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Africa: eLearning Africa

AfricaFocus Bulletin
May 29, 2007 (070529)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Over 1200 eLearning enthusiasts from 85 countries are attending the annual eLearning Africa conference in Nairobi this week. The countries with the largest participation are the host, Kenya, followed by Nigeria, South Africa, and Uganda.

The event, taking place from May 28 to 30, attracts top policymakers as well as African and international specialists who are actively engaged in a host of innovative initiations to make use of technology for African education at all levels. Last year's conference, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, attracted 832 participants from 80 countries, 70% of them from Africa.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains interviews by the eLearning Africa press team with two participants: Dr. Tunde Adegbola, who is working on applying speech recognition technology to African tone languages such as Yoruba, and Dr. Elijah Omwenga, director of ICT Services at the University of Nairobi, speaking about the African Network of Scientific and Technological Institutions (ANSTI), which groups 99 member institutions.

Additional background information and interviews are available on the eLearning Africa website at:

Interviewees include Ms. Aida Opoku-Mensah, of the Economic Commission for Africa, Ms. Shafika Isaacs of Schoolnet Africa, Kuzvinetse Peter Dzvimbo of the African Virtual University, and Ms. Faith Macharia, of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE).

For earlier AfricaFocus Bulletins on ICT and Africa, see

New on AfricaFocus Website

AfricaFocus Plus: search AfricaFocus and seven other websites selected for quality information on African issues

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Interview with Dr. Tunde Adegbola, African Languages Technology Initiative (Alt-i)

Tunde Adegbola is Executive Director of African Languages Technology Initiative, a research organisation with a mandate of making modern ICTs relevant to African languages. A person with a dual career - he is both a research scientist and a consulting engineer. Mr. Adegbola was involved in investigating the application of Cellular Automata Transforms (CAT) to psychoacoustic theory for the compression of digital audio.

His current research interests lie primarily in ICT for development and speech technologies, with particular interests in the Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) of African tone languages. Among his achievements as a consulting engineer is the design, supply, and installation of Africa Independent Television (AIT), as well as the design of Channels Television and MITV, all in Lagos, Nigeria.

As Executive Director of Alt-i, he is actively involved in promoting multidisciplinary and inter-disciplinary cooperation between the sciences and the arts in Nigerian universities and research centers. Tunde has extensive teaching experience, having taught at the tertiary level from 1981 to the present. He taught Telecommunications for many years at the Ogun State Polytechnic (now Moshood Abiola Polytechnic) Abeokuta, Nigeria and has been teaching Artificial Intelligence and Information Networking at the post-graduate level in the Africa Regional Center for Information Science at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria since 1991.

For more information:

QUeLa: Dr. Adegbola, the African Languages Technology Initiative is working both in the fields of computational linguistics and literacy improvement. How do you link these activities together?

Dr. Tunde Adegbola: As an organisation, the aim and core objectives of the African Languages Technology Initiative (Alt-i) encompass the need to make modern ICTs relevant to African Languages. As we go further into the information age, more and more human communication will be mediated by machines, and this will raise the demand, not only for humans to communicate through machines but also to communicate with machines. There is no reason whatsoever why we should be made to do this in English. In order to achieve these modes of communication in African languages however, there is a need to supplement the present objectives of the study of linguistics in African universities. Within the contexts of the linguistics of African languages, we need to develop frameworks and theories that can be passed on to and used by practitioners in Human Language Technology (HLT). To this end, Alt-i is involved in developing the relevant human and other intellectual resources to facilitate this process.

Be that as it may however, we recognise the fact that modern ICTs are almost infinitely modifiable. This is by virtue of the fact that the hardware and software components are separate and can therefore be appropriated to specific needs. For Africa and the rest of the developing world, this is a fundamental capacity that must be properly exploited. The possibility of adapting modern ICT to our specific and unique needs puts great responsibility on us to address our problems ourselves. Hence, in the process of developing the resources that are needed to make modern ICTs relevant to African languages, we also recognise, as a by-product, the capacity to address some of the debilitating problems of African societies, one of them being illiteracy. Because modern ICTs are inherently multimedia in their manipulation of information, they hold great possibilities for rejuvenating orality in Africa. We think the time for "oral literacy" has come!

QUeLa. Could you tell us more about the particular linguistic needs of Africans?

TA: Africans need to be able to live their lives in the 21st century and profit from the information age within the context of their local languages. They should not have to be able to speak English, French, or Portuguese in order to profit from the information age. There is an interesting and significant correlation between the use of a community's mother tongue in the learning of science and technology and the capacity to achieve industrial breakthrough. We cannot ignore the manifestation of this correlation in the success of the so-called Asian Tigers. If we also observe the low state of industrialisation in African countries in which people are still struggling to learn science and technology in foreign languages, we should begin to make some salutary conclusions. Because language is the fundamental vehicle of information, the information age will surely demand a lot more from language than the industrial age did. Hence, the impediments of using foreign languages in our everyday lives is bound be more serious in the information age.

