November 22, 2004

Conference Aims to Improve Info-Tech in Developing Nations

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This past weekend, “Building the ICT Capacity of African Universities to Promote Development” conference was held at Cornell, bringing together speakers and attendees from as far away as Zimbabwe. Overall, 16 speakers presented their research, experiences and ideas on different Information and Communication Technology (ICT) projects, the status of the Internet in Africa and how best to enable African universities to offer ICT services to their local communities.

Sponsored by the Institute for African Development, the conference was organized by Prof. Emeritus Royal Colle, communication.

“We hope to build partnerships with African universities that will help them develop the capacity to move beyond their own walls and work in development on issues like those in the Millennium Development Goals,” Colle said.

According to Colle, there were approximately 70 registered attendees. Roy Steiner ’91, managing director of Cyberplex Africa, gave the keynote address.

There were also conference speakers from such organizations as the World Bank, World Computer Exchange and American and African universities. Members of the Cornell faculty gave presentations on various development programs. In addition, students of Colle’s “Communication in Developing Nations” class were required to attend several sessions of the conference. One of the main topics addressed by several speakers was the bandwidth problem in Africa. High speed Internet that is so common in America is not a reality in Africa, even on African campuses.

Nancy Hafkin, former coordinator of the African Information Society Initiative, spoke of users in Africa only accessing four to five screens per hour, and entire campus networks breaking down for days at a time. Hafkin explained how some librarians at an African university, where the Internet was only for graduate students, were extremely upset when they found out that undergrads were acquiring passwords and using the Internet without permission.

Hafkin identified the problem as the presence of too many people using systems that have a bandwidth approximately 8.6 times smaller than the bandwidth capacity she has at home.

“Even the maximum [bandwidth] is not enough for anyone to do anything with,” Hafkin said. Furthermore, she found African universities are paying as much as $2,800 per month for Internet access.

Several Cornell faculty members spoke of how Cornell is using information technology to connect and bring information to Africa.

Mary Ochs ’79, head of Collection Development and Preservation at Mann Library, spoke about The Essential Electronic Agricultural Library and Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture, two programs that bring access to electronic journals to developing nations. She explained, TEEAL is literally a “library in a box” consisting of over 400 CD-ROMs that contain 2.2 million pages of journal articles. AGORA is its successor, an online portal of journals in PDF form. “For the first time, scientists in the developing world have the same kind of access to scholarly journals that scientists here at Cornell would,” Ochs said.

Stefan Einarson, plant breeding and genetics and director of information technology, presented Cornell’s Transnational Learning program. Through the program, students in developing nations, specifically those involved with the African Center for Crop Improvement, watch videotaped lectures of Cornell professors. Einarson explained that the program allows universities in developing nations to give their students access to world-class educations. He presented one of the taped lectures, which was synchronized with the professor’s PowerPoint slides. Einarson noted one of the unexpected outcomes of the program is now Cornell students are using the taped lectures to study for tests.

Raul Roman grad, research associate at the University of Washington, and Benjamin Addom, grad, conducted a study on eReadiness of African universities. Addom, a native of Ghana, found that teachers are using computers but they are not using them to communicate to their students. He recommended that universities build their capacities and facilities, combine ICT with sociology, and send students out to the community to do extension work as part of their graduation requirements.

Prof. Colle and Tim Anderson, president of World Computer Exchange, spoke at the last seminar that was moderated by Colin Maclay of the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard University. Colle presented first and explained how universities need to become more involved in telecenter development.

Colle explained how the Tamil Nadu University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences helped their local community support a telecenter by providing resources, equipment, training and management advice. “There are more than 900 universities in Africa, you don’t have to have one university doing it all,” Colle said.

Anderson wrapped up the conference by talking about the World Computer Exchange, which Anderson claimed is the largest non-profit provider of donated used computers to developing countries.

“We have half a million kids right now waiting for computers. We got the computers right now, we just don’t have the money,” Anderson said. Anderson spoke of how sometimes you just have to act and give the computers to the people. He spoke of how he works with people who have often tried several other organizations before his in an attempt to get computers, only to find rejection. Like Colle, he stressed the need to strengthen the relationship between universities and ICT in order to bring computer services and the Internet to developing communities.

A student of Colle’s, John Chu ’06 said about his experience at the conference: “I like the different perspectives. There were so many different speakers that you really got a lot of different opinions.”

Archived article by Casey Holmes
Sun Staff Writer