The Internet and University Participation: The Sierra Leone Experience
First Monday


The Internet and University Participation: The Sierra Leore Experience

To be information literate, one must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and effectively use the needed information. Based on the concept that all people have a right to information to help them be successful in society, whether in business, citizenship, and levels of education, the Internet is gradually infiltrating in Sierra Leone. This article examines the introduction of the Internet in the University of Sierra Leone community.

Contents

Introduction
The Internet and University Participation
The Creation of a LAN
The SALSTINET Initiative
The SIERRANET Initiative
Shortcomings
Conclusion

Introduction

Information continues to flood in on Sierra Leone everyday, through the television, newspapers, radio, magazines, and junk mail. This mania is fed by a deluge of telecommunications systems such as the fax machines, mobile telephones, and personal computers, which many Sierra Leoneans believe are the symbol and mascot of the information age. Since 1995, investment in the Internet has been done by communication institutions such as the Sierra Leone Telecommunications (SIERRATEL) and the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service (SLBS); foreign embassies and their information centres such as the United States Embassy and United States Information Services (USIS); the British High Commission and the British Council Library; and, the German Embassy. Recently educational institutions such the University of Sierra Leone have joined the bandwagon.

The Internet and University Participation

The University of Sierra Leone has at present three constituent institutions namely Fourah Bay College (FBC), Njala University College (NUC), and the College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences (COMAHS). There is an off-campus institute, the Institute of Public Administration and Management (IPAM), and an affiliate institution, the Milton Margai College of Education (MMCE). The facilities available for staff and students in these institutions have always been limited. Individual departments make desperate efforts at improving resources to enable more meaningful teaching and to improve research. Hence funding outlets have been sought for the introduction of computers in some departments especially the Faculty of Engineering at Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone Science and Technology Information Network (SALSTINET), and University Research Development Services Bureau (URDS). Similar support has been received by COMAHS through the British Council; funds have been available in a limited way for other projects.

The NUC has a stand-alone node located in the office of the college librarian. This institution has lost some of its facilities as a result of rebel attacks, which forced the college to move its location to Freetown and its environs. At FBC some departments acquire their systems through funded projects as at the Institute for Population Studies. The college library is gradually introducing Internet facilities with two workstations having e-mail facilities used by the college community and SECURICOM, a commercial service provider. The Mechanical Engineering Department has also strengthened its computer resource base and computer-aided drawing has been introduced using AutoSketch and AutoCAD. At IPAM, an array of courses, both long and short term computer based, have been introduced. IPAM can boast that it has the largest number of computers in any one location in the university.

The Creation of a LAN

With the efforts to make many departments more modern and relevant, the need for acquiring computers and other IT accessories has become a more pressing need. Incidently, there is at present no local network available on the various campuses, as all systems are stand-alones. It is however anticipated that a local area network (LAN) in each of the constituent institutions will be shortly. Technology now exists for wireless connections, via radio signals. SIERRATEL will also work closely with the University in designing the system and teaching expertise that can be shared in order to strengthen university-industry links.

The SALSTINET Initiative

The Sierra Leone Science and Technology Information Network (SALSTINET) aims to foster collaboration between information providers, researchers, 'informaticians', and end users of Science and Technology Information (STI) in the country. The main objective of the Network is to establish a national capacity for the generation, collection, provision, and dissemination of Iocal and international science and technology research results for policy formulators, government officials, scientists, and technologists and private concerns and other end users. The specific objectives are to:

  • develop bibliographic control;
  • create relevant databases;
  • publish and disseminate STI; and,
  • foster manpower development.

It is hoped that in the final phase this work will provide Internet connectivity, with its attendant benefits, to the stakeholders and other interested parties working in science and technology.

The SIERRANET Initiative

This project was initiated by Sierra Leonean students and professionals mainly in the United States and Canada, leading to the formation of the SIERRANET Association in July 1993. An electronic mailing list, SaloneNet, is also available mainly for discussions among Sierra Leoneans and friends in the globe. The initial mailing lists having the name SierraNet is used mainly to disseminate activities of the Association with, at present, a node at the College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences (COMAHS). It is also linked with SateLife USA in Boston, Massachusetts. Its objectives are:

  1. to develop an appropriate computer network that would allow cost-effective and reliable transmission of information among participants in Sierra Leone and abroad.

  2. to use this medium to further interdisciplinary research and development on a national computer-mediate communications network in Sierra Leone for educational use.

