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A Dirge to the Nigerian Research and Education Network

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By Austin Okere

A Dirge to the Nigerian Research and Education Network, SiliconNigeria

There is no cheer about the recent pronouncements from the hierarchy in the education sector and the long-term impact on our youth.

“Nigerian government reverses resumption of schools, says no WAEC exam for now.” was the screaming headline in the Premium Times on July 10, 2020.

The Minister of State for Education, Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba, announced during a media briefing on July 6 that the West African Examination Council (WAEC) examination will now take place between August 4 and September 5. In swift contradiction, the education minister, Adamu Adamu, speaking to State House correspondents at the end of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting presided by President Muhammadu Buhari, said Nigerian schools will not reopen any time soon “until it is safe to do so because of the COVID-19 pandemic”.

The situation at the tertiary level is not any better, as the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) through an interview of their President, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi with the Punch Newspaper on June 16, 2020 has declared that E-Learning cannot work in Nigeria. It seems that Prof. Ogunyemi totally overlooked Private schools in his pronouncement; many of whom have completed the syllabus for the current term through online classes at home.

The Ausso Leadership Academy (#ALA), foremost institution providing mentorship to Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs to scale their businesses geometrically has transitioned her models and frameworks online and continues to impact companies with game changing ideas to thrive now and beyond. Far afield, both Harvard and Princeton have announced plans to bring back students for the fall semester, albeit, all course instruction will be delivered online, including for students living on campus. Coursera is partnered with 192 institutions from 43 countries and offering more than 3,200 online courses in 13 languages.

The irony is that Nigerian Universities would have had six years of leapfrog experience in online learning if we had taken the opportunity presented by the NgREN and consolidated on the budding shoots. But like most opportunities that come our way, we display gross unpreparedness and unprecedented nonchalance in the face of opportunity cost to our future generations.

The COVID-19 pandemic is real, and we have to take all necessary precautions and follow social distancing and other protocols advised by the Nigeran Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). But not knowing how long it will last, we cannot put our lives on permanent pause. We have to adjust to the new normal and get on with it. Companies like Zoom and Amazon have understood this and have ended up net beneficiaries.

I wrote this article four years ago when it seemed that the NgREN will become an abandoned project, and another of the many white elephant projects dotting our landscape.

What can we learn from this in order to forestall a reoccurrence?

One of the proudest moments in the history of the Nigerian Education sector was the successful implementation and commissioning of the Nigerian Research and Education Network (NgREN).

Being the first of its kind in Sub-Saharan Africa, the pomp and pageantry that accompanied the unveiling event seemed justified and earned. The network which boasted 465mbps of internet capacity represented 20 times the average connectivity capacity leveraged by the universities. This was a project conceptualized, deployed and managed by Nigerians under a consortium of indigenous companies including CWG Plc, Airtel, Medalion, Resourcery, and Phase 3; finally, a project for us by us.

A Dirge to the Nigerian Research and Education Network, SiliconNigeria

The idea of the NgREN was conceptualized as far back as 2004. After a long period of dormancy, it was revived under the auspices of the Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC) and the Committee of Vice Chancellors (CVC) in January 2010.The objective was for a Research and Education Network that will connect all Higher Institutions of Learning together, and to the global Research and Education Network. The achievement made Nigeria the first in sub-Saharan Africa to join the league of countries in Europe and America that had functional Online Research & Education Networks.

A catalytic fund was secured from the World Bank as grant, and counterpart funding by the Federal Government of Nigeria in mid-2012 for the first phase of the project, while the procurement cycle was concluded in February 2013.

The first phase of the project which connected 27 Universities, the CVC and the NUC, with over one million users, delivered 155mbps capacity to each university and connected to the Multiprotocol Layered Switch core network, which had a 10Gbps capacity, as well as 465mbps internet capacity, providing high definition telepresence capabilities for real-time collaboration, voice over internet protocol, shared access to research content and joint experimentation projects.

A Dirge to the Nigerian Research and Education Network, SiliconNigeria

The second phase was planned to cover five more clusters of about 100 institutions and five million users. Subsequent phases were to cover all higher education institutes numbering over 600. The network was to be connected to the London Open Exchange via an international private leased circuit, and offer additional services such as web hosting, unified communication, digital library collection, video bridging and archiving services.

