How to foster key industries with eLearning

Thomson Sinkala

In Zambia, eLearning is very much a pocket initiative according to Professor Thomson Sinkala, one of the country’s most experienced Information and Communication Technology (ICT) experts. The Zambian government now has an action plan for eLearning. Professor Sinkala is involved in carrying out tailor-made programmes for training in mining and in the rising and increasingly valuable Zambian biofuels industry. At eLearning Africa 2010, Professor Sinkala will speak in the ‘Energy Session’, taking a close look at the important role ICT can play in Zambia’s journey towards sustainable and green energy from biofuels and solar energy.

eLA: Professor Sinkala, you are a renowned eLearning generalist, but also contribute profound know-how in particular industries, such as biofuels. One of your latest projects is eLearning for regional mining industries. How important is this for Zambia?

Thomson Sinkala: It seems that there is no real alternative to eLearning when it comes to improving measures to qualify people optimally for key African industries. In Zambia, for example, only three public universities exist. They have an annual number of graduates of about 15,000, yet there are more than 50,000 eligible applicants. In recent years, two new private universities, one of which is an open university, have opened their doors, but these cannot fill the gap sufficiently. In other words, capacities for higher qualification are very limited, eLearning, which includes online and blended learning possibilities, is thus an indispensable measure to widen the scope of training possibilities. Learners are more autonomous in terms of space and time, and training facilities are only needed for short terms of physical presence. Furthermore, through eLearning, we have benefitted from a significant cutback in costs: course fees of USD 1600 for face–to-face training down to USD 1200 for blended learning, and down to only USD 800 for online classes.

eLa: What impact have these programmes had? What have you experienced so far? What about your future expectations?

Thomson Sinkala: The mining industry example proves that a comprehensive and demanding curriculum can be optimally delivered via eLearning. We can also make use of additional expertise from abroad. In our mining project, for instance, we closely cooperate with the University of Arizona, USA.

The biofuels industry is also a very important field of activity, and not only in Zambia, but also in those countries where exploitation of raw materials is strongly supported by the government. It has the potential to stimulate and sustain eLearning activities in all of sub-Saharan Africa. This is because, apart from putting money in people’s pockets and therefore enhancing their ability to pay for educational services, the need to share ideas throughout the value chain of the industry to improve productivity could result in a number of biofuels eLearning courses. In Zambia, we have just acquired tools to start giving face-to-face and eLearning courses in biofuels and are very interested in how these programmes will work.

eLA: You are not only engaged in several regional Zambian eLearning initiatives. You also work for organisations like SANTREN and the it@network, which aim to drive ICT adoption on a transnational basis. What challenges does the African eLearning community face that can only be solved cooperatively?

Thomson Sinkala: Sustainability of eLearning initiatives remains a problem. Many of these end with the termination of external support. As part of sustainability measures, we need to work collaboratively to increase numbers of both the eLearning providers and the learners. We also need to identify and give emphasis to demand-driven courses that are of common interest across the African regions. And, last but not least, we need to share our ideas on solutions for eLearning and how to provide access to eLearning, keeping in mind that access to eLearning is still expensive for the majority of Africa’s populace.

eLA: What do you expect from this year’s eLearning Africa conference in this regard?

Thomson Sinkala: Zambia considers the eLearning Africa conference as a launch pad for eLearning activities. The conference will not only expose Zambians to global eLearning talent, but will also help eLearning players in the country network with international expertise. For this reason, the Government of the Republic of Zambia has embraced this conference at the country’s highest level.

eLA: Professor Sinkala, thank you very much for your time.

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