Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Challenges of Facilitating ICT-based Short Courses in Africa: Personal Experiences

In 1993 I facilitated my first short training course at which participants were required to use computers. This was at the Copperbelt University in Kitwe, Zambia and the course was on UNESCO’s Micro CDS/ISIS database software which is used in libraries to create and manage bibliographic records (metadata). Since then, I have facilitated and co-facilitated more than 50 short training courses at which the use of computers has been a major feature. These have been in Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Lesotho, Kenya, Madagascar, Nigeria, Namibia, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe on various subject areas including website design, access to online information resources, web 2.0 and social media, developing institutional repositories, and managing electronic documents.

Over the years I have come to realize that facilitating ICT-based training courses in Africa can sometimes be a daunting task. There are just too many challenges that facilitators face. In my case, the key challenges have been having “wrong participants” on the course, unreliable Internet connectivity, unreliable power supply, and computers in the training room being infected with viruses and worms.

“Wrong Participants”

Each training course has a target audience and requirements or pre-requisites that potential participants have to meet. On several occasions I have had cases where some participants do not meet the basic requirements for the course. This is mainly on courses that are fully funded where participants or their institutions are paying nothing. I once co-facilitated a 2-week regional advanced training course on web design and development in Nairobi, Kenya for participants from Eastern and Southern Africa. The participants on the course were expected to have prior knowledge of web design and development. After all, it was an advanced course. What did we get? Out of about 20 participants, only about six participants had knowledge on web design and management and they were involved in their institutions’ websites. The rest were going to learn for the first time how to design and develop websites. We also had a Secretary from an NGO in Kenya who was asked to participate in the course just because her organization felt that they needed to send someone to the course even though there was no person in the organization who met the requirements. When things got tough for her she confessed that she did not know why she was on the course. Then there were two participants, one from Tanzania and the other from Zambia, who looked like they were coming into contact with computers for the very first time. They both could not use the computer mouse and they could not create or save files to a folder.

Today, in 2010, I still get participants on courses requiring working knowledge of computers and word processing applications who cannot use a mouse, have difficulty in locating letters on the computer keyboard and are afraid to press the ENTER key unless they are told to do so. Most of these participants, as seen in the case of the Secretary from an NGO in Kenya, are recommended by their supervisors or institutions for the course.

What can one do with such participants? Send them back to their institutions/homes? Why provide or endorse false information on the application form that the applicant for the short course possesses the basic requirements for the course when in fact he/she knows nothing?

Internet Connectivity

In October 2006 I co-facilitated a training course at the National University of Lesotho for participants from Lesotho and Swaziland. We were to introduce the participants to online resources and show them how to access and download journal articles in PDF from AGORA, HINARI and OARE portals. We had a lovely training room in the University Library, equipped with about 30 computers and all of them connected to the internet via a wireless network. During the sessions, PowerPoint presentations and group discussions went on very well, but unfortunately we were unable to download copies of journal articles in PDF. The internet connection was extremely slow. We consulted the technical team at the University Computer Centre and we were assured that they problem would be rectified. It was not to be. In fact the 4-day course ended without us downloading a single PDF journal article.

Internet connectivity in Africa, especially in government funded institutions, can be a major challenge when facilitating a course requiring the use of internet facilities. Live demonstration of Internet services are sometimes impossible to conduct. In May 2010, I attended a conference at the University of Botswana Library where a presenter decided that in steady of giving a PowerPoint presentation, he was going to give a live demonstration of the internet-based information service he had developed. Well, the time (20 minutes) allocated to him run out without showing us anything. More time was allocated to him so that he could give his PowerPoint presentation.

In August 2008, at the University of Kinshasa we were forced to move the training venue from a room equipped with about 30 computers to one with about 8 computers because this is where the Internet connection was working. Imagine trying to squeeze 30 participants and a facilitator into a room meant for about 12 people, and without good ventilation. We had a number of participants standing and following the presentations and demonstrations at the entrance to the room while the co- facilitators sat on a bench in the corridor waiting for their turn/sessions. It was a disaster! The Kinshasa incident was in fact the second time I had been involved in a course where we had to shift venues. The first time was in 2006 at the University of Zambia (UNZA). The sad part about the UNZA case was that we moved from a venue that was purposely built for ICT training. It had several training rooms all equipped with computers connected to the local area network and the Internet. Unfortunately, the Internet connection at the supposedly high tech facilities never worked. After two days, we moved to the library/resource of centre of the Commonwealth Youth Programme Africa Centre, located about 1km from the original venue. There, we had access to about 10 computers with functional Internet access.

If universities in Africa cannot afford adequate and reliable internet connectivity, how are lecturers and students keeping up with the ever growing global scientific content which nowadays is accessed mainly through the Internet?

