WIDERNET: CONNECTING AND UPSKILLING AFRICAN UNIVERSITIES

9 November 2001

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Education creates the skills through which Africa will take advantage of "getting connected". Yet many African universities lack the means or the expertise to offer their students these benefits. Even in a campus as "wired" as the University of Jos, those involved are effectively "first-time" buyers in this field. Working out of the US’s University of Iowa, WiderNet has been finding ways of overcoming these barriers for Nigeria’s University of Jos and building links between Iowan and Nigerian scholars. Bonnie Pedersen from WiderNet explains.

 

The WiderNet Project was founded by Cliff Missen, a systems analyst in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, who co-directs the project with Michael McNulty, a professor of geography, at the University of Iowa (UI). The University of Iowa has a history of almost three decades of correspondence and building academic relationships with universities in Nigeria. Both Cliff and Michael have traveled to Nigeria extensively. Cliff Missen won the Senior Fullbright Scholarship for his work in Nigeria in 1999.

 

The WiderNet Project was awarded with a US$250,000 grant from the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development. The UI International Programs is providing matching funds and administrative support for this project. The project operates out of offices at the International Center of the UI. It has also recently won a US$470,000 grant from MacArthur Foundation for its work.

 

In September 2001, Microsoft made two major donations to The WiderNet Project. The first donation was of $48,000 in order to provide NT Server software for each University in Nigeria. The second donation was $23,000 worth of server and web productivity software, including server software, SQL, Exchange, for the WiderNet Project¹s office and training center. The WiderNet Project will host Web sites of participating Nigerian universities and assist in delivering email to the institutions. We also have received a number of donated computers from the UI College of Nursing, The Stanley Foundation, the UI Library, the UI Department of Computer Science, Department of Physiology and Biophysics, Quality Care, Network Startup Resource Center, and a number of private donors.

 

Much of the WiderNet Project’s efforts will be spent on coaching decision-makers at Nigerian universities to make informed choices about technology, and to train Nigerian university computer technicians to keep the new systems fully functional.

 

Missen, McNulty, and other trainers will travel to Nigeria once a year to conduct workshops and to consult Nigerian technicians. Upcoming travel will occur this summer, in June. Before then, however, course curricula, libraries of texts, articles, lectures and other academic materials will be copied onto CD-ROM and sent to universities in Nigeria, preparing the trainees in advance.

 

Cliff Missen has found that in his travels to Nigerian universities he heard a common complaint from vice-chancellors and department heads: "We have no idea what we ought to do next. The array of options are dizzying and the only people willing to talk to us have something to sell and are not reliable."

 

Cliff believes that "In the parlance of the computer trade, most African universities are ‘first time buyers. First time buyers are notorious for making unwise choices - either buying or attempting too much or too little - whereas those who have struggled with their first wave of computer systems make wiser choices the second time around." Missen and McNulty hope to help share the lessons learned at American universities with Nigerian decision-makers so they can be "second time buyers" the first time around.

 

When speaking of his experiences in Nigeria, Cliff has also found that "My American students have all the riches of the Internet at their fingertips while their Nigerian counterparts only have an email system that sends messages a few days a week. It was a real eye-opener for some of the U.S. students when the Nigerians stopped communicating for five weeks after their telephone connections died. I think it is hard for many of us to imagine not being able to communicate with distant family, friends, and colleagues for that length of a time."

 

The University of Jos Project

 

The University of Jos has seen the most progress from the WiderNet Project than most other universities in Nigeria. Since this fall, there have been two correspondents from Nigerian universities brought to the UI, one of them from Jos. Dr. Mamman Aminu Ibrahim, from Ibadan, Nigeria, stayed with us for approximately two weeks. Dr. Ibrahim is the Deputy Director (Research and Development) and the Chairman of Nigerian Universities Network (NUNet). He is head of the division responsible for external funding, linkages, and collaborations for all Nigerian universities, and is head of the committee responsible for the establishment of private universities in Nigeria.