Secondly, even though one third of the languages spoken in the world are African languages, many of these languages do not have writing systems. Many of those that are written have writing systems that were not taken into consideration when the operating systems for various computer platforms were developed. Hence, apart of the traditional levels of endangerment that these languages contend with - the inability to use them on modern ICTs - imposes new levels of endangerment. The endangerment of a language also implies endangerment of the cultures they bear and by extension, the social, as well as the economic livelihoods of the people who speak them.

At yet another level, due to the multiplicity of African languages, there is usually a need for a third language (English, French, or Portuguese) before two Africans from two different linguistic realities can understand each other. This definitely will have some effect on their ability to engage synergistically. QUeLa: In what ways do your ongoing projects address these issues?

TA: Many African languages are tone languages, and these tones are usually indicated by diacritical signs. Based on the design of most computer operating systems, it is easy to place characters next to each other but extremely difficult to place diacritical marks on top of or under characters. Some African languages even use unique letter forms that are not available in traditional computer character sets. The UNICODE consortium is working on some of these problems, but the onus still rest on the users of a language to make UNICODE work for them. These are some of the challenges of African languages that we address. We develop efficient and ergonomic computer keyboard layouts and mapping software that make it possible to type in African languages on the common desktop computer.

In addition, we believe that one of the ways that modern ICTs can benefit African languages is in machine translation. This will obviate the need for a third language when two Africans from different linguistic realities need to communicate and thereby promote and enhance mutual understanding.

Above all, we are committed to developing speech recognition and speech synthesis software for African languages. With speech recognition, an illiterate person can speak to the computer, and the computer will produce a written version of the speech. With speech synthesis software on the other hand, a computer can turn written text into speech. This holds the potentiality of redefining literacy for us.

Even though these are still largely infant technologies, we must ensure that African languages can benefit from them as soon as they mature.
QUeLa: Your idea is to reinforce peoples' "capacity to interact with literature" to enable them to do more than just concentrate on reading and writing abilities. What is the philosophy behind this approach?

TA: First, I must acknowledge the power of literacy. It takes information and knowledge from the aural domain to the visual domain. Certainly it does something good to the mind in that it paints pictures. However, it presents a steep learning curve to the learner, particularly to adult illiterates and thus weakens their capacity to participate in development processes. The end result is that these illiterates are excluded from the things that vitally concern them regardless of the volume of information and knowledge that they may have. The end result is that their already impoverished communities are further deprived of the wealth of their experiences just because these otherwise wise people cannot write down their experiences or read the experiences of others.

Our goal, therefore, is to include such people in development processes by providing them with alternative technologies to pen-and-paper information technology. It should be possible to provide them with computer-based systems equipped with touch-sensitive CRT, LCD, or TFT screens with attached loudspeakers, instead of the popular but exclusionary ink-stained paper. Our ambition (among many other things) is to redefine literacy, changing it from the "ability to read and write" to the "capacity to interact with literature" and thereby change the condition of African adult illiterates "from illiteracy to e-literacy".

QUeLa: Could you give us any illustrative examples?

TA: For example, we have developed interactive information kiosks that can be used to pass important information to illiterates in their local languages. One of the most pressing information dissemination demands in Africa today relates to the need for heightened awareness of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. For many people without the ability to read and write, word of mouth - with its attendant risks of inaccurate reproduction - is about the only option. Of course radio can and has been very well used in this regard, but radio is essentially a one-way communication medium. The broadcaster usually assumes she has been heard, understood, and agreed with. With radio, useful as it is, the capacity for feedback is limited. But these interactive information kiosks not only pass vital information to their users, they also collect useful feedback information from the users for the information providers. The possibilities are almost limitless!
QUeLa: How far have you got with "Redefining Literacy"?

TA: We have obtained very useful research results in the process of laying down a strong theoretical basis for the project. We are collaborating with the Africa Regional Centre for Information Science (ARCIS) and the Department of Linguistics and African Languages, both in the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. To this end, we have been engaging post-graduate students of the University in aspects of the project and our research work is advancing, particularly in Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) of Yoruba. In addition, one of our associates, Dr. Tunji Odejobi, of the Department of Computer Engineering at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, Nigeria (just about an hour's drive away from us in Ibadan) is also working on Text-To-Speech (TTS) Synthesis of Yoruba, and we are sharing research results. With functional ASR and TTS systems, we can redefine literacy.

Even though we conceived the "Redefining Literacy" project about two years ago, we have been merely nibbling at the edges in the first two years due to lack of funding for the project. But these two years of nibbling have produced significant research results. The encouraging research results have, therefore, emboldened us to go out and seek funding for the project. Hence, we developed a five-year plan for the first phase of the project, and we have received some funding for the first year of the five-year plan from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA). We are now working full blast on the ASR of Yoruba and are in the process of developing a set of good practices for the ASR of other African tone languages. Based on available research results, we expect to deliver a functional speech recogniser for Yoruba by late 2007 or early 2008.

