First Monday

Creating Virtual Learning Communities in Africa: Challenges and Prospects

This paper discusses the growing application of information communications technologies in Africa and other parts of the world. It examines the growing global information technology revolution and how it is transforming educational institutions. It then discusses the state of distance education in Africa, identifying the institutions offering distance education and the nature of the delivery platform used. The prospects and challenges in introducing distance education to Africa tertiary institutions is discussed. Finally, it offers suggestions to overcome the challenges confronting technology-based education in Africa.


Introduction and Background
The Promise of Distance Education
Relevance of Distance Education to Higher Education in Africa
Institutions with Distance Education Projects in Africa
Delivery Platforms
Challenges in Implementing Distance Education in Africa
Addressing the Challenges
Future Prospects

Introduction and Background

With the advent of the new communication revolution, the world is witnessing an expansion in distance education The new information revolution has enabled academic institutions to provide a flexible and more open learning environment for students. The convergence of new information technologies such as telecommunications, computers, satellites, and fiber optic technologies is making it easier for institutions to implement distance education (Harasim, 1993). Indications are that distance education in higher education will continue to grow (Hanna, 1998; National Center for Education Statistics, 1998; Rahm and Reed, 1998). The World Wide Web has emerged as a locus of innovative instructional modalities in higher education.

Higher education in Africa is facing a critical challenge to meet new demands for the 21st century, with its ever increasing population growth. This means that those seeking access to education at all levels - primary, secondary, and tertiary - will increase. In spite of this fact, educational institutions in Africa are not expanding enough to accommodate the increasing number of students who'll be seeking access to higher education. Africa need an educational environment that would make it more responsive to challenges confronting the continent. Alternative ways of providing access to higher education via distance education need to be fully explored. Distance education makes it possible for students anywhere who have Internet and Web connections to enroll in online courses.

Even though the application and use of information technology in education in sub-Saharan Africa has been severely underutilized, over the past few years there has been tremendous growth in the use of information technology. There have been pioneering efforts in Botswana, Madagascar, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe to apply information technology to higher education. Countries such as Cote d'Ivoire, Togo, and Congo are joining the distance education bandwagon by establishing pilot virtual programs.

Distance education could be used to make it possible for African secondary school graduates, only a fraction of whom can be accommodated in African tertiary institutions, to enroll directly, and without leaving their homes, in online colleges and universities on the continent and around the world. This form of education offers several advantages over the traditional educational system, including a) virtual access to faculty in higher institutions around the world; b) introduction of new interactive pedagogical techniques (e.g., more hands-on learning opportunities, independent research, less reliance on rote memorization); and, c) the creation of virtual institutions and linkages where resources could be shared by people and organization in physically unconnected places.

What are the prospects and challenges confronting African educators as they explore the power and applicability of new information systems? This paper addresses those challenges. First, it begins by discussing the growing global information technology revolution and how it is transforming our educational institutions. It then discusses the state of distance education in Africa, identifying the institutions offering distance education and the kinds of delivery platforms used.

The Promise of Distance Education

African educational institutions are confronted with several challenges. There is an enormous challenge in training a cadre of highly qualified professionals to fuel development and address the challenges confronting the continent. There are inadequate educational resources, with a loss of the best talented faculty to the outside world. There is a need to provide a more flexible educational system for students. Given these challenges, it is highly unlikely that current educational institutions on the continent will be able to provide access and affordable education to all of those seeking access to higher education. Even though tertiary institutions have a responsibility in producing scholars, the universities are constrained by space, time, and money. Finally, there is a need to adopt innovative learning methods that will permit the delivery of education to the majority of those seeking higher education.

Distance education appears to offer an option for African students but many are not in a position to afford it. Distance learning can provide instructionally effective, highly interactive learning experiences that are flexible, equitable, and responsive to individual needs (Rogers, 1996). Studies show that distance education is more cost-effective than traditional programs, especially with large student enrollments and a good support system for students (Daniel, 1996). Unit costs per student are below those of conventional programs (Daniel, 1996).

The promise of Information Communication Technology (ICT) on the continent is enormous. ICT is expected to serve as a catalyst to African communities, allowing them to profit from and contribute to an increasingly globalized society. Emerging ICT holds much promise for breaking down traditional barriers that have limited higher education.

Today, through distance earning strategies and computer applications, we can expand the content, extend the reach, and increase the effectiveness of existing academic programs. Through emerging communication technology, effective computer-delivered coursework could be developed while at the same time improving access to scientific and technical information.