  3. to provide the network in collaboration with capacity building in Electronic Communications for Development in Africa (CARECA) project which supports infrastructure development for computer-based networking in Africa. This will enhance complementarily and avoid duplicity.

  4. to provide a forum where interested University students can develop their computing skills through voluntary work.

    Shortcomings

    Obviously, the potential of the Internet for the University and the country at large are enormous. With improvements in telecommunication services in the country, users not only in academia, but also in commercial, governmental, and non-governmental institutions and establishments, can access vital information quickly, enhancing organizational efficiency and individual effectiveness. But there are significant problems. Much of the recent development of the Internet at the University has been due in large part to strong external funding. Clearly, this access has created a sense of need. As this perceived need is cultivated, institutions may then require a membership or annual subscription fee for information or services accessed. Given the country's fragile economy and the government's recent drastic budget cuts of the University, some of the institutions within the University are finding it difficult to handle the ongoing costs of the Internet.

    Indeed the presence of computers is no longer a novelty. However the number of computers is still relatively low and can almost be counter-productive. Even in the Faculty of Engineering at FBC, for some classes the ratio of computers to students is a fraction of what is needed. In the Electrical and Electronic Department in the same college, students in their first and second years are introduced to computing through BBC computers (using the 6502 8-bit CPU), a system terribly limited and hardly seen in overseas educational establishments these days. The Department, for instance, only recently increased the number of IBM clones from two to four in addition to four Macintosh computers for staff and students. This situation poses some problems in teaching subjects like CAD and aspects of digital systems design (Redwood-Sawyerr, 1996).

    Technological know-how is yet another pitfall. The proposed integration of the Internet with the academic curriculum as a way of assisting students in coping with a modern society may be an excellent idea, but difficult to achieve in Sierra Leone. The initial problem is that the majority of the students, including the academic staff and librarians, do not know how to easily connect to the Internet. Some, for certain, do not have experiences with computers, while others find it difficult to find any computer to use in order to gain some experience. It would be unrealistic for curriculum planners to develop Internet-based educational curricula when equipment and opportunities are so scarce for students, staff, and faculty.

    Further, the Internet operates by very different rules from other electronic information systems. Most of the Internet service providers in Sierra Leone lack skill, experience, and convenience needed to save one time in working with the Internet. Thus, what is expected within a very short time is often prolonged because of a lack of technological skills.

    Society's views about computers and the Internet should be reviewed. Sierra Leone has an image of information, which although alluring, is ultimately counter-productive. Not much attention is being focused on computers in Sierra Leone simply because of the cost and time involved and infrastructure problems such as constant power cuts. Nevertheless, these factors should not limit the potential for future applications. Visionaries, in any situation, never recognize the distinction between the feasible and the desirable. If a machine can be made to perform some dazzling complicated task the visionary should assume that the tasks is worth performing. The fact is that computing is no longer about computers; it is about living. Hence, information, and the technologies that deliver it, should be valued excessively. Just as the Internet is an evolving system, so too must individual knowledge of it evolve for a better society.

    Conclusion

    Indeed, the effect of the Internet on a largely oral society like Sierra Leone will be profound. It will continue as an important medium for shaping information, conducting business, and communication. Yet there exists the potential for misuse and foreseeable problems. But integrating the Internet can be compared with travelling to a new country with many new things to see and learn. Travel requires that you display good manners and take sensible precautions. No less is needed if the University of Sierra Leone should decide to get on the Internet.

    About the Author

    John Abdul Kargbo is in the Institute of Library, Archives, and Information Studies at the University of Sierra Leone. Mail can be sent to him at the Institute, Private Mail Bag, Freetown, Sierra Leone.

    References

    S. Amato, 1994. "Internet reviews," College and Research Library News, volume 55, number 2.

    T.A. Cornell and C. Franklin, 1994. "The Internet: Educational Issues," Library Trends, volume 42, number 4, pp. 608-625.

    J.A.S. Redwood-Sawyerr, 1996. "Information Technology and Development: Review of the Sierra Leone Perspective," Journal of Pure & Applied Sciences, volume 5, pp. 10-27.

    I.F. Rochman, 1993. "Teaching About the Internet: The Formal Course Option," Reference Librarian, volume 39/40, pp. 67-75.

    SierraNet, 1993. "The Initiative," extract from SierraNet project proposal submitted to the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).


    Editorial history

    Paper received 15 December 1999; accepted for publication 19 January 2000.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

The Internet and University Participation: The Sierra Leore Experience by John Abdul Kargbo
First Monday, volume 5, number 2 (February 2000),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue5_2/kargbo/index.html





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