African Education Research Network (AERN)

African Education Research Network (AERN)


Milton E. Ploghoft/ Professor Emeritus/ Ohio University/Athens, OH Copyright Sept. 1993. E-mail address: [Paper presented at Oxford Conference, Oxford University, Sept.24-28, 1993]. Keywords: African Education Research Network (AERN).

This paper has been drawn from the description of a project that is presently being undertaken by the Ohio University Libraries in collaboration with other associated universities of the African Educational Research Network that was established in 1992 by eight universities in Canada, Nigeria, Kenya, Lesotho, the United States and the United Kingdom. The brief discussion of the "crisis" in African educational research capacity and the commentary on the present status of computer networking in Africa are offered here in support of the position that calls for much more extensive and specific uses of electronic information exchange in the processes of building research capacities at institutional levels and the development of research capabilities at the level of the individual graduate student. Comments, criticisms and suggestions are invited.

** The Project Purpose

The purpose of the proposed project is to determine and to develop the conditions under which the uses of computer networking will greatly enhance communications between educational researchers (professors and graduate students) in "northern" universities and their counterparts in African universities in a manner, and to a degree, that will strengthen research capacities in African universities. Further purposes include determining the conditions necessary for sustainability of the electronic network.The development of appropriate strategies for extending network access to increasing numbers of African educational researchers so as to contribute to the increase in trans-African communications as well.

A purpose which may be classified as "enabling", is to more completely utilize the resources of "northern" universities where, it has been observed, the bulk of information about Africa rests, often inaccessible to African researchers. The North American repositories of the government documents for Botswana, Swaziland and Malaysia at Ohio University offer a case in point. The establishment of an "African gopher hole" at Ohio University's Library to serve the needs of all students of African educational development is a goal that is reasonably related to this purpose.

The restructuring of graduate programs of African students to assure that the context of the environments of African educational development are incorporated to the fullest extent that is practical is yet another purpose that lies within the spirit and the substance of the AERN. The inclusion of training in computer uses and wide area networking is essential to development of research leadership for the 21st century.

The project proposed here has been designed after extensive references to similar activities that have been, and are being, carried out in both the "first" world and the "third" world. The writers of the proposal, and the members of the AERN, have had the benefit of the experiences of many others. Although this is not, then, a journey into unexplored waters, it is appropriate to view the project as a unique venture in research capacity building through electronic information exchanging and training of persons who have been historically overlooked in this process.

** The Crisis in African University Research Capacities

It is generally accepted by African education authorities, and by scholars in the "north" who specialize in African educational development, that there is a continuing crisis in African universities regarding their capacities to create and sustain the levels and quality of educational research that are essential to national development and autonomy. The factors that contribute to this crisis include the isolation of aspiring researchers whose institutions lack the means to support either their research interests or participation in regional conferences and seminars where studies in progress and studies completed are considered.

The growth of a viable community of African scholars may be constrained by the considerable numbers of expatriate professors who often have professional and personal agendas that differ markedly from those of African education development. Limitations of time to carry out needed research hamper the work of the neophyte African scholar, and funds to provide the necessary references, materials, equipment and communications services further erode the capacities of African universities to deal seriously and effectively with the issues that must be investigated if national policies are to be born of reality.

Many experts in African educational development have assessed the situation. Most notably, within the past few years, have been the conclusions of Dr. Kabiru Kinyanjui, senior program officer of the IDRC in Nairobi, and Professor Trevor Coombe. Kinyanjui estimates that research capacities of African universities have declined by as much as 50% in the past decade.(1) Coombe reports, in his Consultancy on African Higher Education, that the most commonly expressed concern of vice-chancellors is for increased contact of their faculties with colleagues in other universities, both within and outside of their respective nations. The emergence of a community of African scholars is essential to the future of the African universities; effective and efficient means of communication is a prerequisite to the emergence of such a community.(2)

Mayuri Odedra has observed that 90% of the information about Africa probably lies on data bases in the "west," that communications between African nations and their former colonial "metropoles" are better and more frequent than are direct connections across the nations of Africa. Odedra points to the field of education where she sees the "communication/information" problem as being most manifest. The lack of journals, books, opportunities to publish their works, travel to conferences, all contribute to a growing sense of isolation. ( A 20 minute phone call from Zambia to the U.S. can cost a month's wages for the Zambian professor.) (3)

Research capacity building, which can be a challenge to universities in the "first" world where declining budgets and increasing teaching loads present barriers, assumes overwhelming proportions in African nations where conventional means to academic communication are not accessible. Odedra, and others, look to the broad array of information technologies as a means to "leapfrogging" the communication barrier. The application of computer technology has been productive in similar situations.

** Computer Networking and Research Capacity Building

The utilization of computer technology to establish and sustain communications amongst educators across national boundaries deserves serious consideration and trial. Since WWII, thousands of African students have earned advanced degrees in universities of the "north." Technical assistance programs have contributed to the existence of a vital cadre of "northern" professors who have worked alongside their African colleagues in educational development. African educators and their counterparts in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Western Europe share rich conceptual foundations regarding the complex processes of education. The reasons and the motivations for efficient and substantive communications between African scholars and their colleagues in the "north" are many and well understood. The foundations for acceptance and use of electronic information exchanges have been firmly established.

