Creating an African Virtual Community College: Issues and Challenges
First Monday

Creating an African Virtual Community College: Issues and Challenges

This paper proposes the establishment of an African Virtual Community College (AVCC) which uses the power of information communications technologies to overcome the financial, physical and informational barriers preventing increased access to higher education in several African countries. AVCC will utilize new technologies as the central media of its educational and training programs. This paper outlines the assumptions underpinning the AVCC model, its components and its advantages over existing educational models.


Higher Education in Africa
African Virtual Community College (AVCC): Assumptions
Delivery Platform
AVCC: The Core Components
Organizing AVCC
The Basic Services of AVCC
Advantages of AVCC over Existing Educational Models
Tchnological Issues to Be Considered



It has been said that education is the essential ingredient for producing self-sufficient citizens. Unfortunately, the truth of this statement is lost on millions of African students who have limited access to higher education. Without basic educational skills, individuals are severely handicapped in their search for a fulfilling life.


Higher Education in Africa

Higher (tertiary) education in Africa is confronted with several challenges. The challenges facing tertiary education in Africa are a complex combination of limited access, increasing costs, decreasing quality, limited choice of subjects and academic programs and inflexibility in course selection. In addition, there is a lack of adequate trained personnel and up-to-date educational resources. Given the rapid population growth rate in Africa those seeking access to education at all levels - primary, secondary, and tertiary - will increase over time. The traditional educational institutions in Africa will not be able to expand to accommodate the increasing number of students seeking access to higher education. This situation calls for the exploration of a complementary form of education for the continent.

The African Virtual Community College (AVCC) proposes to use "second media age" communication technology to make it possible for African secondary school graduates, only a fraction of whom can be accommodated in African tertiary institutions, to enroll directly, without leaving their homes, in U.S. community colleges, as well as universities and non-formal training agencies.

AVCC goes beyond providing formal course work by creating an online economic development environment that will support employers, government officials, professors, professional associations and all the groups in Africa that can benefit from dialog and exchange with external counterparts and resources.

AVCC will create a Service Learning Corps, which will bring volunteer students from the United States and other parts of the world to Africa for a semester or a year.


African Virtual Community College (AVCC): Assumptions

AVCC is based on the following six assumptions:

  1. Growth in the high productivity capital intensive sectors of an economy is linked to the development of a skilled and competent computer literate work force that can support those emerging industries.
  2. Africa needs for the growth of its modernizing economy the kind of technical and vocational tertiary education programs offered by U.S. and community colleges in other parts of the world.
  3. There are academic institutions in the U.S. and elsewhere that offer at a distance complete degree programs in such applied fields as computer science, business, and environmental science, among others. Students anywhere in the world that have Internet connections can enroll in these courses.
  4. Until Africa has the funds to expand its own tertiary institutions with appropriate faculty, it can accelerate its own development by allowing many secondary school graduates to enroll in academic institutions worldwide via distance education.
  5. The mixture of students from several African countries, the U.S. and other parts of the world in distance education classes not only enriches the educational experience by providing an intercultural dimension but encourages economic development, as Africans and students from other parts of the world can explore together business opportunities and needs.
  6. Since the Internet and the World Wide Web would be used as primary tools of communication between Africans and students from other parts of the world, teachers, business people, funders and others will not be limited to course-related matters, but will take advantage of technologies to share common interests.


Delivery Platform

AVCC will use the computer itself as the college building, as the classroom. It proposes to use "second media age" communication technology to provide education at a distance.

"The first media age" might be called "The Age of Broadcast." Books, radio, and television are "first media age" technologies: information and instruction comes from a central source to many. The British Open University and the new Africa Virtual University are examples of "first media age" distance learning ventures: instruction comes in well designed packages from England or the U.S. to African students, and there is little or no opportunity for students to interact with each other, and of course no opportunity for Africans to be in the same classes as American students.

"The second media age" might be called "The Age of the Network." The central second media age technologies - computers linked to others anywhere in the world via the Internet - are dialogic rather than monologic: African students can study, debate, and collaborate with students from other parts of the world. Further, African students can access literally millions of educational sites on the Web, and can augment what they learn in class by joining any of literally thousands of discussion groups, forums and listservs in their areas of learning.

The assumption is that "virtual learning communities," the social networks that would be created between African students, small and large scale entrepreneurs, professionals and professional associations will make a critical difference. One of the goals of AVCC is to connect education and training with other components of job generation and economic growth through the ability of second age media to create continuing dialog and help in the finding of partners and resources.


AVCC: The Core Components

The features of AVCC that distinguishes it from other distance learning initiatives are: a) the pan-African emphasis; b) the emphasis on dialogism; c) the "virtual campus" as a creator of the economic development environment; and, d) its relationship of distance learning and service learning.

