that is particularly startling when Africa is compared to the rest of the world. For instance, in 1999 there were about 100,000 dial-up Internet accounts in Africa for a population of 700 million.

ICTs CAN DO THINGS CHALK AND TALK CAN'T

To date, SchoolNets exist in one form or another in up to 25 countries in Africa. The raison d¹être for school networking is to promote learning and teaching through the use of ICTs. In the over-used business phrase, they "add-value" to learning and teaching because they provide:

 

Neither chalk nor textbooks can fulfill the above qualities and ICTs - particularly through using the Internet - can provide this capability. However, the jury is still out on whether ICTs add pedagogical value. There is extremely limited African web content and this must raise questions about its relevance for teaching African students.

Despite some understandable scepticism, some of the experiences in Africa may prove that ICTs can indeed make a difference. Besides, school networking in Africa is premised on the realistic perception that ICTs are becoming increasingly pervasive in the growing knowledge-based economy and inaction in getting Africa online, will lead to its relegation to further extremes of global marginalisation.

SETTING UP A CONTINENT-WIDE SCHOOLNET

At an IDRC-sponsored School Networking in Africa Worskhop in Namibia this year, there was unanimous support for the idea of establishing a SchoolNet Africa (SNA) as a facilitating mechanism to support national SchoolNets. This meeting was attended by approximately 100 representatives from 20 national SchoolNets, government and private sector representatives.

The workshop was preceded by previous calls for the establishment of continent-wide organisation at a similar, although smaller workshop in Cape Town in September 1999 and at the UNECA-hosted African Development Forum in October 1999. The Namibian workshop reported a number of cases where various SchoolNets have managed to access computers and develop ICT capability among teachers and learners and win concessions for young people.

The work of national SchoolNets spans a complete range of age groups and contexts. A range of examples gives some idea of the widely differing approaches:

   SchoolNet Namibia for example has a Kids on the Block program which involves young volunteers (some of whom are disable) who are taught computer skills which they apply when working with the SchoolNet schools. SchoolNet Namibia secured support from a local pizza store to promote this project.

   In Cote d¹Ivoire young volunteers have been working with the local I*EARN project in securing special prices for students and youth at various cyber cafes in the country. I*EARN is the International Education Resource Network which is a network of schools and youth worldwide.

   In Tunisia, President Ben Ali announced in November 1997 that all the country's schools and public libraries would be connected to the internet. The EDUNET network provides connect to 350 secondary schools (87% of total schools) and 50 technical schools. 500 primary schools will be connected in 2000.

In August 1999, the National Museum of Namibia, in collaboration with 51 corporate sponsors, hosted an Insect@thon for students from schools in Namibia. This is a project to computerise insect inventory records. Approximately US$1m was raised for Insect@thon involving 92 children between the ages of 11 and 19, from 16 schools. The success of the Insect@thon resulted in the recent launch of SchoolNet Namibia. It will initially give 18 schools access to the Internet while aiming to have all schools connected by 2004. SchoolNet Namibia is constituted of Internet, telecommunications and electricity service providers, government ministries, other public sector organisations, research and higher education institutions, business organisations and donor agencies.

The World Bank¹s WorLD programme initiated its school networking in Accra, Ghana in 1997, starting with 3 schools and then a further 14 in other centres. Training is also being provided to more than 70 students, teachers and their headmasters]

Nigeria may provide one pointer to how this kind of education provision might be financed on a consistent basis. It has set up an Education Tax Fund which imposes a 2% tax on all tax payers as a contribution towards the development of quality education, some part of which will go towards ICT education projects.

OPENING A KNOWLEDGE WAREHOUSE

SchoolNet Africa will be launching a range of projects in its first year of operation (November 2000 to October 2001). These include a Baseline Scan of school networking activity in Africa as well as a School Networking Start-up Toolkit which will provide guidelines on starting new schoolnet projects.

The Online Education Content project hopes to pilot the establishment of a central portal on education content in three countries. It is linked to the Knowledge Warehouse project which will establish a central point of information relevant to school networking through the SchoolNet Africa website. It will contain links to relevant educational sites, discussion forums and key SchoolNet partners. It will also include examples of good practice within and outside of Africa, a database(s) containing a school networking directory, online projects, partnerships, policies etc., manage online discussion forums, distribute materials being developed through SchoolNet Africa (e.g. toolkits, results of research projects, etc.).

 

GETTING READY FOR A DIGITAL TOMMOROW

Questions have been raised regarding the relevance of digital skills in an African context. These questions are premised on the pessimistic view that Africa¹s economy will not be developing knowledge industries that will absorb the requisite digitally-skilled labour market entrants from schools, technikons and universities. This view is short-sighted because, along with school networking there are parallel attempts to grow knowledge industries in Africa by both large, multinational ICT firms and ICT-based small and medium enterprises which are mushrooming across Africa. Furthermore, a number of e-commerce projects geared towards developing small and medium enterprises in Africa are currently under way. These developments certainly make the absorption of future generations with IT skills a real possibility.

Will the above-mentioned initiatives create an intra-digital divide between those communities in Africa who have access to ICTs and the majority who may not? Perhaps initially. However, the vision of a number of SchoolNets is to roll out the network to all schools. Indeed SchoolNet Africa is targeting the establishment of SchoolNets in more than half of all African countries by 2005 and its vision is to connect all schools in Africa by 2020. Ambitious yes, but such a vision poses a challenge to further potential divisions within Africa between the information haves and have-nots.

Shafika Isaacs is Senior Program Officer, IDRC (Acacia)