Interview with Dr. Elija Omwenga, Director of ICT Services at the University of Nairobi, Kenya

For more information:

ANSTI, the African Network of Scientific and Technological Institutions, is an organ of cooperation that embraces African institutions engaged in university-level training and research in the fields of science and technology. Founded in January 1980 through the financial support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Government of Germany, the network has grown over the years to become an effective institution for the development of human resource capacity in the fields of Basic and Engineering Sciences. To date it has 99 member institutions in 33 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. eLearning Africa: Could you explain the main focus of the UNESCO / ANSTI ICT project?

Dr. Elija Omwenga: The central activity of the African Network for Scientific and Technological Institutions is to train university staff to enable them to convert lecture notes to eLearning format and hence improve on the quality of science and engineering education. In this connection, UNESCO has adopted a multi-stage approach in which a needs assessment covering five East African universities was done and areas that needed attention were identified - chief of these being training in e-content development.

Various e-content training programme approaches have been mounted. First, a detailed e-content training curriculum was developed and used during training-of-trainers workshops. Other activities include assisting the trained staff to organise national training programmes and providing some of them with grants to develop eLearning materials in various subjects in science and engineering.

The original aim of ANSTI, which has remained unchanged over the years, is to develop active collaboration among African scientific institutions to promote research and development in areas of relevance to the development of the region. ANSTI emphasizes the pooling of resources available in the region to provide quality training and research in various scientific disciplines. In order to achieve this objective, ANSTI is engaged in numerous activities that can be grouped into four programme areas: training, seminars, and workshops; publications; the promotion of research and the dissemination of information on issues relating to capacity building in science and technology.
eLA: Is there a special need for teacher training in the engineering and science education sector or is this a rather general problem?

EO: There is a scarcity of engineering and science books in our higher learning institutions, and it is imperative that we address this problem with supplementary instructional materials. There is also a dearth of qualified science and engineering lecturers, and the few who are available should be complemented with technology-mediated methods such as eLearning . In this connection, UNESCO, working through its project (The African Network African Network of Scientific and Technological Institutions - ANSTI) embarked on a project to promote the use of ICT in science and engineering courses eLA: Can you give some figures or practical examples on the outcome of the UNESCO / ANSTI ICT project until now?

EO: In order to address the problems of scarcity of books and skilled manpower in the area of science and engineering fields, the UNESCO office in Nairobi, which has regional responsibility for science in Africa, has been pursuing a project to promote the use of ICT in teaching and learning of science and engineering courses. The main activity of this project is the training of university staff to enable them to convert lecture notes into an interactive eLearning format. In this connection, a multi-stage approach was adopted. First, a self-learning course entitled "How to develop e-content" was developed and distributed on CD to staff members from several universities in the region. This CD served as a catalyst to sensitize science and engineering academics in the region to engage in the process of e-content development. A regional e-content training and development workshop was then conducted in Kigali, Rwanda, where 22 participants from twelve African universities from eleven countries were trained and mandated to organise national e-content development workshops in their respective countries.

Three such workshops have been held, and seventy participants drawn from universities in the host countries Ethiopia, Ghana, and Zambia have been trained, with over thirty quality interactive course modules developed. Other major outputs of this project have been the engagement of other trained participants in developing more eLearning modules on CDs; the development and deployment of tools and Internet-based resources to assist in the e-content development process; dissemination of the e-content products through the ANSTI Virtual Learning Center; and the promotion of the of use self-learning courses in getting acclimatized to the process of e-content development. To date over 700 copies of the CD have been distributed to staff from several African countries. Many more staff members have received copies from friends.

eLA: The workshop is designed to explain the principles of creating eLearning content for science and engineering education. Will it be applicable for other subjects of study as well?

EO: Yes! The general principles of e-content development and structuring are the same irrespective of the subject area. eLA: What do you personally think are the main benefits of technology-enhanced learning and teaching for Africa? What are the critical points?

EO: There are many challenges facing Africa in terms of the quality provision of courseware besides qualified manpower to teach and conduct research. Technology-enhanced learning not only enables scarce staff to teach large numbers, but it also provides an enabling environment for sharing experiences, expertise and possibly expensive equipment and resources through e-laboratories, which otherwise are not within the reach of many universities.

Technology for its own sake is not meaningful for educational use; it must be tailored and be as all-inclusive as possible. In this respect, Africa must be ready to embrace ICTs by developing strategic plans that are realisable. It is feared that with low budgetary allocations for science, technology and related disciplines, the benefits that are likely to occur will not be obvious. The critical issue, therefore, is the need for policy makers and decision makers to awaken to the call for greater emphasis on technology-enhanced education. They then have to improve budgetary allocations for it, enhance the skills of the staff through training and increase access to the computing resources for both staff and students.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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