By Mohamed Saliou Camara, Ph.D.
The twenty-first century has ushered in an era of ever-heightened power of ideas and knowledge. Although natural resources, such as the ones that make the African continent one of the wealthiest regions of the globe, remain vital to economic prosperity through industrialization; and although labor-intensive and capital-intensive activities are central to the creation of such prosperity, the current revolution in information and communication technology makes ideas and knowledge all the more critical. Contrasting the decline of Detroit, the former automobile hub of America, and the rise of Silicon Valley, the information and communication technology capital of America and the world, may seem to be a cliche. It does, nevertheless, speak to that critically.
The World Wide Web and its multimedia capabilities have created the proverbial global village where the generation and flow of knowledge is as important, if not more so, as that of trade and investment. In this global village, the dual process of teaching and learning is no longer strictly confined to the traditional scholastic “ivory tower.” Much of it takes place on the electronic superhighway. This is to say that students everywhere have, or should have the opportunity to learn from sources around the world, provided that they have access to the World Wide Web.
Retrieving information, however, is only one step among many toward proper knowledge acquisition. For one thing, information retrieved from the Internet or any source, for that matter, must be subjected to methodical verification through cross-checking and rigorous critical thinking. The latter should enable students to maximize the effectiveness of their research by ascertaining the soundness of the retrieved information and its relevance to whatever projects they might be working on.
Africans abroad have much to offer in this area. Many of them are professional educators and scholars/researchers whose contributions to the production, dissemination, and advancement of knowledge have earned them recognition and respect. From Europe, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas where they live and work these learned Africans can utilize the resources at their disposal and substantially contribute to the enhancement of education in Africa. Aside from the technologies mentioned earlier those resources include the teaching techniques and research methodologies that they have honed throughout their careers in some of the world’s best institutions of higher learning and research.
In close collaboration with fellow educators and scholars/researchers based in Africa, Africans abroad can develop distance-learning capabilities that will make sound, relevant, and methodically packaged information available to African students at low to no cost to them. Such capabilities may include lectures, workshops, seminar-type discussions, and companion readings to be delivered in the forms of YouTube videos, Skype conferencing, thumb drives, CDs, and DVDs. User-friendly web sites and blogs can also be used as delivery mechanisms to schools and universities in Africa. In the past a number of African NGOs and foreign counterparts donated books to African schools and universities. Now it is time to supplement the effort with tech-based pedagogical materials that can be efficiently delivered and shared.
A key goal here is to reduce passive learning and increase active learning whereby students are given the opportunity and the tools to become participants in the creation, acquisition, and implementation of knowledge. To that end, the contribution of African educators abroad should help change the prevailing stage-on-the-sage approach to teaching so as to incorporate a guide-on-the-side approach to learning. The idea is not to substitute one for the other, but rather to harmoniously combine the two. This is to say that traditional lecturing (sage on the stage) still has its place in the classroom. It just needs to be complemented with more interactive, student-centered, and inquiry-guided learning whereby the instructor is more of a facilitator (guide on the side). In other words, educators ought to be able to create a pedagogical environment in which teaching and learning become dialectical interwoven.
Evidently, the infrastructural, financial, and technological challenges facing Africa must be taken into account, including the limited availability of computers and access to the Internet for a large number of students and educators. Correspondingly, it is imperative to strike a balance between the desire to make African education highly competitive (idealism) and the ability to devise projects that are ambitious yet practical and workable (realism). For this reason, emphasis is placed here on the use of thumb drives, CDs, and DVDs for the dissemination of information and knowledge. These simple yet exceptionally efficient devices can carry large volumes of information and make substantive improvement to the collections of African school and university libraries. The Barnes & Noble Portable Professor series is a suitable model for this initiative in that it made high-quality academic information and knowledge readily available to students, researchers/scholars, and the general public on CDs at a reasonable cost.
As mentioned earlier, members of the African Diaspora have been contributing to the advancement of education in their respective countries. The outcomes of these efforts could be optimized by creating discipline-specific mechanisms that would enable educators abroad from various African countries to work together, develop and deliver to African schools and universities courses, seminars, and other such pedagogical materials in their respective fields of expertise. This aspect of the initiative could be carried out abroad with the help of Africa-centered international academic organizations such as the U.S.-based African Studies Association (ASA), the Canadian Association of African Studies (CAAS), the European Conference on African Studies (ECAS), and the African Studies Association of Australasia and the Pacific (AFSAAP). On the continent, the project could be implemented in partnership with continent-wide entities such as the Association of African Universities (AAU), the multi-campus Pan-African University (PAU), and the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA).