The importance of academic peering Q&A with Prof. Deirdre Carabine – Virtual University of Uganda

Professor Deirdre Carabine is the co-founder of VUU, the Virtual University of Uganda. A philosopher by training she is passionate about embracing ICT to enhance the higher education experience. At the UbuntuNet-Connect conference last November she presented a paper on How ICTs and Collaboration with NRENs are changing the Face of Higher Education. Here is her testimony, from the academic perspective.

Tell us more about the virtual university of uganda?

The Virtual University of Uganda is the 1st online-only university in Sub-Saharan Africa. We have just celebrated our fifth birthday and awarded our first graduates. We currently deliver 4 diploma and master programmes (Public Health, ICT for Development, International Development and Business Administration). VUU allows students who live in rural areas and who cannot travel to pursue higher education studies. We have students from Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Burundi, and many other African countries, and even some students form Europe.

What is academic peering?

In my view, academic peering is human networking. In a world where we see the growth of the Internet of People and Lifi, the lonely academic in his/her ivory tower is a thing of the past. Networking, or academic peering is as inevitable as using a computer even though many academics still resist it. My central idea is that we ought to embrace it because academic peering can have numerous benefits: it can save human power hours and cut costs, it can enhance content quality, it can expand audiences and bring the very best content to more students, and it can enhance the development of critical minds that are creative and can think outside the traditional box.

When do ICT and NRENs come into play?

While academic peering can start with individual academic staff or even a few institutions coming together, in thinking the big picture, peering is achievable nationally and regionally by using our NRENs to network us cheaply and efficiently.

However enabling research networks achieve their self-imposed goals cannot be done solely by the NREN. The importance of NRENs for academic research and teaching is indisputable. According to Prof. Francis Tusubira (2011), NRENs not only provide “dedicated high speed networks that enable access to online resources for students and researchers”, but also “support content-level collaboration in Research and Education.” “Support content-level collaboration”: this is precisely where we need to start our reflections as academic staff. Here we shift the burden of responsibility from the provider and enabler, the NREN, to the end users, the academics and the researchers, who are the content creators.

How can we empower academics to harness icTs and collaborate with NreNs to achieve their goals?

NRENs are the “enablers” in the sense that they are the backbone supporting our teaching and research efforts. In the past, of course, when books and learning resources were stored in libraries, NRENs had no role. With the diversification and democratization of knowledge and learning materials, a country’s teaching and research institutions now need their NRENs to do what they are formed to do, that is: to be “specialised internet service providers dedicated to supporting the needs of the Research and Education communities within a country.”

And if NRENs are to be enablers of research, this means that significant changes have to be implemented at the grassroots university level.

The good news is that we, the teaching staff, are being forced to change because student expectations and learning practices have changed. The serious-minded student will often explore a topic widely on Google and obtain good up-to-date resources. All scholars need to engage with that and begin exploring for themselves.

How can ICTs and collaboration with the NREN increase teachers’ value to their students?

The world’s foremost intellects in the university world have numerous videoed lectures uploaded to the internet; we can easily use these to stimulate and broaden our students’ learning experiences. We can listen to Amartya Sen on peacebuilding, Richard Branson on entrepreneurship, Stephen Hawking on the future of robotics, Amina Mama on feminism … all these are much more interesting than listening to one lecturer for three hours every week for a full semester. It simply takes a little creativity.

But let me widen the net (so to speak): what about co-teaching? I teach in situ while my colleague’s class can see the lecture while at a different location and then the next week we swap places. One course, two teachers, interested students, and more importantly, increased inter-university student interaction. This is the individual academic peering that I believe is made possible through our NRENs.

Gone are the days when the department budget had to look for sufficient funds for guest lecturers from other universities: today, this is easily achieved with all parties in their own location using the video-conferencing facilities provided by our NRENs.

What about staff worrying about earning less because of the rationalization made possible by ICTs?

ICTs and collaboration with NRENs provide new opportunities, for interactive feedback between classes to share, invited guests, and after videoconferencing with professors and students from the other side of the world and more. While all this takes time to prepare, the content and experience end up being more enriching for all. It is the duty of the universities to value thesenew skills and ways of teaching. As Isaid earlier ICTs also allow universities to save money on infrastructure expenditures but this is possible only if we can change the academic mindset and balance our budgets in a different way.

There is a need for ICT savvy academics in universities to influence their deans and IT departments to embrace collaboration with NRENs to showcase what is possible. Equally there is a need to increase the use of ICTs in teacher training to match future students’ expectations. Physical classrooms, lecturer’s offices, and student residences are not necessarily an integral part of a university’s infrastructure today; rather, investment in appropriate technology is the key priority in setting up the programmes of tomorrow. This is where academic institutions need to rely on their NREN and work to make it happen.

What does the future look like?

While it is very satisfying to be moving in the direction of advanced networks on the continent, we note that the game has two major players now: engineers and academics!

The enablers need imputers, content providers. In order for a NREN to be truly successful, the nuts and bolts parts, the backbone, must be enfleshed by local researchers and educators who realise the benefits of peering, of networking, or simply, of sharing knowledge.

As our local NREN, NRENU (2016) put it in their newsletter outlining their development, growth, and future plans: “The third level envisaged is where transformation mostly happens and we shall refer to it as the level of deeper sharing of resources. The resources to be shared include: highly skilled human resource (such as academic staff, researchers and other specialists); high value research facilities (such as expensive lab equipment, high performance computer (HPC) facilities, and massive research data); jointly utilised education content hosted by shared repositories.’’ Our NRENs have done a wonderful job in enabling university peering. The future will be a joint initiative.

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