Africa is an enormous continent with 53 countries and a population of over 700 million people, over fifty per cent of whom are under 20 years of age. There is a high demand for quality education at the tertiary level on the continent.
The African Virtual University (AVU) is an innovative educational organization whose objective is to enhance capacity and support economic development by leveraging the power of modern telecommunications technology to provide access to world-class quality education and training programs by students and professionals in Africa. After a successful pilot phase in 1997, the AVU has been transformed from being a project of the World Bank to an independent, reputable inter-governmental organization based in Nairobi, Kenya. The editorial team of eLearning Africa 2006’s Newsportal had the chance to pose some questions to the AVU’s Rector, Mr. Kuzvinetsa Peter Dzvimbo.
1. Mr. Dzvimbo, how would you define the main objectives of the African Virtual University?
The main objective of the AVU is to promote and support initiatives on the African continent in Open Distance and Electronic Learning (ODeL). In this schema, we see the AVU as a part of a network of African tertiary education and training institutions that are involved in the use of various ODeL methodologies to increase equitable access to their own demand-driven programs in an affordable, cost effective, flexible and sustainable manner. Our focus is therefore on Capacity Enhancement in ODeL methodologies in our partner institutions. To achieve this goal, the AVU has developed a learning architecture that takes into account the different technological and educational contexts of African countries, institutions and students, including the use of print and electronic media in ODeL. In this way, the AVU is able to work in diverse and resource constrained African environments, where there are low and high levels of technological and educational development.
2. Does the AVU focus on any particular courses of studies, such as teacher training, etc.?
When the AVU started in 1997, the focus was on brokering content for degree and diploma programs in Computer Science and Business Studies from reputable Australian and Canadian Universities. There were also short courses in Business English and Journalism. The idea was to enable African students to access world-class knowledge and content. We still have degree and diploma programs in Computer Science and Business Studies that are being beamed from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University and Curtin University both in Australia; and from Laval University in Canada. We have short courses in Journalism, Business English and Computer Science that we are jointly offering with overseas universities. We have now introduced a teacher education program that is being funded by the African Development Bank. This program is being rolled out in ten countries in Eastern and Southern Africa. We are also involved in a program of designing, managing and disseminating Open Education Resources (OERs) in Teacher Education.
3. How do you cooperate with other institutions inside and outside Africa?
The AVU is part of a network of African institutions involved in ODeL. Therefore, we partner with institutions whose core business is the utilization of different ODeL methodologies in the delivery of tertiary education and training programs. Before an institution becomes a full member of the AVU, that institution must offer degree and diploma programs brokered by the AVU. We are currently in the process of contextualizing these programs in both Francophone and Anglophone partner institutions. The second category of AVU partner institutions is the Associate Members. These are partner institutions that offer Short Professional and Continuing Education Programs brokered by the AVU. The third category of AVU partners is the Affiliate Partner Institutions. As part of the AVU network, these are institutions which benefit in one way or the other in terms of products that the AVU may offer them. For each of these three categories, our Partner Institutions pay a token membership fee that ranges from US$ 2,000 to US$ 5,000. As we expand our activities, the AVU network will increase exponentially. At the moment we are operating out of 54 institutions in 27 African countries, from Mozambique to Mauritania and from Ghana to Djibouti.
4. How do you judge the role of technology-enhanced learning within the general roadmap of the education supply in Africa?
Technology-enhanced learning offers new vistas for increased and cost-effective access to tertiary education and training in Africa. What technology offers is limitless access (any time, anywhere and on any device) where residential institutions have had serious limitations in terms of financial, material, physical, human, and educational resources. With the use of technology, African students should be able to access digital resources anytime, anywhere, and on any device. The major challenge on the African continent, however, will always be connectivity and bandwidth. Most African institutions experience excess demand and limited supply at all levels. Therefore, the use of blended learning, in which technology plays a key role, will go a long way in alleviating the crisis of the African university in particular as far as equitable access is concerned. Technology enhanced-learning is not a silver bullet to our problems. What it does is that it enables universities to enrol more students and to cut down on costs for textbooks and journals.