 

After his arrival in late March, Dr. Lennox (Len) Liverpool, from the University of Jos, Nigeria, has joined the WiderNet offices and stayed for approximately two months. Dr. Liverpool is originally from Sierra Leone, West Africa, but has been at the University of Jos, since 1980. He holds a PhD in Mathematics, and since 1989 he has played a central role in the University of Jos’ efforts to install and effectively use information and communication technologies. The University of Jos stands out amongst universities in sub-Saharan Africa as the most wired campus. They have over 250 computers hooked up to their network, with thousands of their students, staff, and faculty receiving email and hundreds trained in computer use. (To contrast: the University of Jos has more networked computers than the other 27 universities in Nigeria combined.)

 

In June of 2001, the WiderNet Project mounted its first workshop for decision makers in Abuja, Nigeria¹s capital city. The decision maker program involves technical, financial, and organizational coaching for decision makers at Nigerian Universities who are installing their institution’s first information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure. The Nigerian universities involved with our program were: the University of Jos, Jos; the University of Ibadan Skannet, Ibadan; Bayero University, Kano; Amadu Bello University, Zaria; Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife; UNDP Cisco Academy, Lagos; the University of Port Harcourt, Port Harcourt; and the National Universities Commission, Abuja. Cliff Missen led the decision makers workshops at each of these universities. More information about this program, reports, and feedback from each university involved can be found at: http://www.widernet.org/decisionmakers/june01/

 

July 29-August 12 2001, UI Professor of Geography, Michael McNulty visited the University of Ibadan, the University of Jos, and the Nigerian National Universities Commission. The purpose of the trip was threefold: (1) to meet and consult with university decision-makers, including senior administrative officers and participants in the first WiderNet Workshop for Decision Makers held June 12-13, 2001 at the NUC headquarters in Abuja, (2) to facilitate links between Nigerian decision makers and counterparts in the U.S., and (3) to follow-up on initial contacts and promote intra-university cooperation and the establishment of support groups and academic interchanges over the IT bridge being established.

 

The WiderNet Project trains Nigerian university computer technicians to build and maintain computer networks. We will work with the Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC) and participating universities to identify pressing and common IT needs of the universities, help them to work together to develop similar systems for cross-compatibility, and then develop training programs which emphasize computer-based training (CBT), workshops, and vendor and NUC standardized certifications.

 

Utilizing a wide array or computer-based training materials, including CD-ROMs filled with articles, lectures, tutorials, and other materials found on the World Wide Web, trainees receive a great deal of preparation in advance. Then Missen and other trainers travel to Nigeria at least once a year to conduct workshops and to consult Nigerian technicians. Missen plans to have a training workshop for October 2001, and subsequently in February 2002.

 

We also plan to work with U.S. private sector partners who can provide training materials, software donations or low-cost licensing, and technical support to Nigerian universities. One of such partnerships we have established is with the Microsoft Corporation.

 

The WiderNet base offices expect to have at least five correspondents from Nigerian universities to make visits to the WiderNet Project in Iowa City each year. One of the projects at the University of Jos is the Internetworks in International Development course, also offered at the UI. This course demonstrates the benefits of teaching via the internet.

 

Another project at the University of Jos is the digitization of library materials. CD-ROMs composed of small libraries of information provide access to material available on the Internet, but for those who lack Internet access, the digital library will provide the same information. Cliff met with Vice Chancellors in New York in April and gave them the first copies of the CD-ROMs to review. Final copies are expected to be sent to the University of Jos by the end of the month of May. These copies will contain information for both the decision makers courses and the technical training courses. As of right now, over 250 articles and documents have been compiled on the CD-ROMs as well as mirrored web sites with material relevant to technology and digital information in developing countries and Africa especially.

 

The WiderNet Project also plans to facilitate the shipment of computers and networking equipment to the University of Jos, Nigeria. The computers will be collected at the University of Iowa, shipped to Lagos, Nigeria, and transported from there to the Universities of Jos and Ibadan. Subsequent shipments will occur as often as possible, depending on the quantity of equipment donations.

 

The WiderNet Project’s goals are to eliminate the digital divide between developed and developing countries. Those that have access to technology and those that don’t. As long as Africa has inadequate access to technology, communication, and information systems, they will remain separated from the rest of the world with this access.For more information about the WiderNet Project, please see our website, www.widernet.org For more information about the University of Jos, please see their website: http://www.uiowa.edu/intlinet/unijos

 

INDEX

 

 

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