This indeed would have afforded Nigerian Universities the opportunity to take a quantum leap in online learning, and significantly improve their low ranking in quality and reach of teaching and research output, and thereby bringing them closer to their global peers. But alas, this was not to be; as the much heralded NgREN has been shut down for over eleven months due to non-payment of the segment bandwidth fees. The consortium of local providers however, left all the equipment intact in good faith, awaiting the provision of bandwidth to restore services.

Apart from the immense benefit in value and global trends, the economies of scale of the project saved the universities immense costs, as embarking individually on such a project would be grossly sub-optimal and prohibitively expensive.

Nigeria has a long history of poor project execution and abandonment. According to journalists Chuka Uroko and Joshua Bassey, in the past couple of years alone, it is estimated that over 11,886 federal government projects with an estimated value of N7.7trillion have been abandoned.

Should we start singing a funeral dirge to a well conceptualized and implemented system as the NgREN, with all its benefits after spending so much tax payers’ money on it? By this action of omission or commission we would have inadvertently reversed the solid gains made in the broadband transformation agenda and shut our youth from critical online learning and the emerging digital economy.

A Dirge to the Nigerian Research and Education Network, SiliconNigeria

The importance of broadband to online learning, the digital economy and social development cannot be overemphasized. This is underscored by the open letter from the Global Broadband Commission to the G20 leaders’ meeting as far back as 2012, wherein they enumerated the importance of broadband in moving the global economy onto a higher growth trajectory, and in generating sustainable, social and economic growth of all nations, especially literacy development to address inequity and deliver inclusive growth for all.

In particular, they argued that broadband enabled technologies are simulating fresh innovation and inspiring a new generation of digital entrepreneurs. The digital era will produce a whole new range of digital careers and industries of the future. Broadband reduces barriers to entry, offering opportunities for small and medium enterprises to challenge existing hierarchies, to innovate, compete and grow.

The targets of the NgREN were to make broadband universal among our youth in higher institutions and their surrounding communities, make it affordable, connect homes and businesses, and get more people online. In essence, it would have enabled our institutions to have the same opportunities to learning as those in the developed world, and impacted their communities as is currently witnessed in places such as Silicon Valley in America.

A Dirge to the Nigerian Research and Education Network, SiliconNigeria

With such nonchalance to educational development in our country, it is no surprise that none of our local universities is included in the ranking of the world’s best 1,000. Tertiary education in Nigeria has suffered from long periods of neglect to the extent that parents would rather take their Children to countries like Ghana, UK, US and Canada.

It is estimated that Nigerians studying in British and American Universities have spent over N137billion on tuition and living expenses in the last two academic sessions. If the over 71,000 Nigerian students who pay tuition fees in Ghana were to contribute the N160billion they spend annually, they would account for about 40 per cent of the Nigerian education budget. According to Mr. Ian Stewart, a member of the British Parliament, there are about 30,000 Nigerian students in the UK alone.

A Dirge to the Nigerian Research and Education Network, SiliconNigeria

In the wake of the expressed resolve of the Muhammadu Buhari led federal government to make public institutions more accountable and responsive to the needs of the society, it is expedient to immediately revive the NgREN project, and in the medium to long term properly situate it, including exploring Private, Public Partnership (PPP) to ensure that this laudable project does not die an avoidable death. We should as a nation learn to stop being wasteful in the face of acute scarcity and make the most of our scare resources.

Austin Okere is the Founder of CWG Plc, the largest security in the technology sector of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, and Entrepreneur-in-Residence at CBS, New York. Austin also serves on the Advisory Board of the Global Business School Network, and on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Innovation and Intrapreneurship. Austin now runs the Ausso Leadership Academy focused on Business and Entrepreneurial Mentorship

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Education

AIT Emerges Ghana’s Best Tech Varsity at 2020 UMB Awards

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AIT Emerges Ghana’s Best Tech Varsity at 2020 UMB Awards, SiliconNigeria

Accra Institute of Technology (AIT) [www.ait.edu.gh], consistently ranked the top private University in Ghana and one of leading educational institutions in West Africa, has been announced the winner of the three most prestigious awards at the just-ended 2020 UMB Ghana Tertiary Awards in Accra.

