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eLearning to boost economies in Africa

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Prof. Thomson Sinkala is the Management Coordinator of Ipembo Campus (www.ipembo-campus.com) and lectures at the University of Zambia. He is also the Managing Director of Thomro Investments Ltd. (www.thomro-zambia.com) and Biomass Development PLC, a recently established firm that focuses on the biodiesel industry (http://www.biomass-plc.com).

Since 1999, Prof. Sinkala has been Head of eLearning for the Southern African Network for Training and Research in Environment (SANTREN) (www.santren.com). He also has numerous other professional commitments, which include serving as Chairperson of the IT@AB (Information Technology in African Business) Network, a network of business and professional organizations in the SADC Region (http://www.it-ab.net). He is also Vice-Chairperson of the Southern African Network for Educational Technology and eLearning for Development (SANTEC) (www.santecnetwork.org). Furthermore, he is Coordinator of the Zambia Centre for Bridging the Digital Divide and also Chairman of the Technical Committee of the Zambia Forum for Environmental Information and Network Management Systems (EINMS).

Among his current projects is the introduction of eLearning course delivery in the project funded by the Fogarty International Center of the USA, involving the Copperbelt University in Zambia, the University of Arizona in the USA, the University of Zambia and the University of Zimbabwe.

eLA: Looking back at the first eLearning Africa conference, what do you expect from European – African collaboration in the field of eLearning and ICT in education?

Europe is obviously very advanced in research, development and application of ICT in most of the areas of human endeavour, although of course there is still room for improvement. As usual, Africa is still lagging way behind in all these areas. Looking at Africa’s, especially the sub-Saharan region’s, deplorable infrastructure, the Continent needs ICT even more than Europe does since European infrastructure is highly developed.

Africa right now faces a very big challenge to satisfy educational needs. The scale of investment in education in relation to the rate of population growth is small. Reasons include poorly performing economies, misplaced priorities and the high investment required to develop and run physical institutions.

Although eLearning is not a substitute to f2f education, it is a worthwhile option in terms of costs of investment in education. It is much better for the disadvantaged to attain some form of education than nothing at all. Furthermore, eLearning offers a multiplicity of education and exposure due to the nature of the world of computers and the Internet.

Looking back at the first eLearning Africa conference, I expect the continuation of the forum to provide a platform for the exchange of experiences between Europe and Africa and for Europe to direct part of its ICT development energy towards Africa’s needs.

Europe through the EU has planned significant investment in collaborative research in ICT under Framework Programme (FP) 7. Africa should take advantage of this to partner with Europe in the hope that Africa can experience increased productisation (The act or process of packaging raw functionality into a usable product) of the many existing and new ideas on eLearning towards meeting Africa’s educational needs.

eLA: What is the Santren Network and how does it work?

The Southern African Network for Training and Research on the Environment (SANTREN) is made up of research and educational institutions and professionals in the SADC region. Its main objective is demand-oriented contribution to the improvement of information and the training courses in the SADC region in order to support efforts towards environmentally sustainable development. It was formed and launched in September 1996 in Ndola, Zambia, as a collaborative programme with initial funding from Germany’s Carl Duisberg Gesellschaft (CDG) of.

The office of SANTREN is run by a Management Board whose secretariat is currently hosted by the Institute of Environmental Studies (IES) of the University of Zimbabwe in Harare.

The network functions through working groups, each group focussing on a case study arising from needs surveys. The working groups, led by coordinators, are composed of multi-disciplinary professional members aimed at giving a combined “treat” to projects. Meetings, workshops, courses and research activities facilitate an intensive exchange of information and the promotion of new ideas towards training and capacity building to deal with the ever-challenging environmental issues arising in the region and beyond.

Since 1996, SANTREN has been developing courses for face-to-face delivery. However, a questionnaire undertaken in mid-2000 in the SADC region revealed that many potential participants would not normally be permitted to leave their workplaces to attend the courses.

Following a positive response to the same questionnaire on the need for Internet-based courses, SANTREN decided to introduce eLearning courses for stakeholders in the SADC Region. This move has not only created the possibility to reach a larger number of participants, but the cost of participation is low compared to standard “face-to-face” methods of course delivery. Thus, more learners have an opportunity to improve their knowledge and skills without necessarily leaving their work places or homes.

eLA: You have long experience as a consultant and you are the speaker for the it@ab network. How do you try to involve the local business sector? Could you name a few examples?

The Southern African Knowledge Network it@ab was established to facilitate cross-border cooperation of IT-institutions and specialists within Africa. The network aims at the participation of SMEs, institutions and governmental bodies in the field of eBusiness development and IT training and the promotion of local and regional business cooperation. About thirty institutions with some hundred IT experts and software programmers in seven SADC member states have been drawn together under the network’s umbrella since 2001 and serve as multipliers for innovation and technology exchange. it@ab, drawn from the business sector and public IT institutions, mainly consists of IT consulting firms, IT training institutions, business promotion agencies and universities.

Members of it@ab collaborate in bidding for projects and thereby apply synergies to meet client needs. Examples include the World Bank Infodev project in which BITS (a private IT company), Telecom Namibia (a para-statal company) and the University of Namibia collaborated; and the INWENT blended-learning project in which Matrix (a private IT company), Mondlane University in Mozambique and the University of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania collaborated.

The countries participating in it@ab at present include Angola, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia.

eLA: In the field of eLearning and education in general there are many similar individual projects in Africa underway, some promoted by international organisations and others funded through national ICT or education policy programmes. At eLearning Africa many projects realised for the first time that there were peers working on the same problems. Which efforts can be made that try to bundle those activities (and resources) for maximum effect and in order to avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’?

This is a very important question. In my opinion, consideration can be given to developing networks composed of groups focusing on similar issues. A design similar to that of SANTREN in the SADC Region or EUREKA (www.eureka.be) in Europe would be examples. In the SADC Region, each participating institution and professional had been carrying out environmental work. For their participation in SANTREN, those with similar interests have formed respective groups, not only to work on common projects, but also to create an environment for synergies.

This kind of approach will save costs and will also enable the realisation of results much faster for participating institutions and their members.

eLA: What do you consider the most important ICT development or tool recently – e. g. the one with the largest potential to help development in Africa?

The Internet has the highest potential to help Africa leap frog in its development. eGovernment, eHealth, eLearning, eBusiness/Commerce, VoIP, etc. can all be applied using the same tool. These services are essential because there is poor or no physical infrastructure linking remote parts of countries and in the wake of inadequate investments in the infrastructure for basic services in Africa.

eLA: What is your impression from the first eLearning Africa conference?

The recently held first eLearning Africa conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia is a very important event for Africa. It was an eye opener for most, if not all, of the participants as regards the initiatives taking place elsewhere in Africa and to some extent in Europe and other continents. The forum gave an indication of the varying levels of eLearning efforts in the African countries represented.

Very important also is that a pace has been set for possible collaborative activities within Africa and between Africa and other continents. African countries that did not participate at the government level are likely to get wind of it and we may soon experience elevated events in continuation that focus on eLearning. The conference is also a booster to Africa’s on-going eLearning efforts, which at present may be considered to be “pocket” initiatives.

One very important subject I would like to see continue is the issue of the sustainability of eLearning initiatives. Like in many other projects, economic empowerment of target groups as a way of achieving sustainability appears to take a subordinate position (or none at all) in many projects. In the end, such projects risk being viewed as only passions of the “elite”.

Thank you very much for this opportunity to share my views on eLearning and related initiatives.

eLA: Prof Sinkala, many thanks for your time indeed.



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2 Comments

  1. Excellent list..can give a lot of insights on elearning industry, Thankyou

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