Relevance of Distance Education to Higher Education in Africa

The number of virtual online universities has been growing and will continue to grow over the next few years. If this approach to educational development is used judiciously, it will open up new frontiers to learning by enriching collaborative research among African universities and between universities in Africa and other parts of the world. It will also promote cross-national, multi-disciplinary perspectives in educational practice, and thereby equip students, faculty, and administrators with tools and resources that would enable them to successfully engage the academic world of the 21st century.

Institutions with Distance Education Projects in Africa

Distance learning techniques are increasingly being employed by a growing number of higher institutions in Africa. While most of the on-going distance education initiatives on the continent have been used to upgrade the quality of basic education (Association for the Development of Education in Africa, 1999), some countries are taking bold initiatives in piloting Inter-based and satellite-linked distance educational programs in selected courses. The University of Abidjan and the African Virtual University are good examples.

While a number of African universities have established distance education departments, the delivery platform to date has been text and correspondence based, supported by print material. Some of the institutions are beginning to explore the use of the Internet, video conferencing, and other forms of multimedia (Association for the Development of Education in Africa, 1999). For example, the Telesun program in Cameroon uses Internet-based courses in its science program. The FORST program links Benin and three other countries with McGill University in Canada. The RESAFAD program in Djibouti provides teacher training from French universities (Association for the Development of Education in Africa, 1999). Currently, four institutions in South Africa provide distance education courses: Technikon SA, Technical College of South Africa, Vista University, and the University of South Africa (UNISA), the oldest mega-university. Its distance education program to off-campus students was started in 1946 (International Centre for Distance Learning, 1995; Wiechers, 1995), with an enrolment of over 130,000 in 1995 (Wiechers, 1995). This represents over one-third of all university enrollments in South Africa. These schools enroll over 225,000 students annually (Butcher, 1998).

The most ambitious distance education initiative on the continent to date is the African Virtual University (AVU) Project. This is the first satellite-based attempt to harness the power of information technologies to deliver university education in the disciplines of science and engineering, non-credit/continuing education programs, and remedial instruction to students in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the words of Baranshamaje (1996), "it represents the quintessential instruments for sharing resources at affordable prices to large numbers of people." The AVU project will deliver instructional programs, strengthen the capacity in African partner institutions, implement a network infrastructure, and implement a digital library program (Baranshamaje, 1996). About five Anglophone and five Francophone African countries are participating in the initial pilot phase. The project will be extended to other African countries during the third and final phase (African Virtual University Pilot Phase, 1997). Another virtual university program supported by the World and the Agence de la Francophonie is the Universit francophone virtuelle project.

Delivery Platforms

Various delivery platforms and technologies have been employed in distance education, including correspondence courses; television (usually - but not always - through public broadcasting stations); audio, video, and computer conferencing; radio; Web-based computer technologies; and, satellite-based technologies (Dixon, 1996; Witherspoon, 1996). For example, UNISA uses print material, audio cassettes, and community radio; the African virtual university is based on a satellite delivery system, supplemented by video and print material. In Africa, the use of one-way radio to deliver educational material is widespread. Countries with a fairly sophisticated information infrastructure already in place (such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Senegal) have been experimenting with more advanced technologies such as two-way video and computer conferencing on a pilot scale. Some countries entering the distance education arena have used less expensive delivery platforms such as audio, prerecorded instructional television, and educational broadcasting.

Challenges In Implementing Distance Education in Africa

While distance education holds promises, a number of obstacles will have to be addressed before it can be fully utilized in Africa.

There are a number of technological constraints that hinder distance education. Telephone and other communication infrastructures outside of major cities remains inadequate. Connectivity beyond major capital cities poses a potential problem in creating a national distance education strategy. Even though Africa has about 12% of the world's population, it includes only 2% of the global telephone network with over half of the lines in cities (Marcelle, 1998). Telephone density is less than two lines per 1,000 inhabitants, compared with 48 per 1,000 in Asia, 280 per 1,000 in America, 314 per 1,000 in Europe, and 520 per 1,000 in high-income countries.

Another challenge is the lack of a trained cadre of professionals to support the implementation of distance education. The effective use of distance learning technologies demands that faculty be properly trained in using distance education as a delivery mode. To date, few African scholars are familiar with teaching in an online environment. This situation poses a major challenge in introducing distance education on the continent.

The absence of clearly defined national distance education policies in most African countries poses another challenge. Policies are needed to provide a framework for the development of distance education. With the exception of South Africa, few African countries have a clearly defined national information or communication policy to guide the development of distance education in their respective countries. The absence of such a policy is a clear obstacle to the development of distance education.

