Virtual schools bring hope to a war-torn continent
In dry, dusty Dakar, the computer is more than a token convenience. It is a window to the outside world. Since the turn of the 21st century, local web access has increased at a startling rate, reaching thousands of the city’s residents. Internet cafés filled with chattering businesspeople and students line the wide boulevards. The telecom industry is booming.
But even as Senegal’s capital transforms itself into the hub of West Africa’s cyberrevolution, the country is struggling to keep its brightest minds at home. It’s a dilemma that is familiar across the continent. According to the International Organization for Migration, approximately 20,000 professionals leave Africa each year, seeking more prestigious posts in Europe and the United States. Educational institutions, home to many of those up-and-coming professionals, are the major casualties.
To stem this brain drain, a number of innovative e-learning ventures are trying to connect students to classes from abroad while keeping their feet firmly rooted on African soil.
Since 1997, the Nairobi, Kenya–based African Virtual University has worked to improve access to web-based learning in sub-Saharan Africa. As connection rates improve, the group has expanded its reach, launching satellite campuses in war-torn countries like Rwanda and Somalia.
In such countries the situation is infinitely more challenging than in relatively prosperous Senegal and Kenya. Consider the case of a small organization called Sierra Visions, which was founded in 2003, just one year after Sierra Leone’s long and bloody civil war ended. The country is still mired in reconstruction efforts. Poverty and economic stagnation loom large; the country is listed as number 176 on the United Nations’ Human Development Index of 177 nations.
Despite the daunting obstacles, Sierra Visions plans to launch a series of programs this fall aimed at teaching professional skills in areas like accounting, customer service, health, and education. The catch: Roughly half of the 50 Sierra Leonean instructors teach from their homes in Canada, Europe, and the United States.
The courses use a model called the “webinar,” which allows student and teacher to interact through video and audio. Yeniva Sisay, communications director at Sierra Visions, says the format offers the next best thing to face-to-face discussion. The classes are intimate and closely managed; a premium is placed on dialogue between teachers and students.
“It made me feel like I was a part of something, part of the global village,” says Emmanuel M. Sandi, a student at a Sierra Visions program last spring. Sandi isn’t alone. Students of programs like Sierra Visions stress that the feeling of belonging to a larger whole is vital to the learning process. It provides them with a context, a support system, and instructors who understand local issues.
The virtual platform also gives those Sierra Leonean teachers who decamped during the war a way to help from afar. “There is no way the healing process is going to come from anyone but ourselves,” Sisay says. “Outsiders will help, but this is our best chance, and this is the most important time.”
If Sierra Visions’ programs are successful, they could have implications for Africa at large, including the potential to lay the technological groundwork for what Stanford Mukasa, an associate professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, calls “cyberunification.” Improved technology, Mukasa says, has the potential to bridge gaps between families in ways that were impossible to conceive of just a few years ago. A little contact—even a fuzzy voice, a shaky, pixellated image—can go a long way.
Some argue, however, that web contact is a poor substitute for the widespread and very physical investment that poor countries so desperately need. “I don’t see enough lobbying for the basic stuff—electricity, the roads,” says Conrad Coyanda-Parkzes, CEO of a telecom company called AccessPoint, which is assisting the Sierra Visions team in Freetown.
That basic stuff allows the more complex stuff, like fiber-optic cable systems and cell towers, to be built. Right now, says Coyanda-Parkzes, who moved to the United States from Sierra Leone in 1986 and visits the capital regularly, access costs are prohibitive, and technological progress is slow going.
There are signs, though, that some leaders are coming around, encouraging more telecom investments from abroad and focusing on wired infrastructure. Senagalese president Abdoulaye Wade, for example, has pressed for “virtual campuses” in downtown Dakar.
“They’re realizing,” says Sidiki Traore, director of the African Virtual University’s West African regional office, “that ‘the Internet is the solution for my country. Let me open up.’ ”