Africa Digital Campus to support distance education.


Africa Digital Campus (ADC) project has been launched in Benin to strengthen cooperation in distance education and network infrastructure in West Africa.

The Benin campus, launched at the end of October, complements a campus in Burkina Faso that was launched in March 2022 as part of the same project.

The ADC is a two-year e-learning project coordinated by the West and Central African Research and Education Network (WACREN) and the Research Institute for Development, (Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, or IRD) and piloted in two universities.

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They are the National Higher Institute of Industrial Technology of Lokossa in Benin and the Virtual University of Burkina Faso.

The Africa Digital Campus  ADC is financed by the French Development Agency with funds delegated by the European Union within the framework of a programme aimed at connectivity and digital solutions in the spheres of education, health and micro, small and medium enterprises in member states of the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States.

The ACD project has four main components. They include e-learning to strengthen the online training offer of the two beneficiary universities, infrastructure on connectivity and e-learning services and knowledge sharing to exchange experiences and best practices between higher education and research structures offering distance learning.

Another component is advocacy to convince decision-makers to sustainably support the connectivity and distance learning solutions put in place by the project and to scale it up nationally.

Challenges

Samir Khalaf Abd-El-Aal, a research professor at the National Research Centre in Cairo cautiously welcomed the launch of ACD.

“Besides the distance learning platforms in West Africa, ACD could be a good step on the rocky road for enhancing flexible university access and promoting pedagogic innovation,” Abd-El-Aal said.

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In Sub-Saharan Africa, the gross tertiary education enrolment ratio is 9.4%, which is well below the global average of 38%, according to a December 2020 World Bank document, Tertiary Education in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“However, students in West Africa suffer from technical difficulties, including internet access and affordability,” Abd-El-Aal added.

A December 2020 report entitled, How many children and young people have internet access at home?, indicated that only 5% of children and young people in West and Central Africa have internet access at home compared to the 33% global average.

The impact of wealth on internet access is also visible as internet access for the poorest populations is almost non-existent in West and Central Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s most expensive mobile data prices, according to the Worldwide Mobile Data Pricing 2022 report.

As a result, only one person in eight can afford to be online all the time, new research shows.

Offline digital libraries

Abd-El-Aal said: “While working on digital transformation to improve connectivity and affordability in the long term, universities could use offline digital libraries as a solution in the short term.

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“African universities must also join forces with the UNESCO Digital Library Initiative (DLI) for getting offline and battery-powered virtual libraries which bring online educational materials to students with limited or no internet access and power,” he suggested.

“Offline digital libraries as knowledge portals is a realistic and powerful tool for achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4, or quality education, as it ensures that everyone has access to equitable, inclusive and high-quality educational content and information resources at no cost, especially given the digital divide.

“The digital libraries will facilitate direct university access to disadvantaged groups, including students in refugee camps, poor students, internally and forcibly displaced persons, as well as other marginalised groups, along with students in African prisons.”

Digital transformation

Abd-El-Aal said: “Significant digital transformation must be carried out to offer high-quality access to communication networks and services at affordable prices in order to ensure that all students are getting equal access to quality digital learning.

“This could be done by supporting investments in digital infrastructure, IT skills and virtual platforms, along with strengthening the National Research and Education Networks [such as WACREN] in Africa as well as liaising with regional telecommunications companies,” Abd-El-Aal pointed out.

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“Besides promoting the use of zero-rated access to education websites through collaboration with telecommunications companies to provide free online content, African universities must also have partnerships with IT equipment providers to give students access to a laptop or a smartphone to be able to access online content,” Abd-El-Aal concluded.

XN Iraki, an associate professor of data science, innovation and technology management at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, told University World News the challenges that the Africa Digital Campus ADC will face include connectivity and low bandwidth.

According to him, investment in technology to tackle these problems is essential.

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