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Thursday, 27 July, 2000, 20:21 GMT 21:21 UK
Feeding hungry minds in Africa
A Kenyan student
AVU is set to revolutionise Africa's education culture
By Gray Phombeah in Nairobi

"A university without walls" is set to offer new hope for Africa's students who are left behind in the scramble to join the continent's limited colleges and universities.

It comes with the launching, in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, of the African Virtual University (AVU).

This is a World Bank brainchild, linking 25 sites or learning centres in 15 African countries with learning institutions in the US, Canada and Europe, via video-conferencing and other internet technologies.


Parents will find that virtual learning eliminates flights, accommodation costs and other expenses away from home."
Professor George Eshiwani, head of AVU International

The initiative is part of an attempt to bridge the digital divide by aiding the digital have-nots, and broaden access to higher education, particularly in science and technology.

"We are offering a high-tech solution to a continent grappling with declining budgets, outdated equipment, inadequate staff and limited space for higher education," says Professor George Eshiwani, vice-chancellor of Nairobi's Kenyatta University, who will be heading the newly formed AVU International.

Degrees

After a successful pilot year costing $6.5m, the AVU programme is now ready to offer advanced non-degree business and market-oriented courses later this year.

Professor Eshiwani, Vice-Chancellor Kenyatta University
Professor Eshiwani to head AVU International
It will then expand to degree programmes from October next year.

The participating countries include Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Namibia, South Africa, Rwanda and Burundi.

Others are Ghana, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and Ethiopia.

The courses will be beamed via satellite from a central uplink facility in Clarksburg, Maryland, to AVU e-learning centres across Africa.

Real-time interaction

Between 24 to 30 students in each centre will be sitting at their desks watching broadcasts on large screen projectors, television monitors or computers.

During class, the students will have real-time interaction with their instructors, via talkback or e-mail.

Tutors will be on hand to guide students through the course and act as liaison with course instructors.

Class preparation material and research will be distributed over the Internet.

"If courses were offered via the Web, students would have great difficulty accessing the material due to extremely slow Internet connection. But the Internet will remain an important add-on, for e-mail and accessing course material" says Nelson Ng'ang'a, AVU's technical co-ordinator.

AVU to have headquarters in Nairobi
Learning centres in Africa to link with institutions abroad

Project directors in Nairobi and Washington anticipate between 1,000 and 2,000 will begin their courses in Information Technology and foreign languages in October in Anglophone e-sites.

Francophone sites will follow next year, when undergraduate degree courses in computer science and computer engineering will be launched in all Anglophone sites.

"The virtual classes will prove less expensive than the physical classes," says Professor Eshiwani, "for parents will find that virtual learning is eliminating flights and accommodation costs and other expenses away from home."

Worries

But there are sceptics out there.

They see mass virtual learning or distance learning as e-decades away in Africa.

They say disappointment looms for those seeking knowledge online or via satellite in countries where AVU sites are yet to be launched.

They worry about the electronic wall between the instructors and the African students, both sides representing conflicting cultures, as harming the quality of education that would respond to the needs of the continent.

There are fears also that as AVU tries to woo the private sector on the continent and abroad, the dominance of distance-learning by employer-paid technology courses will leave no room for purely academic pursuits.

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