Afrinet Project

Afrinet Project

                           THE AFRINET PROJECT" 


                          Beryl L. Bellman, 
                      Ph.D. Communication Studies 
              California State University at Los Angeles 


                         Alex Tindimubona, 
                   Ph.D. African Academy of Sciences 
                           Nairobi, Kenya

I. Introduction:

The relationship between information processing and communication on the one hand and modern economic and social development on the other is widely recognized among the African countries. The efficient and effective exchange of information among researchers, educators, administrators, industrialists and policy makers is crucial for the conversion of research results into useful products of economic and social value.

At the research level, interaction and communication with peers and potential users of research results are necessary for the stimulation, self-confidence, relevance and effectiveness of a scientist. Modern scientific research relies heavily on the ability to communicate; gather reliable data; have access to widely dispersed data and information (including analysis); collaborate on projects; hold discussions, meetings, seminars, and conferences; and repackage and disseminate the results. The pace and complexity of modern research have greatly increased the communication needs of researchers, scientists, educators and their institutions. A scientist isolated is a scientist unable to articulate his purpose and needs; such a scientist soon becomes obsolescent. The provision of appropriate information systems and services for this group of information generators therefore becomes apparent.

The dissemination of information to other user groups has to be designed and implemented carefully (IDRC,1989 [ww.p 16]). Sometimes the information has to be repackaged or consolidated before delivery to specific target audiences. For example, published results of scientific and technological research on agriculture, health, the environment, economics etc., must be repackaged to be understood by administrators, policy makers, extension workers and other intermediaries, as well as by the final users such as farmers and the community at large. This calls for innovative and appropriate methods, media and techniques, such as print and non-print forms, audio-visual, or even oral according to the prevailing conditions and/or traditions.

The phenomenal improvements in information processing and communication capability brought about by rapid, convergent developments in computer and telecommunication technologies are also well recognized in Africa. This enhanced awareness of potential opportunities is indicated by visible efforts in many African countries to create and sustain the enabling institutional and human environment for utilizing these new capabilities. A recent study group (BOSTID,1990) was "impressed to find virtually all the modern information technologies already in use in some African institutions." These technologies encompass: desktop publishing; CD-ROM and other databases; electronic mail and computer conferencing; as well as telefax. The population of microcomputers was significant and growing rapidly (In Kenya we estimate that from about 200 computers in 1980, there are now at least 2,000, and probably closer to 10,000 units in 1990 in educational, business, NGO and governmental environments). And there are tens of world-class projects and systems, especially in international business(banks, airlines etc.), institutions based on the continent; as well as exciting instances of rural and grass-roots projects (e.g. Aga Khan Computers in Kenyan Schools project; UNESCO rural journalism project in Kenya; Prof. P.N. Nkwi's project in rural Cameroon etc).

II. The Afrinet Project:

This paper describes the development of a collaborative technology project combining computer conferencing, videotext (VTX), electronic mail, and computer phone to create a distributed educational, scientific, and social development research network that networks a number of African universities and scientific research organizations with each other and with international academic and scientific institutions. In addition to the academic conferences we will network a number of international scientists together into a series of conferences dealing with issues ranging from biotechnology, food systems, cooperative development, business and public administration management, biomedical research to the social sciences and humanities. Although these conferences will supplement many of the courses we offer online, they will be independent of them and promote collaborative and conjoint research efforts among the international participants. Using VTX videotext we will establish a number of scientific data bases of African research materials that will be distributed among several African nodes, as well as develop others on international nodes that pertain to African scientific research and academic interests. We will also network social and community development groups online, and organize both academic and commercial uses of the network. In this manner we will build a sustainable network combining academic, social development and commercial interests and support.

We are designing a distributed international DECNET VAX Mail, VAXNotes computer conferencing and VTX videotext network which will interconnect host computers in several African universities and research institutions with a number of universities in the United States, Mexico, Argentina and Ireland that are currently part of the BESTNET VAX based academic computer communications network. The conferencing software will be used to establish on-line or virtual scientific research laboratories and to conduct seminars, distance education courses and social development projects. VTX Videotext will be used to establish scientific research and library data bases stored as separate pages on each of the separate nodes. In addition, we will develop a front end containing gateways from the BESTNET network into the NSF supercomputer backbone to provide African scientists and researchers access to those facilities. We will encapsulate DEC-NET for transmission over the TCP/IP Internet, and establish a wide area network between the VAX computers so all can be accessed from any of the nodes.

This project stems from a series of meetings sponsored by Digital Equipment Corporation for the global extension of BESTNET into Africa. These meetings involved representatives from the National Science Foundation (NSFNET division), National Academy of Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Bank, Agricultural Cooperatives Development International, USAID, the African Development Foundation and the California State University system. These representatives met with representatives from several organizations internal to Digital who are in support of this effort. As a result of those meetings it was decided that the African Academy of Sciences was the appropriate African organization with which to work, and that the California State University and BESTNET should co-develop proposals with them to Digital, NSF and other sources of funding to establish an African computer communications network and integrate it with the already functioning and Digital supported BESTNET project.

III. A Profile of the African Academy of Sciences

The African Academy of Sciences is a continent-wide, non- governmental, non-political and non-profit organization of senior scientists, science policy experts and science managers with its secretariat in Nairobi, Kenya. Started in 1985, it is dedicated to the promotion of science and technology for development. It does this through a vigorous program of activities spanning mobilization and strengthening of the African scientific community; networking; publication and dissemination of scientific materials; policy research; and capacity building in science and technology.

The Academy operates as a multi-level network of individuals and institutions. As an honorific society, its membership of Fellows who are elected annually on criteria of excellence and contribution to African science has reached 86 persons in 25 countries. Its Network of Scientific Organizations (NASO), within which the AFRINET project is to be situated, is another formal mechanism for the generation and exchange of ideas which will immediately benefit from computer-based networking. It has already attracted 118 members from 30 countries.

Many of the Academy's projects are designed to serve and involve scientists, industrialist and policy makers and society in general beyond the formal membership of the Academy. Its Profiles and Databank of African Scientists and Scientific Institutions is open to all and already covers thousands of scientists in over 40 countries. Whydah, the Academy's quarterly newsletter is mailed to 4,000 people all over the world; and Discovery and Innovation, the Academy's multi-disciplinary, peer- reviewed quarterly journal has touched the lives of thousands of scientists in hundreds of institutions the world over as authors, reviewers, subscribers and readers. The Academy's think-tank called the Special Commission on Africa, which meets regularly to deliberate on Africa's problems and make recommendations, is already an authoritative developer of informed discourse on Africa' future as well as on the interaction between research, development and public policy. The Academy has recently entered the area of research funding through two projects on Capacity Building in Forestry Research (CBFR), and Capacity Building in Soil and Water Management (SWM). Through these projects, the Academy is developing a deep and extensive knowledge of Africa's scientific resources and how they may be enhanced in order to contribute more effectively to the continent's science-driven development. It also organizes conferences, meetings and symposia, publishes monographs, proceedings and reports as well as encouraging other regional organizations through specific assistance programs. It has therefore established itself as a major pan-African forum for scientific and intellectual discourse and communication, as well as the key place in efforts to bridge the gap between scientists, industrialists and policy makers in the drive towards Africa's social development. AAS collaborates with other African and international organizations in implementing specific programs, which in turn are generously supported by many donor institutions, both public and private.

The Academy enjoys great geopolitical support from Africa's leaders, many of whom already actively participate in Academy programs (e.g. the Management of Science Project chaired by General Olusegun Obasanjo, former Head of State of Nigeria). AAS is developing its charter for presentation to African governments. Once this is accepted and subscribed to, the AAS's formal recognition as an international organization with diplomatic status will be complete. This diplomatic exercise is at an advanced stage, more so with the host country, Kenya. This already eases the operational transactions of the Academy involving the movement of its officers, staff and collaborators, funds and duty-free acquisition of equipment and supplies. The Academy has set up a high caliber secretariat of international professionals and support staff backed by modern managerial and information processing and communications systems of world standard. Most of the operations are computerized, including desktop publishing with acceptance of computer readable materials. It is therefore clear that the Academy itself would be a large user of computer networking.

