[A2k] Claudia Frittelli: African Universities: Ready for the Cloud?

Manon Ress manon.ress at keionline.org
Tue May 22 11:20:20 PDT 2012


African Universities: Ready for the Cloud?
May 21, 2012, 4:12 pm
By Guest Writer
The following is a guest post by Claudia Frittelli, a program officer
at the Carnegie Corporation of New York who helps oversee its effort
to strengthen African higher education. The grant maker has supported
several of the organizations mentioned in the opinion article.

Cloud computing—which in its most basic form is a virtual server
available via the Internet—is growing rapidly as the next
transformational stage of computing. Although most users may be
unaware, everyday programs like Hotmail, Google Docs, and recently
announced Google Drive, operate on the cloud principle of fully
mobile, instantly accessible, and transferable data.

The educational and social implications for cloud computing in the
developing world, particularly for the rapidly expanding education
sector in Africa, are also potentially transformational. In countries
where electricity is unreliable and educational resources are scarce,
cloud computing, like the pay-as-you-go mobile phone, can be a
powerful tool for socio-economic development, capable of liberating
users from the memory and processor constraints of location-based
computing. It can also increase the potential for research
collaborations with global universities.

African institutions could benefit rapidly—essentially leapfrogging to
the cloud—given that they are relatively unconstrained by existing IT
infrastructure. In addition, the fact that users can access the cloud
directly from their own devices and modems frees up institutional
electrical power and bandwidth.

As African universities increasingly work with other higher-education
institutions on a local and global level, cloud-based management could
help foster collaboration and sharing of research across
organizations, decreasing academic isolation, and encouraging African
researchers to engage in global conversations.

The Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa, which focuses
on improving public-health research and doctoral training, worked with
Google to develop a cloud-based virtual research platform enabling
nine African university partners, four research institutes, and eight
partners in North America, Europe, and Australia to collaborate on
research, and manage application processes, online assignments,
Webinars, and discussion forums.

By providing access to a hardware and software infrastructure that
clusters and integrates high-end computer networks, databases, and
scientific instruments, an Unesco and Hewlett-Packard effort is using
the cloud to facilitate “brain gain.” The project allows IT-intensive
science departments of African universities to use the cloud to
connect students to the valuable experience of emigrated researchers.

The Center for Higher Education Transformation in South Africa, a
policy research think tank, is allowing African universities to access
and manipulate performance data stored on Google’s public data
platform—a service that would otherwise by limited by their own IT
infrastructure. The American Council of Learned Society’s African
Humanities Program is now using Facebook to communicate with its
fellows and peer reviewers and to announce requests for proposals,
seminars, and publications.

Dropbox, a Web-based file hosting service, is advancing
student-centered learning by making it possible for students and
academic staff to share assignments for peer review and manage large
workloads together. The cloud provides an equitable platform for the
Open Educational Resource (OER) movement, which gives public access to
educational materials, and allows users the flexibility and technology
they need to create more innovative and interactive online
environments. Organizations like OER Africa are ensuring that African
educators are active contributors.

There are of course drawbacks to cloud computing, including security
and privacy concerns. Universities, especially smaller ones, must
consider whether their data is less secure when stored remotely on a
vendor’s servers. And cloud-stored data is subject to the potentially
arbitrary enforcement of privacy and security laws of the country
where the servers are located.

Bandwidth connectivity is the most crucial success factor. Even if
users bypass an institution’s bandwidth, they are still constrained by
a country’s bandwidth speed, cost, and regulation. Fiber optic cables,
now being laid on African coasts, some with landing points at
universities, will help ease some of these impediments to the cloud’s

Despite the potential obstacles, it’s clear that extending the reach
of sophisticated, high-powered computing technology to universities on
the continent could effectively bridge the gap separating Africa’s
researchers from their counterparts in developed nations.

Manon Anne Ress
Knowledge Ecology International
1621 Connecticut Ave, NW, Suite 500
Washington, DC 20009 USA
manon.ress at keionline.org

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