Friday, September 12, 2008

Sub-Saharan universities train in Web 2.0 tools

By Edris Kisambira

Representatives from 12 universities in eight sub-Saharan countries are meeting in Uganda to train in the use of Web 2.0 tools and open-source software.

The training in Web 2.0 tools is aimed at enabling the 35 lecturers and professors to carry out collaborative research in the field of agriculture, while the training in open-source software seeks to popularize the medium among higher institutions of learning.

"We are here to learn about Web 2.0 tools to enable us to do collaborative research projects, to teach using these tools and to also do a number of other collaborative projects without having to meet physically," Nodumo Dhlamini, ICT director at Zimbabwe's Africa University, said in an interview. "At the end of the day, we want to impact on the rural farmer, to make a difference and make ourselves relevant, as well."

Those involved in the training hail from universities in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The tools that members are familiarizing themselves with include wikis, blogs, Skype and social-networking sites like Facebook.com.

"Right now, we have set up a wiki so that when we go back to our respective countries, any collaborative activity will be posted there so that we can share in what everybody is doing," Dhlamini said.

"We are creating more of an educational network to tap into resources," she added, "and this will also open us up to the rest of the world so that people out there know what we are doing."

The training in open-source software is designed to create awareness among educational institutions of a cheaper and more secure alternative to the pirated software that many universities have installed.

Dhlamini explained that startup costs for proprietary software are high for large universities, yet the schools can end up with fake software, which is susceptible to virus attacks.

"It is not easy to migrate institutions of higher learning at once, but we are telling the members who are here to adopt it at individual levels as a starting point so that they can then sell it on a bigger scale to the university after realizing its benefits," she said.

Dhlamini said that Africa has been left behind in the adoption of open-source software due to the digital divide. Nevertheless, she said, the high cost of software makes it necessary for African universities to take advantage of the opportunity.

"Free open-source software can help us tailor-make software that will address our needs," Dhlamini said.

Also as a part of the weeklong training program, participants have been asked to initiate digital content projects to fulfill Africa's educational needs, as most online content is developed elsewhere.

"We are set to acquire optic fiber, which will guarantee broadband speeds, but what will happen once fiber is in place?" wondered Nicholas Kimolo of Kenya's Floss4Edu. "What will run on that fiber? Will we continue running content from outside Africa?"

He said that Africa runs the risk of losing local knowledge and culture if the issue of local digital content is not addressed.

The world is becoming a knowledge society, Kimolo said, and Africa must start participating in the knowledge economy.

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