IV. A Profile of BESTNET

The Bestnet project involves hundreds of students each year from over a dozen institutions in the United States and Mexico. Recently, we extended the network to include students and colleagues in Argentina and Canada, and now will soon be involving universities in Kenya and Zimbabwe. We accomplished this by establishing a distributed computer conferencing and videotext network over NSF-NET, which interconnects host computers at university campuses. We utilize VAXNotes conferencing software for on-line courses, seminars and faculty research discussions and VTX videotext for library data bases and other course materials that are stored on each of the separate nodes. The Digital Equipment Corporation is co-sponsoring this project with external research grants and is providing several MicroVax computers containing the Digital educational library of software, VAX Notes conferencing and VTX videotext to universities in the United States, Latin America and Africa. We encapsulate DEC-NET for transmission over the TCP/IP Internet, and establish a wide area network between the VAX computers so all can be accessed from any of the nodes.

Faculty at each institution teach on-line university credit courses in biological, natural and social sciences at their local nodes. These course conferences are open for students enrolled at all institutions. In this manner students interact with each other and other participating faculty across the institutions as a regular part of each class. They do so by signing on to their local university VAX computers that are connected to NSF- NET/Internet. The lists of conferences that appear their computer screens are being distributed among the campus nodes. However, students enter any given conference from their local node and DECNET interconnects to the distant node where it is housed. Thus, from the users point of view the distributed network will appear seamless.

In addition to the conferences faculty put scientific data bases on the VAXes and make them available to other participating faculty and their students. These data bases are accessed using distributed VTX videotext. When students and faculty log onto their local host they encounter a videotext front end that gives them a choice between using computer conferencing, videotext data bases, electronic mail or computer phone (for synchronous interaction). The front end is now being designed to make it tailorable to the social, cultural and language factors that characterize different types of user groups involved in the BESTNET project.

In addition to the collaboration of VAXnotes conferencing and VTX videotext our distributed network also includes electronic mail and a computer phone or chat utility. Mail is used for private communications with faculty, teaching assistants and other students, and phone for on-line synchronous office hours and technical assistance. BESTNET represents the first use of a fully distributed computer communications network, which is encapsulated as a independent system over the NSF-NET/Internet. The ease of functionality in our distributed conferencing, videotext, mail and computer phone will greatly facilitate the use of NSF-NET for both on campus lab based and off campus distant education programs.

VI. The Viability of Computer Communications for Distance Education and Scientific Collaboration:

The following are some of what we have learned in the course of the project. These findings were based on research conducted by faculty using a combination of user interviews and content analyses of conferences for various types of courses and collaborative research projects. These findings are summarized as follows:

1. The technology greatly augments regular classroom instruction as well as is a viable technology for off campus or distant education.

2. Computer conferencing is a viable interactive component to video or instructional television courses by providing individualized attention to student needs and requirements that can not be obtained using traditional methods of audio and video feedback.

3. Computer conferencing supports a socratic method of instruction, whereby students are much more actively involved in the learning process rather than being passive recipients.

4. Computer conferencing and supportive technologies (EMAIL and computer phone) promotes participation and learning in traditionally communicative apprehensive learners.

5. The technology greatly augments student interaction and promotes attitudes that such learning is more legitimate as part of the pedagogical process. In traditional classroom situations students are often reluctant to interact with others except the instructors, whereas computer communications promotes student to student interaction.

6. The anonymity of the technology promotes discussion that otherwise would be inhibited out of concern for student negative face-to-face feedback.

7. The technology is particularly useful for facilitating group discussion and criticism in virtually all areas of the curriculum.

8. The technology facilitates writing across the curriculum, and greatly improves student writing, editorial and logical skills.

9. The technology is particularly viable for reaching linguistically and culturally diverse learners, and has been positively accessed in student evaluations.

10. When the technology is used along side video presentations of lectures that students move faster than the televised segments. Where at first we used compute communications to augment and supplement video instruction, we now use video to supplement computer communications delivered instruction.