Unreliable Power Supply

Computers run on electricity and it does not matter where the power comes from. It can be from solar energy, the national power grid, a standby generator or a battery. Without power, computers will not work. Maybe one day we will have computers that will internally generate their own power, and this will be good news to most people and organizations in Africa.
Un-reliable power supply is not good news for a training course were computers are being used. In June 2007, at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, we had a workshop on access to online resources at which the proceedings were on and off just like the power supply. The Internet connection was quite good but the demonstrations and access to online resources was done in bits and pieces. Reliable power supply was unfortunately, in short supply at the University. We would be online for about 20 minutes and then off for about an hour, and then online again and then off. Prior arrangements had been made to use the University's standby generator but we never got to use it. The generator did not work when we needed it to do so. Later arrangements were made to hire a different generator and connect directly to the Library electrical system. This worked, but we had already lost time on the course.

Talking about standby generators, another incident happened at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana. We had a power failure in the University and the generator could not start because it had no diesel. The procurement process for the diesel, we learnt, was going to take long, and therefore the only way to ensure that we had power to the computer training room was to produce cash for the purchase of diesel. This saved the day. But what could have happened if my colleagues from ITOCA, who where financing the course, did not have any readily available cash for the diesel?

Computer Viruses

Add computer viruses to “wrong participants” on a training course, slow internet connection and unreliable power supply and you are in for a treat. I have facilitated a couple of courses where all these four factors have occurred. It is not a good experience even for a person who has learnt to adapt to unpredictable situations when conducting a training course on the continent.
Most public institutions and universities in Africa are not investing in anti-virus software. They are relying on free and sometimes un-supported anti-virus programs. The result is that most computers in these institutions are heavily infected with all sorts of viruses, worms and Trojans. They have become distribution centres for computer viruses. In this age of USB flash drives, when you organize a training course in such institutions, you are guaranteed that not only will the participants acquire new knowledge and skills but they will also go back to their institutions with excess luggage on their USB flash drives – computer virus and worms.

Not all is that bad!

Admittedly, not all is that bad when facilitating ICT-based courses in Africa. I have had successful training courses on accessing online resources and website design and development in Burkina Faso, Nigeria (at the University of Lagos), Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania and Zambia (at In-Service Training Trust).

4 comments:

  1. Other factors include the following
    1. The low per capita income of individuals still make computers non-available to many in Africa.
    2. High cost of internet services: most service providers still charge high for their internet services
    3. High cost of anti-virus and other soft wares

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  2. Hi David,

    Regarding your comments, I am sure you will agree that the prices of computers have overall come down. For example, it is now possible to get a brand new laptop for $500 and Mini Laptops, Tablets, or Netbook PCs for $350. Of course this still too much for most people but it is better than $1,000 and above in the previous years.

    Indeed, the cost of internet services by some Service Providers on the continent is quite high. But I am not sure that this is the reason why most institutions have un-reliable Internet access.

    If the anti-virus software and other software are very expensive, why not consider Open Source which is generally free, although you need skills to make it work?

    Justin

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  3. I cannot but painfully agree with Chisenga, these issues are real but as every passing year some Africa nation makes progress in overcoming her infrastructural challenges.
    The issues of wrong participant is gravely unfortunate.
    An area I will strongly recommend facilitators consider is post-training review about 3 months after a training to access the adoption/transfer of skills learnt by participant. Hopefully, facilitators and donor agencies will be impressed by some of the outcome.

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  4. The University of Agriculture, Abeokuta,Nigeria/CTA Netherlands-sponsored

    short ICT/Web 2.0 design training case may not be as bad as Chisenga's

    experiences in Kinshasha, Lesotho,and Botswana as there was no change in

    venue, no apparently "wrong participant", and the training room was

    adequate, well ventilated/airconditioned, and conducive for teaching and

    learning.

    We, however, still came face-to-face with the challenges of slow/erratic

    internet connectivity and unreliable power supply which is characteristic

    of major parts of the African continent in the course of the training.

    Despite the University Management's commitment to make the workshop

    hitch-free, some elements of laxity from the personnel in charge of

    alternative power supply delayed some sessions. The 'Nigerian' or is it

    'African' factor of lack of time consciousness also came to bear as most

    sessions did not start as scheduled. On most occasions Resource persons had

    to wait for participants!Not because the participants are a bunch of

    unserious beings but because of the various challenges of different shades

    - lack of electricity to hasten up preparaions in the morning, hectic

    traffic log-jam ...,faced by individuals.

    However, when the sessions started, most participants found the training

    exciting, educative, and revealing. Most applications that were a 'mirage'

    before the training were easily taught and demonstrated by the

    facilitators. These were followed by participants' application oftools and

    knowledge of concepts gained.
    With the Web 2.0 tools in hand, participants have been taught 'to fish' and

    can disseminate and use the knowledge gained optimally if the government\

    establishments/ organisations involved can provide 'the fishing net,

    fishing line and fishing hook' by removing the hindrances facing the

    propagation of the 'gospel' of ICT proficiency.

    At this juncture, credit must be given to, Dr Rodger Obubo, Johnson Opigo

    and Richard Lamptey, the facilitators who painstakingly took us through

    some of the rudiments of Web 2.0 Tools for National Learning Opportunities.

    ReplyDelete