Access to connectivity remains one of the major challenges in Africa. Students would need access to computers that can send and receive messages using Web browsers such as Explorer or Netscape. In addition, they would have to find on their computers word processors and other applications to complete basic assignments. Easy and inexpensive connections to Internet service provider would be required. In addition, depending on the nature of a given course, students might be required to use a VCR to play videotaped instruction and perhaps tape recorded lectures. Textbooks and other printed materials certainly would still be part of the curriculum. All of these basics require funds which many individuals and institutions simply do not have.

The Association for the Development of Education in Africa (1999) lists additional limitations. Among them are a) the lack of high level political support for distance education by political authorities in Africa; b) the lack of recognition of distance learning by the public service in its assessment of employee qualifications; c) the availability of professionally trained distance learning personnel; d) the lack of follow-up and support programs; e) limited budgets; and, f) poor domestic infrastructure.

Clearly these requirements would - at the present time - make virtual courses difficult for those without access to a computer, modem, telephone, and ISP. These difficulties would certainly apply to the majority of Africans. There are potential students in larger cities with ISP access that might be served quickly if some of the other issues could be attacked.

Closely related to these connectivity issues are financial matters. ISP services are expensive in Africa. The connecting colleges charge tuition, in some cases by law, very high tuition to students taking courses. A source of financial support would be needed. Multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and institutional donors such as churches and employers have a role to play in exploring funding options.

Another challenge to overcome is cultural bias. Current research into distance education has focused on the process as a western social/cultural/educational construct, and is being viewed by some as a way to export this world view to other nations more efficiently and quickly than by other media currently available (Barker and Dickson, 1996; Bork, 1993). Distance learning, by its very nature, involves more than just the transmission of information, but also the transmission of cultural/social paradigms between and among the participants. Any design of a distance learning curriculum needs to be sensitive to cross-national cultural experiences (Cummings and Sayers, 1996; Spirou, 1995). To date, most of the distance learning models have been developed and tested outside of Africa, in American, Canadian, or European educational environments. Without diligent research focusing on localizing content, this will pose a problem (Cummings and Sayers, 1990; Sayers, 1991; Owston, 1997). To date, few scholars or technocrats supporting information technology have examined the possible effects of technology on the traditions of local cultures (Asante, 1992; Ani, 1994). Clearly, there is the need to address these issues so that distance education in Africa would not be seen as an attempt by foreign institutions to extend their influence to the continent. Some may view it simply as cultural imperialism.

Fortunately, Africa is beginning to realize the potential of information technology as a means to take advantage of opportunities offered by distance education. The efforts of national governments and international donor agencies have contributed to this situation. For example, the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa Pan African Development Information Systems (PADIS) Initiative aims to establish low-cost and self-sustained nodes to provide access to electronic mail in 24 African countries. The African Information Society Initiative is working to build an information and communication infrastructure in Africa. Similarly, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Leland Initiative aims to provide 20 African countries with high-speed Internet connections. In addition, this program will provide assistance with materials, expertise, training, and free Internet access for a limited period. In addition to these initiatives, professional organizations have emerged to champion and promote distance education on the continent.

Addressing the Challenges

Established institutions have a role to play in addressing the challenges to distance education programs. For example, religious organizations could offer access to rooms that are not used for specific services. These rooms could become telecenters, community learning centers, with services offered to the community surrounding the church as well as its own members. Such centers could provide a simple, single point access to information and educational resources to church members and students seeking access to higher education.

Effective measures to sustain distance learning initiatives needs to be considered. While donor funds could be used as the basis of establishing distance learning programs, sound financial planning by African educators will be needed to ensure that funds will be available to continue distance education programs when donor funding becomes scarce. Tuition costs have traditionally been the source of revenue to sustain distance learning initiatives. In addition, African stakeholders interested in launching distance learning initiatives should consider gathering resources from various agencies, sharing facilities and offering joint programs. This will go a long way to reduce the initial investment costs for information infrastructure needed to launch distance learning initiatives.

Since the concept of distance learning and educational technology is still emerging in Africa, a leaner support system needs to be put in place to assist students to comprehend all the technical details needed to make effective use of technology. Research shows that distance learning requires a lot of self-discipline on the part of the student; student isolation tend to be high, compared to conventional learning. Strategies for reducing dropouts should be put in place to ensure successful completion of programs.

Invariably, the decision to develop the African infrastructure is primarily a political one. The full value of distance education will only be realized if it is brought forcefully into the mainstream by powerful advocates. Ministries of education need to shape national policies in the area of distance education. The need to build Africa's distance learning capacity at all levels has been echoed by interested stakeholders on numerous occasions. It is time to translate words into action; if authorities in key decision-making positions fail to act, it will be overly optimistic to expect far-reaching changes in Africa's telecommunication infrastructure. Hence, African political leaders have to address the telecommunication imbalance in their respective countries. Without their intervention, very little progress will be made with educational technologies.