The AIT was awarded: The Most Outstanding Institution in COVID-19 Times Award; The Best Technology University Award and; The Best Educator of The Year Award to the President of AIT.

As one of the ECOWAS sub-region’s top education centres, AIT is home to thousands of Nigerians and other West African students. Accra Institute of Technology has won the Best Technology University for the fourth year running.

This enviable position was put to test when COVID-19 set in with the university coming out with excellence in demonstrating how to deploy technologies and systems to ensure uninterrupted academic activity in an educational institution even in the face of a global pandemic.

AIT since its inception in 2009 has extensively been deploying cutting-edge educational delivery technologies and systems to support teaching and learning in all its undergraduate and postgraduate programs.

“As the only university in Ghana operating both campus-based and Open University systems, AIT is one of the few universities in the sub-region to easily and seamlessly roll-over all its academic program delivery and operations online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Therefore, campus-based face-to-face teaching and learning had zero impact on the operations of the university. This success among many others is what accounted for the award for the Most Outstanding Institution in Covid-19 times,” said the Registrar and Chief of Administration of AIT, Mr. Dominic Osei-Boakye while receiving the awards, on behalf of the university.

He added: “The AIT success story cannot be told without mentioning the creativity, strong leadership, and direction from their able President, Prof. Clement Dzidonu. The award-winning Professor has, through AIT transformed educational delivery in the country using Technology. It is little wonder then that he deservedly won the Best Educator of The Year Award.

Mr. Osei Boakye expressed appreciation to the organizers for recognizing AIT’s achievements as a leading technological university providing quality tertiary education in Ghana. The Award is instituted and awarded by the Ghana Tertiary Awards.

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Anchor Varsity, New Horizons Inaugurate IT Empowerment Centre

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Anchor Varsity New Horizons Inaugurate IT Empowerment Centre, SiliconNigeria

Anchor University has partnered with the world’s largest IT training organization, New Horizons to commission a new ultra-tech ICT and e-business centre.

 Speaking during the commissioning in Lagos, the university vice chancellor, Professor Joseph Afolayan, said that the university is passionate about raising exceptionally competent graduates who are conscientious global players in their different field of works.

He said he was convinced that this partnership and the impact of the quality infrastructure being deployed and commissioned will complement the academic regiments and that Anchor University students will make optimum use of the facility for personal and professional development.

“Anchor University does not have time to wait or waste, we are headed to achieving the impossible as a university and that within the slightest possible time. The plan is to widen our horizon and take the leap in all we do, we can’t afford to wait or crawl”, Afolayan added. 

The managing director and the chief executive officer, New Horizons, Mr. Tim Akano praised the university management for deeming it fit to partner with New Horizons in order to build a new and higher profiled graduates who are empowered digitally to become the toast of employers globally or successful technopreneurs like the world’s richest Technopreneurs like Mark Zuckeberg, Bill Gates, among others. 

Akano said the deployment of fourth industrial revolution (4IR) training skill sets like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Data Analytics, Internet of Things (IoTs), etc under the partnership programme are strategic measures to empower Nigerian graduates to be at par with their more advantaged foreign colleagues as well as ultimately position Nigeria at the front-row of IT-driven nations of the world both structurally and economically. 

He noted that the project-driven entrepreneurship empowerment approach will serve to stem the loss of promising Nigerian graduates to current situation where many graduates seek to travel abroad to engage in menial and condescending jobs.

The chief universities operations officer, New Horizons, Dr. Bolaji Olaoye assured that the computer hardware, software and courseware are original equipment manufacturer (OEMs) standard and every student will be trained and mentored by internationally certified technical instructors. He said the university students will be groomed with the same top level standards which New Horizons has established across the globe.