The Pan-African Emphasis

AVCC's use of the computer, the Internet, and the World Wide Web as its distance learning technologies make it possible for students in any African country with access to the technology to take online courses together.


Many distance learning programs are "course-centric": their underlying assumption is that the transfer of knowledge is the only possibility afforded by communication technology. AVCC emphasizes the creation of social networks, networks of dialogue between Africans of all of Africa, and between Africa and other nations, and in particular Africa-U.S. dialogue. African students of AVCC will take classes with U.S. students, and it is expected that the in-class and out-of-class relationships that are created will persist, and will lead to economic growth and job generating activities.

The Virtual Campus

AVCC assumes that a college is more than a collection of courses: it is a complex environment for learning that includes human resources - librarians and counselors as well as teachers; intellectual resources - books and films and labs; and spaces for learning - offices and seminar rooms as well as classrooms and lecture halls. The computer, the Internet, and the World Wide Web allows for the creation of all of these aspects of a college online. Since creating virtual buildings online is relatively inexpensive, the virtual college can have a growing group of specialized facilities to house conferences, workshops and institutes that connect African groups to counterparts in the U.S. and other nations.

Distance Learning and Service Learning

AVCC will feature two clusters of activities: the distance learning (national campus) program and the AVCC Service Learning Corps.

The national campuses

Each participating African nation will have its own online campus. For example, there will be campuses for Ghana Virtual Community College, Rwanda Virtual Community College, and so on. The "buildings" on each campus will be a mixture of those common to all - "The Academic Center," for example, and "The Library" and "The Counseling Center," plus any buildings desired by a nation to house its own specialized activities: a "Banking Institute," for example, or a "Center for Microindustries," or a "Women's Center."

The U.S. Campuses

Each participating U.S. college will have its own virtual campus. Each campus will have one or more classroom buildings, an administration building, a library, a counseling center, a lecture hall: all of the buildings that characterize the college environment.

"Community Learning Centers" (or telecentres) will be designed to make available to African students without their own computers and access to the Internet the tools and access they need. Such Centers might have fax machines, films and telecourses, instructional CD-ROMs, as well as the necessary connectivity.

Some learning centers would be church-sponsored. Such sponsorship of learning centers offers a powerful new set of possibilities for the expansion of telecommunication opportunities. CLCs could also be in schools and public libraries.

The Service Learning Corps

"Service Learning" ("Study-Service" in England) is a growing movement in education around the world to connect Peace Corps and national service kinds of experiences to formal learning. The heart of the experience is the actual service: college students teach arithmetic to primary school children, or act as aides and companions to the blind and elderly; business students might help a women's craft cooperative set up a bookkeeping plan; computer science students might help distance learning students in a telecentre, or keep its computers in repair.

The service, however, is in a context designed to make it the core of an academic experience. U.S. students might develop a "learning contract" with their faculty mentor which would specify what reading and orientation they would undergo before going to Africa; what projects they would undertake while in Africa, and what papers they would write.


Organizing AVCC

Given the gravity and size of the needs of Africa, we assume that a quick launch of AVCC would be advisable while the directorate and planning bodies refine and expand plans. We propose that there be a Project Director; a U.S.-African Advisory Council with twin offices one in a Africa and the other in the U.S. A Project Director would head up either the African or the U.S. office.

It is recommended that a U.S.-African Advisory Council be set up. This would be made up of representatives in education, technology and telecommunications, government, business and industry, international agencies, NGOs, churches, mosques, and synagogues and professional associations. The Advisory Council would help flesh out and implement the AVCC plan, and would also seek the resources necessary to insure the continuation of AVCC after the initial funded period.

The committees and commission and activities would emerge from the discussions of the directorate and the Advisory Council. For example, a U.S.-African joint Committee on Technology would undertake studies and discussions with the private sector and with support agencies on the matter of expanding and improving the telecommunications infrastructure of Africa. The Committee on Educational Services would bring together a number of subcommittees that would meet regularly online to create orientation materials for Africans on U.S. education; and to develop African materials, units, and modules that would be used by U.S. instructors. The subcommittee of Continuing Education would explore the needs of Africans for workforce training, continuing professional education, and education beyond the U.S. associate degree.


The Basic Services of AVCC

These services would include:

a. The transfer of learning from a consortium of global community colleges, and supporting senior colleges and universities and training agencies, to African students, schools, business and industry, using Internet and related communication technologies.

b. The development and digitization of course content developed by African instructors to be put online.

c. The development of a large flow of students from the U.S. to serve and learn, and a larger flow of students and teachers from Africa to the U.S. Many institutions in Western countries, especially the community colleges have a strong community service component that helps students recognize their responsibility to their community and others while gaining self-esteem for their contributions. This model allows community college students to leave campus and community for productive work, study and service abroad.