Higher education institutions will have to form partnerships with businesses and industries as well as the government to promote distance education. All of these organizations will be very crucial in advancing the development of distance education. The private sector will assist with technologies for the delivery of distance education. Government agencies will formulate national policies to promote distance education and invent campaigns to heighten awareness about the potential of distance education. Academicians in the meantime will create locally-based content.

African institutions will have to start institutional links to foreign partners utilizing distance education. Such programs will offer African students the opportunity to take courses online without leaving the shores of their respective countries.

One of the major obstacles to distance education is the lack of a well-developed telecommunication infrastructure. The telecommunications industry is not very active in telematics services. Besides, telecommunication services are generally limited to urban areas in Africa. Rural telecommunication infrastructure is highly underdeveloped. Rural institutions are less likely to benefit from the advantages offered by information technologies. The telecommunications infrastructure will have to be extended to all of Africa.

The need for faculty training is essential if Africa is to make any significant headway in applying distance education technologies. Faculty training could be done in conjunction with for-profit technology institutions and relevant academic departments who have expertise in these areas. The training could be offered by experts in both the public and private sector who have distinguished themselves in the use of emerging communications technologies.

Steps should be taken to advance and support the use of information technology and move rapidly and aggressively to develop programs of the highest quality. This is a strategic measure that will affect the future of higher education in Africa. In addition, African educational policy makers should explore, encourage, and promote the development and use of emerging communication technologies at all levels of the educational spectrum.

Future Prospects

In spite of the challenges confronting the advancement of distance education in Africa, there is a growing interest in the concept. Several African leaders are increasingly becoming aware of the potential of distance education in addressing educational challenges. The political leadership in countries such as Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe have made recent statements pledging their support to distance education. Awareness about the potential of distance education is spreading among African students and educators. The activities of community-based groups and academic organizations - such as the Ghana Computer Literacy and Distance Education (GhaCLAD), African Distance Learning Association, and the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) as well as the Working Group on Higher Education (WGHE), African Association of Universities (AAU), West African Distance Learning Association, Acacia Initiative, African Information Society Initiative (AISI), and WorldLinks - have contributed to this awareness. Multi-country cooperation in launching distance education initiatives (e.g., the cooperation between Mauritius and Madagascar, and between Cote d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso), and the creation of non-university-based distance learning programs are likely to be the norm. National organizations have emerged in some African countries to promote distance education such the National Association of Distance Education Organizations of South Africa (NADEOSA). The activities of such organizations are having a tremendous impact in shaping the future of distance education in Africa. The future looks bright for the evolution and development of distance education in Africa.


Universities without walls is appealing in Africa, given the multiple economic constraints confronting the continent. Online universities will more Africans to take advantage of educational opportunities, gain access to up-to-date educational materials through online libraries, provide virtual access to faculty around the world, and become part of the global learning community.

A leaner support system needs to be put in place to assist students confronting the challenges of distance education. In addition, Africans will need to examine pedagogical effectiveness as well as the cost of each delivery platform to ensure that educational needs will be addressed.

The complexities in introducing distance education to Africa are enormous. This initiative represents hope for millions of Africans looking for access to higher education. Through distance learning, fewer Africans will leave the continent for opportunities elsewhere. If we can become a team of friends and devoted collaborators, pooling our experiences, resources, and connections, we will serve the African continent now - and well into the future.

About the Authors

Osei Darkwa is Assistant Professor at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He teaches courses in social work research, social welfare policies and services, and intergroup relations in a multicultural environment. His research, writings, and publications focus on computer applications in health and international social policy, aging, distance education and the application of information technology to education, and health and socio-economic development in Africa. He has participated and presented papers at numerous information technology conferences and workshops in the United States and a number of African countries. He consults with international development agencies in exploring the establishment of pilot multipurpose community and learning centers in designated countries in Africa.

Fikile Mazibuko is currently a Ph.D candidate at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has served as a consultant and national advisor on welfare policy in South Africa. As a qualified social worker and academic in South Africa she has been involved in development programs and social policy change processes. She is a member of the faculty of the University of Natal's School of Social Work, teaching social welfare policy and community work while coordinating a skills program at the undergraduate level. She has published and presented papers nationally and internationally on social development, the legal status of women, children, social policy, and social change processes.


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Editorial history

Paper received 14 March 2000; accepted 16 April 2000.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Creating Virtual Learning Communities in Africa: Challenges and Prospects by Osei Darkwa and Fikile Mazibuko
First Monday, volume 5, number 5 (May 2000)