11. Students are able to master the basics of VAXNotes in a single lab session if they are required to immediately begin doing online assignments. However, user-consultant assistance is required for troubleshooting during the first two weeks of instruction. The basics include: accessing server, entering username and password, opening notes, reading topics and replies, writing a topic and writing a reply, leaving notes and logging off the system.

12. Computer naive students learned with equal facility as those more sophisticated with the technology.

13. Social science and humanities students having some word processing skills learned and accepted the technology at an equivalent level with students taking computer science courses (e.g., our Pascal, C and data structures courses).

14. Topics and reply branches are particularly viable for online terminal mode interaction.

15. Some online terminal mode activity is important for developing attitudes of connectivity with their diversified electronic groups - both for computer phone online office hours and for asychronous terminal mode writing in conferences.

16. The computer phone utility facilitates the development of asychronous conferencing skills.

17. The computer phone utility is useful for online user consultant assistance.

18. Students particularly adapt to the technology when interacting with students from distant locations and campuses.

19. We learned how to use group reading of conference notes in a class to promote discussion with students on distant campuses and international locations.

20. Thinking textual is sufficient to improve literacy even when a liberal attitude is taken toward grammar, syntax and spelling.

21. Writing skills improve with active participation in computer conferences.

22. The anonymity of the medium is sufficient to promote critical discussion, and is as effective as anonymity of identity in conferences.

23. The connectivity of the medium promotes friendly attitudes towards those engaged in discussion.

24. The medium promotes more critical than hostile competitive discussion.

25. VAXnotes promotes stronger group attitudes and participation than Email distribution list organized conferences.

26. The Internet can be used to establish an international distributed VAXnotes network.

27. The distributed network is crucial for multiple campus participation, technology transfer and local capacity building.

28. The technology promotes collaborative research among faculty by expanding networks of scholars.

30. Because conferences are logged by time and date of entry there are intellectual property rights recognitions built into the mode of communication.

VII. Networking the AAS and BESTNET

At the present times there are no Internet nodes in sub-Saharan Africa. We are developing a cooperative National Science Foundation proposal between US universities with the African Academy of Sciences to that end. However, to immediately implement the project we are initially developing the network by encapsulating DECNET for X.25 networks currently operating in Africa. These public data networks will permit the networking of computers in the selected African countries - Kenya and Zimbabwe, which will then transmit to the California State University systemwide computer communications network - CSUNET. This network is the largest internal academic regional network. It is based on the CCITT X.25, and encapsulates other major protocols, including TCP/IP, SNA/SDLS, DECNET, AppleTalk, Bisync and X.3 Pad. This will allow the CSUNET to de-encapsulate DECNET from X.25 once received and then re-encapsulate into TCP/IP for interconnection into the distributed BESTNET network with gateways into NSFNET and the Supercomputer Center Network.

In this manner we will immediately be able to interconnect VAX computers at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare with those at the African Academy of Sciences in conjunction with the University of Kenya in Nairobi. We also propose to provide smaller MicroVAX computers to university and related scientific laboratories in other neighboring countries where local telephone capabilities and national policies allow. This will permit much needed computer communications interactions between African scientists in pest research, marine biology and fisheries research, biomedical sciences, natural products development, agronomy, community development and science/social science policy.

Usingthe international X.25 connection into CSUNET these scientists also interact with colleagues in the United States, Latin America and Europe who are involved in the BESTNET network, and have a direct gateway into international scientific and library data bases, and be provided access and accounts at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. Concomitantly, international scholars will have access to African researchers and their respective databases stored as distributed pages of VTX videotext on the African based VAX computers. In this manner, we will promote computer communications supported collaborative work and research between African scientists, and with international scholars outside of the continent.

In addition, students and faculty from the African universities in will interact with students and faculty in the United States and Latin America who are already taking part in an international computer communications network, BESTNET. In this manner there will be an ongoing virtual exchange of students and faculty. Courses will be offered to students in different countries as preliminary to onsite exchanges already being developed by the California State University system and campuses. In addition, other courses will be co-taught by faculty across international boundaries and students will be in continual contact with colleagues and research issues in otherwise impossible ways. Students will take courses in biological, natural, social and communications sciences at their local nodes. These course conferences will be open for students enrolled at all institutions. They will do so by signing on to their local university VAX computers that are connected to the Internet or, initially in Africa, by computers connected to it through the CSUNET gateways. The lists of conferences that appear their computer screens will be distributed among the international universities. However, students enter any given conference from their local node and DECNET will interconnect to the distant node where it is housed. Thus, from the users point of view the distributed network will appear seamless.

