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The African Virtual University


Introduction

The African Virtual University (AVU) brings world-class educational instruction to the most remote and isolated communities in sub-Saharan Africa.  As a “university without walls,” the AVU has helped more than 24,000 students and over 3,500 professionals join the information age.  Based on an interactive model that allows African students to engage in real-time discussions with professors both on the continent and abroad, the AVU has proven to be sustainable and replicable.  From business management to engineering and e-commerce, the AVU uses the Internet, satellite technologies and ICTs to bridge the digital divide between Africa and the rest of the world.  Since its inception in 1997, the AVU has been an important institution for integrating Africa into the global information society.

Background

Photo #020070The AVU began in 1997 as a pilot project funded by the World Bank, and has since established itself as an independent non-profit organization.  Based in Nairobi, Kenya, the AVU demonstrates the effectiveness of using the Internet and other ICTs (i.e. e-mail, fax and phone) to help marginalized peoples realize and utilize their true human potential.  By matching students’ needs to the content, and stressing interactivity, the AVU ensures that each learning centre offers contextually relevant education and training programmes.

With the goal of enhancing the skills of students and teachers throughout Africa, while cultivating the entrepreneurial spirit of indigenous people, the AVU is committed to providing access to quality education.  Through the learning centres, the AVU broadens students’ horizons by allowing them to tap into the global knowledge pool, specifically academic resources from some of the world’s most respected educational institutions.  While the objectives of the AVU are many, below is a brief outline of the educational benefits it seeks to bring to the continent:

  • Bridging the digital divide by improving connectivity to more advanced education and research institutions, while training Africans in IT related fields, inter alia, engineering and computer science;

  • Reduce the “brain drain” throughout Africa by offering an internationally accredited education, thus creating an attractive and affordable alternative to studying abroad;

  • By improving the skills of Africans, the AVU hopes to serve as a catalyst for increasing economic investment on the continent;

  • Cultivate the capacity of African tertiary education institutions and faculty to encourage better management and financial sustainability.

To achieve its vision of creating a new, information age learning environment for Africans, the AVU offers students and professionals a variety of tertiary-level training options.  Working with over 25 partner institutions in 17 countries throughout Africa, the AVU brings renowned professors from Europe, the United States and Canada to participating students throughout the continent.  Additionally, the AVU provides participating students and professionals with access to a wide array of academic texts, journals and publications through its digital library. 

Implementation

The AVU uses a combination of satellite and Internet technologies to bring advanced educational opportunities to African students.  Not only does the AVU give students access to some of the best professors from around the world, but also enables African teachers to collaborate with their counterparts in more developed regions of the world.  By mainly using existing infrastructure (i.e. local universities), the AVU learning centres offer a cost effective way to bring quality educational content to Africans.  Given the technological and infrastructure constraints on the continent, satellite technology has proven to be the most effective solution. 

Photo #020050As professors from around the world record their lectures in a studio classroom, the videos are transmitted to AVU’s central uplink facilities in Clarksburg, Maryland in the United States.  From Clarksburg, the lectures are then transmitted via satellites to learning centres across Africa.  Equipped with large screen projectors, televisions and computer monitors, students and on-site moderators work through the daily lectures.  Throughout the courses, which are comprised of five to eight sessions lasting approximately one to two hours, the students are able to interact with the lecturer via e-mail, fax and phone.  For instance, students in Zimbabwe are able query a professor in Canada, while other students in Rwanda and Kenya offer comments.  On average, the classrooms at each AVU learning centre are comprised of 25-30 students, at least one on-site moderator to guide the discussion and at least 50 Internet-connected computers. 

Although the majority of learning centres are found in partner universities throughout Africa, the AVU also encourages the establishment of learning centres in areas underserved by traditional educational institutions. Specifically, the AVU would like to see the creation of privately managed learning centres wherever there is a viable market. 

Future of AVU

Although the AVU has already integrated itself throughout Africa, AVU organizers intend to expand into new countries, specifically to those where there is strong demand for educational training.  Having gained independence from the World Bank, the AVU hopes to work with local universities to bolster the curriculum by offering degree and diploma programmes to African students.  Additionally, the AVU intends to increase the bandwidth available to its partner universities by migrating to high-speed Internet connectivity, while continually making ICT infrastructure improvements.  With greater bandwidth and faster connectivity, the AVU hopes to expand the interactivity between professors and students by facilitating two-way video and audio streaming. 

Summary

With a digital library of over 1,000 full text journals and a variety of other academic materials, more than 45,000 e-mail accounts and a website that receives approximately one million hits per month, the AVU has become an exemplary example of educational training in Africa.  According to writer for Time Magazine, “This is perhaps the most promising example of how information technology can promote advancement.  The AVU links 25 African campuses to classrooms and libraries worldwide.”  By working with world-renowned professors from the developed and developing world, the AVU is preparing a new generation of knowledge producers on a continent that has historically been marginalized in the global community.  By working with universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States to provide students with practical and timely IT skills, the era of marginalization might soon be a thing of the past for many Africans.

AVU = Success

Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Maryan Omar, a graduate of the Kenyatta-based AVU, has become one of the most highly respected and talented computer technicians in northeast Kenya.  Having completed courses on application packages, networking and computer maintenance and repair, she is now a reliable and cost-effective source for helping local communities 

address a variety of IT-relatedproblems. For instance, the head teacher at the North Eastern Girls’ High School in Garissa, Kenya lauded Maryan’s work, saying “this will save us on cost, time and risk because previously we had to take our computers to Thika, about 470 kilometers from Garissa.” Maryan has earned distinction among community members in Garissa as a computer technician with “the best skills in the area.” 

For further information, see the African Virtual University website.  


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