Education in the electronic age: Open source digital libraries as a way to overcome education inequality in Africa

Across Africa, Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) are continuously metamorphosing the academic landscape irrespective of the rapid global shifts that are affecting education. Like elsewhere, ICT facilitates knowledge search, acquisition, sharing, production and distribution albeit at an arguably smaller scale. Higher Education Institutions in Africa are developing innovative learning networks by engaging in different types of partnerships which include partnerships with for-profit institutions, international organizations, large corporations or institutions from the North in order to improve the learning conditions of many populations. The success of the 1st International Academic conference on distance and elearning held by the African Virtual University (AVU) proves that despite limited policy, infrastructure, and human resources, Africa actively contributes in digital educational innovation.

The emerging open source digital libraries movement has also reached the continent as both an alternative and complementary to insufficient physical libraries. Learning material which is sometimes denied to millions of African readers is now available online for free or cheaply. For instance, the Africa Digital Library (ADL) offers a wide selection of books and electronic journals free of charge to anyone living on the continent. Besides libraries developed and maintained on the continent or by African institutions, worldwide open libraries are also accessible via the web. Among them, the Soros Initiative which brings free or low-cost access to electronic science and technology journals to readers in developing nations; the World Health Organization and science publishers(Blackwell, Elsevier Science, Harcourt Worldwide STM Group, Springer Verlag, John Wiley, and Wolters Kluwer International) provide high-quality peer-reviewed, biomedical research journals for free or very cheaply. Another example is the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) which provides a list of journals with peer review or other quality control that grant free access of all content on the Internet.

Normatively, open source libraries accommodate various educational needs by positively transforming the learning experience of the “non-conventional” African learner. In sub-Saharan Africa, too often the education systems discriminate against older students, women, rural and the poor. By rendering learning resources available 24/7 and making the same information simultaneously accessible by a number of people, open electronic libraries offer flexible arrangements for them. Similarly, infrastructures are generally not designed to fit the needs of the disabled. Open electronic libraries are successful in avoiding the costs associated to training specific needs. Typically, by providing unlimited and varied resources from anywhere in the world, they provide out of box curriculum not offered by mainstream academic institutions as well as new exciting opportunities for educators and students all over the continent. Moreover, from a logistical standpoint, digital libraries are cost and space efficient alternatives to traditional ones specifically in developing countries as they considerably limit losses, fees, damages or mismanagement.

By breaking the financial barrier, open digital libraries can potentially reduce illiteracy rate in making information accessible to all. However, before reaching this ideal scenario in which everyone living in Africa becomes an online reader, several challenges are yet to be overcome. First, their development is still at a very embryonic stage. Currently, about 3% of more than 2 000 open access repositories worldwide are in Africa. Second, open source libraries supremely remain a very elitist education tool. Computers and other technological devices are not available to a huge portion of readers on the continent. High energy costs and network inaccessibility add to this intricate equation. Indeed, Internet penetration rate in Africa is just about 16% and represents only 7% of the world’s. Likewise, a good proportion of digital libraries are affiliated with universities, for profit or nonprofit organizations, making it difficult for non-enrolled members to accede. Most educators, governments and educational institutions are not familiar, unaware or still intimidated by open educational resources and rights management issues.  Only approximately 16% of African scholars confirm that they possess a high awareness of e-resources. Opportunities for capacity development and knowledge-sharing are limited as there is a lack of expertise and adequate resources to manage digital infrastructure. Language can also represent a discriminatory factor since a large quantity of material are published in English.

With access to knowledge being fundamental to education, libraries play a key role in diffusing knowledge. Digital libraries are especially important in developing countries in which conventional libraries fail to democratize knowledge. To unleash their potential, all stakeholders have to combine their efforts. Without the synergy of governments to reach out national or regional scale, they might remain limited in scope. In fact, open education should be an integral part of countries strategic and institutional plans on education. Nigeria and South Africa are two countries investing a lot of efforts in ODL, Nigeria by funding African Virtual University (AVU) and South Africa developing several projects like DISA (Digital Innovation South Africa) at different scales. Equally important, governments have a huge role to play in putting in place regulatory and legal cadre as well as strategies to engage authors and educators in the movement. While authors will be encouraged to freely submit their articles to institutional repository, educators will promote online reading materials among students. Individuals also should be encouraged to participate in producing information collections. Librarians, in return, need to be flexible and open to the changes required by digital management.  Progressively, Africa is catching up Internet divide, which enhance ODL development. According to a study from Deloitte, the number of mobile connections in sub-Saharan Africa skyrocketed by 44 percent from 2000 to 2012. It is estimated that at this pace. Africa could triple its Internet penetration to 50 percent, or 600 million users by 2025. Alternatives to internet such as the Greenstone software that builds and distributes digital libraries using CD Rom exist today. Overall, for a sustainable educational reform, social transformation and economic competiveness, it is important that African governments take the lead in research funding, staff training, facilitation, capacity building and South-South collaboration.



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Emmanuelle Adjima

Emmanuelle Adjima Assy is a second year graduate student in International Development Studies at Ohio University. Her focus is on Environment and Sustainability. She hopes to pursue a PhD in Urban Sociology after her master’s degree. Besides the academic world, she likes swimming and outdoor activities.

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