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Education

How Internet Connectivity In Public Schools Can Save Nigeria’s Education System

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How Internet Connectivity In Public Schools Can Save Nigeria’s Education System, SiliconNigeria

A year ago when secondary schools across Nigeria were kicking off the 2019/2020 academic session, not many public secondary schools in the country, especially those in the rural areas, would have listed internet connectivity as one of the essential infrastructures needed to boost learning and open a door of opportunities to the students and teachers. Today, in the space of one year, a lot has changed.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the world into a lockdown in March, has further brought to the fore, the need for internet connectivity in schools and why digital learning is essential for today’s classroom experience across the country.

Data from UNESCO revealed that, globally, over 1.2 billion children were out of the classroom in April 2020 due to the pandemic. While they were stuck at home during the lockdown, the learning of many students was halted while some in the private schools took classrooms online to make up for lost hours.

The tremendous learning opportunities that internet connectivity brings to education were better experienced during the lockdown when students and teachers took learning and interaction online where they had access to a plethora of learning resources.

Students without access to internet connectivity miss out on several educational opportunities that prepares them to function in the global economy, which in turn negatively impacts the future of the country.

Despite the challenges of infrastructure, Nigerian private schools appear to be moving with the rest of the world as they have better access to the internet to improve education and the learning experience. However, the same cannot be said about public schools who are still miles behind in internet adoption.

Cost and technology infrastructure are the two obvious barriers that worry stakeholders and educationalists. Technology infrastructure is expensive, and setting it up in public schools, where a vast majority of students come from low-income homes where they live on less than $2 per day, is another hard piece of the puzzle.

According to the American Internet Society, the best results of internet connectivity in public schools are likely to be achieved through strategic partnerships between government and private sector stakeholders like the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), as well as teachers and educational administrators which has been the case in some parts of the world.

In 2008, Nokia partnered the South African government to develop ‘MoMaths’, a wide-ranging set of maths problems that can be accessed and answered via internet-enabled mobile phones. The project gave low-income learners access to high-quality education and allowed high school pupils across South Africa to learn theory and solving sums on their handsets as a result. Research by Nokia shows that students’ average maths scores improve by an average of 14 percentage points when using the service.

In Nigeria, an example of such public-private sector synergy is the project being championed by ipNX, a pioneering and leading information, communications and technology (ICT) company.

From 2011, for a number of years, ipNX provided free internet service to 55 public secondary schools in Lagos state. The initiative, which is part of ipNX’s corporate social investment dedicated to education, was recently extended to Oyo State to solve one of the biggest impending factors limiting the adoption of e-learning in public schools.

On October 8, 2020, ipNX unveiled free high speed broadband internet services set up at two public secondary schools in Oyo State – Government College Ibadan and Bishop Phillips Academy, Monatan, in a bid to improve access to technology for students and teachers.

According to Group Executive Director, HR & Corporate Services, ipNX, Folashade Efiong-Bassey, the project “will facilitate the goals of Oyo State in improving the education, science and technology sectors, which is a vision of the administration of His Excellency, Governor Seyi Makinde. 

Moreover, this initiative complements the recent Federal Government intention to implement Zero-rating for education websites as part of efforts to ameliorate the impact of Covid-19 on Nigeria’s education sector.”

In no small measure, broadband internet will provide more opportunities for students and teachers to find the best practices, create new solutions, connect and inspire each other, all towards the achievement of better learning outcomes. With the empowerment of students in this way, the digital transformation and socio-economic development of Nigeria appear to be on course.

The end goal of this investment transcends the outcome of students performance from just passing exams but to actually harnessing opportunities from scholarships, jobs, employability training, and contribution to overall national development.

As part of efforts to solve the challenge of connectivity in the country, the Nigerian government has also developed the second phase of the Nigerian National Broadband Plan 2020 – 2025. The goal of the plan is to deliver data download speeds across Nigeria, with effective coverage available to at least 90% of the population by 2025 at a price not more than N390 per 1GB of data (i.e. 2% of median income or 1% of minimum wage).  

This move by ipNX to provide internet connectivity in Nigerian public schools is another significant contribution to the actualisation of the government’s National Broadband Plan. As Nigeria moves to achieve this ambitious, but realistic plan, public-private sector partnerships like the one between ipNX and the state governments, will prove to be the much needed fuel to fire up the engine of Nigeria’s education and human development.

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