SomaliREN’s efforts to support universities in the face of COVID-19 – A beacon of hope!

The COVID19 virus outbreak has had a severe impact on all sectors and especially the education sector. The social distancing policy called for the suspension of all gatherings, including classrooms. The directive by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Higher Education to suspend the classes at the schools and universities for two weeks has come at a very critical time for the universities who had to reschedule the classes and bring forward the midterm exams. Since the threat of the COVID19 pandemic still lingers, and the panic ensues, there is a good chance that this situation will last months.

The disruption of operations all around the world is a significant concern as it affects the sustainability of the universities. Since the majority of the Somali universities are privately-funded and rely on tuition fees structured around the semester enrolment, mid-term and final exam time, with limited to no financial support by the administrations, the effect of this pandemic is the harshest on them. The situation is worse for the professors and lecturers teaching at these universities who support families from their meager income.

To ensure continuity of operations and avoid disruptions, the Somali universities have been exploring alternative approaches to deliver the lectures online through virtual classrooms. The Somali Research and Education Network (SomaliREN), a research and education network established in 2009 by 6 Somali universities and owned by its member institutions, stepped up to respond to the adverse effects of COVID19 pandemic on the Somali universities.

The core mission of the organization is to drive the transformation of higher education and research institutions into world-class, productive institutions that can contribute positively to society through technology. Digital transformation is at the heart of the Network’s mission. The main focus of SomaliREN in the past was to improve access to affordable, high-speed connectivity at the campus to the member institutions, their faculty members, and students. The organization had achieved a critical milestone in its efforts to affordably connect the member universities among themselves and with their international peers recently.  The rollout of connectivity across the member institutions was completed with the support of the World Bank Group and the Ministry of Post, Telecommunications, and Technology.

SomaliREN has recently completed the rollout of its video-conferencing platform built with limited resources and the tenacity of its core team of engineers. The platform was used during the organization’s last annual council and board meetings to organize video-conferencing sessions in which its partner organizations joined the yearly general meeting remotely. When the directive to suspend classes came down a couple of weeks ago, SomaliREN rushed to take the platform to the production phase and invited the universities to take advantage of this solution. Now, 11 member universities out of the 20 current members are using the platform to deliver their classes online, while the remaining institutions are trying it out and training their faculty members on the adoption of the video-conferencing system for their classrooms.

The platform was initially implemented as part of the REConnect project (short for research and education connection), which aimed to connect the Somali professors and lecturers in the diaspora to the Somali universities to reverse the brain-drain that resulted from the prolonged conflicts. It has served as a useful tool that enabled the universities to respond to the COVID19 emergency. The feedback from the member was overwhelmingly positive; however, the challenge of administering and proctoring exams is still not resolved.

The platform is currently running on two servers donated by the World Bank Group in December last year. While these may be sufficient for handling the efficiently-managed utilization of the system by some of the universities, the scalability of the platform to meet the growing demand is a challenge that must be addressed now. Recent support from the community and especially the donation of two additional cloud machines by RENU for the period of the emergency, as well as a physical server donated by a member of our community, are expected to temporarily scale the platform to meet the growing demand from the universities. Efforts are now underway to build a load-balancing cluster that will contribute to the scalability and reliability of the video-conferencing system.     

Digital transformation in the Somali higher education institutions has been a work in progress in the past decade albeit its slow momentum. With the rise of free online courses and the ubiquity of massive open online courses (MOOCs), many in the higher education sector have been questioning the sustainability and effectiveness of the current traditional model of teaching and learning. However, the common challenges to digital transformation, including access to networked devices (mobile phones and computers), limited access to connectivity at home, and the will of the local operators and service providers to zero-rate education and research traffic still need to be addressed.  Not only innovative educational technology solutions but also well-informed policies are required to move the national digital transformation forward.

The COVID19 pandemic is the tipping point for digital transformation in many sectors and especially in higher education and research sector. SomaliREN helps the Somali higher education and research institutions to make that transformation seamless and impactful.

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