We are now engaged in initiating for Winter term a collaboratively taught course between faculty at the United States institutions and the Department of Journalism and Communications at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. The course involves 14 hours of video recorded documentary information about various new communication technologies (from ISBN, fiber optics to supercomputers), and computer conferencing led discussions. The course has already been offered in the United States and Mexico by faculty from the California State University, and will be offered again in conjunction with African student participation. In the United States version of the course students do not meet face-to- face with the professor, but only interact using computer conferencing and electronic mail. We have made PAL versions of the tapes and are supplying them to the University of Nairobi and the University of Zimbabwe. Faculty at the latter institution will observe, and possibly have some students take part. However, as discussed below, the technical capability of Kenya via their new data packet network - KENPAK, is making possible more comprehensive interaction in this trial course.

In addition to the conferences faculty will put scientific data bases on the VAXes and make them available to other participating faculty and their students. These data bases will be accessed using distributed VTX videotext. When students and faculty log onto their local host they encounter a videotext front end that gives them a choice between using computer conferencing, videotext data bases, electronic mail or computer phone (for synchronous interaction). If they wish to access a particular data base they select that menu option, which brings up another menu listing the data bases available in the project. The next page of videotext will call up the distributed VTX network, and interconnect users with data bases on distant nodes. The distributed data bases will also be organized by VTX, such that there will be a standardization of features to use for search, retrieval and editing. In addition to the collaboration of VAXnotes conferencing and VTX videotext our distributed network also includes electronic mail and a computer phone or chat utility. Because our network is connected using the Internet, all accounts on the network will automatically allow Internet interactivity.

Our project is the first use of a fully distributed computer communications network, which will be encapsulated as an independent system over the NSF-NET/Internet with gateways to KENPAK, ZIMPAK (in Zimbabwe) and other X.25 networks. The ease of functionality in our distributed conferencing, videotext, mail and computer phone will greatly facilitate the use of computer communications both scientific research and international distant education programs between African and international institutions.

The following is a diagram of the distributed collaborative work environment we are developing in Africa.

           Diagram 1:  Distributed Collaborative Environment

node 1:                    __________                                                          
                          : African  :
                          :Academy of:
                          : Sciences :
                          : Kenya    :
                           PESTNET conferences
                           PESTNET database
                           Natural Products Research Conf. & DB
                           Agricultural Coop conferences
                           Community Development conferences
                           Univer. of Nairobi Courses
 ___________                                  _______________
: node 2    :                                :node 3         :
:Univ of    :                                :Kenya Marine & :
:Zimbabwe   :                                :Fisheries Inst.:
:___________:                                :Mombasa        :
PESTNET Data base                            African Fishnet
Agricultural Coop College Conf.              conferences &
Local Products Develop conferences           Database
Community  Development  data  base           Marine science
Biomedical research database                 seminar conference
University courses

 _____________________                        _________________
:      Node      4    :                      :Node 5           :
: Makerere University :                      : University of   :
: Kampala, Uganda     :                      : Dar es Salaam   :
: planned 2nd phase   :                      : Tanzania        :
:_____________________:                      :planned 2nd phase:
Community  Development conference             Community  Develop.
Agricultural Coop conferences                 Agric. Coop DB
Biomedical research database                  Biomed DB
Pestnet database                              Pestnet DB
Local products development database           Local prod. DB
University courses                            Univ. courses

                         : CSUNET   :
                         :          :
                         :gateway to:
                         :BESTNET & :
                         :NSFNET -  :
The project is organized according to priorities specifically outlined in the IDRC manual SHARING KNOWLEDGE FOR DEVELOPMENT: IDRC'S INFORMATION STRATEGY FOR AFRICA.

From:IN%"" "Baobab Communications" 19-NOV-1991 22:22:23.69
(Communications Professor,CSULA)

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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