UI team wins $250,000 in federal grants for Internet training in Nigeria

Press Release: July 25, 2000

IOWA CITY, Iowa - The Digital Divide, the name given to the disparity of Internet connectedness between rich and poor in the U.S., is a gaping chasm in much of the developing world. In African countries like Nigeria, where electricity is available only sporadically, functioning telephones are rare, and half the population does not have access to potable water, the Internet looks more like a distant mirage.

However, two University of Iowa instructors are working to close that gap, using the fledgling Nigerian Internet to build a digital bridge between Iowan and Nigerian scholars. With a $250,000 grant from the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development, Michael McNulty, a professor of geography, and Cliff Missen, a systems analyst in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, will spend the next three years assisting Nigerian universities in developing their computer networks. UI International Programs is providing matching funds and administrative support for this project.

"We have spent nearly three decades building academic relationships with colleagues in Nigeria, but those ties are weakening as it becomes increasingly difficult to communicate with them," McNulty said. "These linkages are a vital part of our research endeavors and our students' international experiences. We can't afford to let them falter due to inadequate technology."

To reverse this trend, McNulty and Missen will begin coaching decision-makers at Nigerian universities to make informed choices about technology and will train Nigerian university computer technicians to keep the new systems fully functional.

Missen, who was a Senior Fulbright Scholar in Nigeria in 1999, said that in his travels to Nigerian universities he heard a common complaint from vice-chancellors and department heads: "We have no idea what we ought to do next. The array of options are dizzying and the only people willing to talk to us have something to sell and are not reliable."

"In the parlance of the computer trade, most African universities are 'first time buyers," Missen said. "First time buyers are notorious for making unwise choices - either buying or attempting too much or too little - whereas those who have struggled with their first wave of computer systems make wiser choices the second time around."

Missen and McNulty hope to help share the lessons learned at American universities with Nigerian decision-makers so they can be "second time buyers" the first time around.

They also plan to train a cadre of technicians to maintain the Nigerian networks. Past efforts to train technicians at Nigerian universities have proved problematic. Technicians usually traveled overseas for training, using scare resources that would otherwise fund faculty training. When the trained technicians returned, they were frequently scooped up by local businesses willing to pay many times a university salary. Missen and McNulty hope to counter this trend by offering computer and network training in Nigeria.

"With U.S. trainers going to Nigeria, the Nigerian universities can send ten times as many people to training at half the expense," Missen said. "The private sector may still poach some of these technicians, but the universities will have a much larger pool of technicians to fall back upon."

Missen, McNulty, and other trainers will travel to Nigeria once a year to conduct workshops and consult. Before they go, however, they will have already covered a lot of ground. Using computer-based training packages, course curricula on CD-ROM, and email, they will have prepared the trainees in advance.

Missen and McNulty have already delivered to Nigeria 26 computers donated by individuals and businesses in the Iowa City area. They plan to continue to collect equipment, software, and training materials for partner universities in Nigeria.

In addition, Missen has already connected Nigerian and U.S. students by teaching an Internet-based course simultaneously at the UI and the University of Jos in Nigeria.

"My American students have all the riches of the Internet at their fingertips while their Nigerian counterparts only have an email system that sends messages a few days a week," he said. "It was a real eye-opener for some of the U.S. students when the Nigerians stopped communicating for five weeks after their telephone connections died. I think it is hard for many of us to imagine not being able to communicate with distant family, friends, and colleagues for that long of a time."

These activities are a logical extension of the three-decade's worth of collaborations between the UI, the University of Ibadan, and the University of Jos. At the UI, the proposed activities will broaden and strengthen the instructional and research programs associated with the Third World Development Support Master's Program, the Global Studies Program, the African Studies Program, and the ongoing research and training programs of the Department of Geography.

Further information and photographs can be found at the project's Web site at www.widernet.org.

Missen can be reached at (319) 335-7880 M-W-F and (319) 335-2200 T-Th
McNulty can be reached at (319) 335-3565.
The WiderNet Project can be reached at (319) 335-2200