5. There are probably significant differences with regard to connectivity, bandwidth, etc. among the African countries. How does this affect the work of your organisation, and how do you deal with it?
Access to affordable and reliable internet connections is a problem prevalent in all African countries. Most universities on the continent are unable to buy sufficient bandwidth to support the educational, research, and administrative needs of students and faculty. This adversely affects delivery and teaching using Open Distance and eLearning methodologies that rely on a high-speed campus backbone. Further, this connectivity challenge results in limited exposure and participation of Africa-based students and faculty to the global development and use of OERs.
The AVU documented some of these challenges in the African Tertiary Institution Connectivity Survey (ATICS) in 2004. As a result of the work conducted by the AVU in bandwidth consolidation, the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa (an initiative by mainly US-based philanthropic organisation that began five years ago to build on momentum within Africa to revitalize institutions of higher education), contracted the AVU to investigate how Partnership-supported universities could benefit from lower bandwidth costs by forming a consortium and purchasing bandwidth in bulk. By leveraging economies of scale, the AVU has been able to lease space on a transponder (93Mpbs) and offer the Universities in the network a price under $2.50 per Kbps.
These savings have been extended to African universities in the network that were previously paying over $20 per Kbps. As a result of the savings, these universities are now able to subscribe to double the amount of bandwidth they had previously subscribed to. They are now able to provide access to resources that are critical to their students and faculty for learning and teaching. It is important to note that last year an ordinary house hold in North America had more bandwidth than a large African university with over 30 000 students! The situation is now changing as a result of this bandwidth initiative.
6. What role do research activities play in the AVU’s structure and how are they integrated?
Within the AVU structure, we have established the Research and Innovation Facility (RIF). The RIF is intended to play a critical role in the development and establishment of a community of practice in basic and applied research in ODeL. At the moment there is a dearth of original basic and applied research on ODeL emanating from Africa. The goal of the RIF is to set up a community of enquirers across the African continent who will engage in discourse practices in research related to ODeL. Within the AVU, the RIF is structurally located in the ODeL Initiative unit and is managed by a Senior Education Specialist who reports to a manager. The head of the RIF has two staff members who report to her. The AVU operates a cross-hierarchical pattern of communication and the RIF in this structure links with all the other departments within the AVU. It is organized in this way because we are all involved in the authentic and endogenous development, management, and dissemination of knowledge in ODeL and especially in relation to OERs in a number of disciplines.
7. Is there a special language policy within AVU?
The AVU is an Inter-Governmental Organization operating all over Africa. We currently use English and French in all our operations. Very soon we will be using Portuguese in our teacher education project which is being rolled out to Mozambique. The long term goal is to use all the official languages of the African Union: Arabic, English, French and Portuguese.
Kuzvinetsa Peter Dzvimbo was born in Zimbabwe. Since 1979 he has been working in tertiary education and training and distance education in Africa. He joined the African Virtual University in September 2003 as Rector from the World Bank in Washington, DC where he was a Senior Education Specialist. He was the founding Vice-Chancellor of the Zimbabwe Open University (ZOU). Prior to that appointment he was a Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ), and Dean in the Faculty of Education at the same institution. He held teaching posts at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (USA); the University of the Witwatersrand and the Rand Afrikaans University in Johannesburg, South Africa; the School of Basic Studies at Ahmadu Bello University (Nigeria); and was a deputy principal of a secondary technical teachers college and trained primary school teachers through distance education in Zimbabwe during the early 1980s.
He obtained his PhD from the University of Wisconsin, Madison (USA); an M.Ed. in Administration and Planning from Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria; a Diploma in Education from Fourah Bay College, the University of Sierra Leone; and a BA from the same university. He has worked in Africa as a consultant in teacher education, educational management and distance education. His main area of interest now is distance teaching, open and electronic learning. He has presented papers on ICTs and tertiary education and training in Africa, Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and the USA.