Computer networks will enable researchers to communicate in efficient and effective manners with colleagues without regard to the time and distances involved. The isolation to which Kinyanjui and Coombe referred can be at least partially diminished; the exchanges amongst researchers will not have to depend solely upon the annual conferences which only a small portion of African scholars can afford to attend. The extreme dependence upon journals from the "north" can be lessened.

** African Networking: Other Experiences

The African Educational Computer Research Network that is proposed will draw upon the experiences of the growing number of network developments in both the "first" and "third" worlds. The work of RINAF, the Regional Information Network for Africa, has been especially helpful in collecting and disseminating information regarding the use of telecommunication technologies within and among the nations of Africa. RINAF was conceived in 1985 by the Intergovernment Informatics Program of UNESCO, but it was 1991 before RINAF became operational with support from the Italian government in the amount of about one million US dollars.(4) The early work of RINAF provides valuable insights to the development of the AERN "computer mediated services" which have specially defined purposes and rather narrowly defined outcomes regarding impact upon development of individual research capabilities and institutional research capacities.

Bellman and Tindimubona, in a paper dealing with "Global Networks and International Communications:AFRINET", report that a BOSTID study in 1990, found that "virtually all the modern information technologies are in use in some African institutions." There were probably close to 10,000 computers in use in business, education, NGOs and governmental sites in Kenya.(5) The acceptance of "new" technologies by a wide array of African institutions seems to have outstripped the pace of support that is needed from external sources, both public and private.

Existing networks most frequently attend to the needs of scientific and economic development. The acronyms reveal their orientations. PESTNET, PMDISS, NAPRECA, KEMFRI, RECOSCIX and AFSTINET are concerned with information exchange regarding pests, pest management documentation, national products research, marines and fisheries, and scientific and technology exchange. In the competition for research and development monies, education is frequently at a disadvantage; the pattern seems to be repeated with respect to networking.

BESTNET initially involved hundreds of students each year from more than a dozen institutions in the United States and Mexico in on-line instruction by faculty members in the biological, natural and social sciences. This was supplemented later by a computer conferencing video- text network. Canada, Argentina, Zimbabwe and Kenya were scheduled to join BESTNET.(6) The BESTNET development is instructive on both technological and pedagogical levels. The efforts of the AERN to bring the resources of African graduate students in the "north" to bear upon the crisis in research capacities in African universities will be enlightened by BESTNET and other initiatives.

Daniel Pimienta, REDALC project director in Santo Domingo, offers comprehensive guidance regarding the founding and implementation of research networks in the "third" world in his paper, "Research Networks in Developing Countries: Not Exactly the Same Thing." Pimienta advises that countries that have little or no network access should NOT be avoided, since the number of potential users and the benefits are of primary importance. Building a network, in the view of Pimienta, has much more to do with the gathering of people under a common, structured organization that with the installing of hardware and software.(7)

Finally, Pimienta calls for the "use of national researchers in foreign countries to support the (networking) development. They are useful to create(sic) user traffic for the initial step, they can help new networkers from their countries find their ways in the matrix, and later on they will channel a lot of cooperative exchanges."

How Does the AERN Initiative Differ? The proposed research network views the African graduate student in the universities of the "north" as an important part of the solution to the crisis in research capacities of African universities. The joining of these African students and their professors to their counterparts in their "home" universities is calculated to reduce the isolation of the African professors from the research community. At the same time, the "communication" distance that separates the African students from the contexts of educational development in their respective nations can be overcome. These linking relationships, supported by computer technology, will stimulate institutional initiatives and responses that will enhance research capacities.

REFERENCES: 1. Kabiru Kinyanjui, Senior Program Officer, IDRC, Nairobi, "The Crisis in Educational Research Capacity in African Universities," in an address to the Donors to African Education Working Group, Dakar, 1991. 2. Trevor Coombe, :A Consultancy in Higher Education in Africa" 1991; available from the African Educational Research Network, Ohio University. 3. M. Odedra, M. Lawrie, M. Bennett and S. Goodman, "Information Technologies in Sub-Saharan Africa." International Perspectives, CACM, 1992.(Contact Mike Lawrie, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa) 4. L. Abba, S. Giordano, S. Trumpy, "Rinaf: A Network Intercommunication Project of Academic Research Institutions in Africa. CNUCE Institute of CNR, Pisa, Italy. 5. Beryl Bellman and Alex Tindimubone, "Global Networks and International Communication: AFRINET" Paper presented at the African Studies Association Meeting, St. Louis,Mo. 1991. 6. Bellman and Tindimubone 7. Daniel Pimienta, REDUC Director, "Research Networking in Developing Countries," Santo Domingo 1992

Other sources:

"Guidelines for a Computer Network Interconnection for African Countries." UNESCO, IIP, 1992.


(S.C. Bhatnager, ed.) Tata McGraw-Hill 1992

Mike Lawrie,"Some Suggestions Regarding E-Mail in Africa," National Conference of the Computer Association of Nigeria, Lagos, 1993. (See contact address in # 3)

Date:  Tue, 12 Oct 1993 12:59:53 EDT
Sender:  Information Techonlogy and Africa 

From: "Michel S. Perdreau" 

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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