Our emphasis is on the community college because of its focus on business and technology at the technician level rather than the professional and graduate level. It is this level, we assume, that will provide much of the trained workforce that the developing economy of Africa needs.


Advantages of AVCC over Existing Educational Models

  1. The model allows for virtual access to the best faculty, research and laboratories in the world.
  2. It increases physical access and affordability.
  3. It allows for better student achievement and the introduction of better pedagogical techniques (more hands-on learning opportunities, independent research, less reliance on rote memorization).
  4. It trains and produces a critical mass of professionals necessary for economic take-off.
  5. It facilitates the creation of virtual institutions and linkages where resources could be shared by people and organization in physically unconnected places.
  6. It requires minimum capital investments and operating costs.
  7. It allows the introduction of more current programs of studies and curriculum content to adapt to demand and keep up with the latest advances in disciplines of studies.
  8. It encourages the spirit of entrepreneurship and competitiveness. The educational shift means a new way of thinking for faculty and administrators. The shift in the educational paradigm means that administrators and faculty have to be trained in the art and science of finding external resources to support their work. This will mean that a more diversified funding base will have to be secured. Also, faculty have to develop and initiate entrepreneurial activities. Furthermore, there is the need to develop an entrepreneurial culture over time. We propose to offer a number of fund-raising seminars on this topic.
  9. It instills the principles of lifelong learning and greater social equity as more people would now have access to higher education.
  10. It introduces an innovative delivery platform. Traditional education is based on group teaching, a form of synchronous communication. Teachers and students must communicate in real time. This is a teacher-centered form of education. But, individual learning thrives on asynchronous communication. You create a student-centered learning environment where and when the student wants it. Also, virtual learning offers better and superior pedagogical techniques (more hands-on learning opportunities, less reliance on rote memorization, quality and interactive education, multiple-media teaching materials, synchronous and asynchronous education).


Technological Issues to Be Considered

Online courses would reside on servers in the U.S. and other locations, not in African countries. Students would need access to a computer that can send and receive messages using a Web browser; they would need an e-mail program; they might need a word processing program; and, they would need reliable connectios to an Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Also, they might need, depending on the course, access to a VCR to play videotaped instruction, and perhaps tape recorded lectures. They would need in some cases commercial textbooks. The necessary hardware and software and instructional materials might be: a) at home; b) in the workplace, provided by an employer; c) in a "telecentre," or "community learning center," or, d) in a public or private school.

Clearly these needs would at the present time make taking such courses difficult or impossible technically for those who a) do not have, or cannot get, access to a computer, modem and an ISP. This situation would apply to many in Africa.

Potential students in the larger cities that have ISP access, and which have or might have "community or church learning centers" or other ways of providing the needed technology, might be served quickly if other issues can be attacked.

There is the need to address cultural issues so that this effort would not be seen as an attempt by foreign institutions to extend their influence to Africa (some may view it as cultural imperialism).



The traditional classroom of the campus university has been the primary means for achieving the ultimate goals of the university. Today, the model cannot deal with the educational challenges of the 21st century. Distance learning is now the flavor of the decade, particularly in Western countries. Even though traditional education will continue to be important for generations to come, we must utilize the power of new communication technologies to provide educational opportunities. It is an idea whose time has come.

The AVCC proposal is realistic, strategic and imaginative. It is our hope that through distance learning opportunities and job placement, fewer African people will leave the continent for better opportunities because they will be assured that opportunities for employment will be available at home.End of article

About the Authors

Osei Darkwa, Ph.D., MCSE, CCNA., is Assistant Professor at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is also a visiting professor at Washington University in St. Louis. 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, India, South Africa, and Kenya. He consults with international development agencies in exploring the establishment of pilot multipurpose community technology centers and has extensive involvement with community-based urban regeneration projects supported by local, state, and national government agencies. His publications cover distance education; virtual learning communities; multipurpose community telecentres; telemedicine; social welfare; gerontology; health care reform; poverty and economic development; social security reform; and retirement policies in Africa.

Dr. Steve Eskow is a former community college president, visionary thinker, founder of the College Consortium for International Study, and the International Association for Service Learning, and is currently President of the Pangaea Network. Pangaea makes software and develops content designed to enable colleges to provide not only "courses" but as much as possible of the entire "college experience" online to students and institutions locally and around the world. Dr. Eskow is seeking to support service learning and genuine cultural exchange into distance learning and to further in-person study/work/service exchanges among both students and faculty in conjunction with such learning.

Editorial history

Paper received 12 October 2000; accepted 1 November 2000.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Creating an African Virtual Community College: Issues and Challenges by Osei K. Darkwa and Steve Eskow
First Monday, volume 5, number 11 (November 2000),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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