The following is a guest post by Claudia Frittelli, a program officer at the Carnegie Corporation of New York who helps oversee its effort to strengthen African higher education. The grant maker has supported several of the organizations mentioned in the opinion article.
Cloud computing—which in its most basic form is a virtual server available via the Internet—is growing rapidly as the next transformational stage of computing. Although most users may be unaware, everyday programs like Hotmail, Google Docs, and recently announced Google Drive, operate on the cloud principle of fully mobile, instantly accessible, and transferable data.
The educational and social implications for cloud computing in the developing world, particularly for the rapidly expanding education sector in Africa, are also potentially transformational. In countries where electricity is unreliable and educational resources are scarce, cloud computing, like the pay-as-you-go mobile phone, can be a powerful tool for socio-economic development, capable of liberating users from the memory and processor constraints of location-based computing. It can also increase the potential for research collaborations with global universities.
African institutions could benefit rapidly—essentially leapfrogging to the cloud—given that they are relatively unconstrained by existing IT infrastructure. In addition, the fact that users can access the cloud directly from their own devices and modems frees up institutional electrical power and bandwidth.
As African universities increasingly work with other higher-education institutions on a local and global level, cloud-based management could help foster collaboration and sharing of research across organizations, decreasing academic isolation, and encouraging African researchers to engage in global conversations.
The Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa, which focuses on improving public-health research and doctoral training, worked with Google to develop a cloud-based virtual research platform enabling nine African university partners, four research institutes, and eight partners in North America, Europe, and Australia to collaborate on research, and manage application processes, online assignments, Webinars, and discussion forums.
By providing access to a hardware and software infrastructure that clusters and integrates high-end computer networks, databases, and scientific instruments, an Unesco and Hewlett-Packard effort is using the cloud to facilitate “brain gain.” The project allows IT-intensive science departments of African universities to use the cloud to connect students to the valuable experience of emigrated researchers.
The Center for Higher Education Transformation in South Africa, a policy research think tank, is allowing African universities to access and manipulate performance data stored on Google’s public data platform—a service that would otherwise by limited by their own IT infrastructure. The American Council of Learned Society’s African Humanities Program is now using Facebook to communicate with its fellows and peer reviewers and to announce requests for proposals, seminars, and publications.
Dropbox, a Web-based file hosting service, is advancing student-centered learning by making it possible for students and academic staff to share assignments for peer review and manage large workloads together. The cloud provides an equitable platform for the Open Educational Resource (OER) movement, which gives public access to educational materials, and allows users the flexibility and technology they need to create more innovative and interactive online environments. Organizations like OER Africa are ensuring that African educators are active contributors.
There are of course drawbacks to cloud computing, including security and privacy concerns. Universities, especially smaller ones, must consider whether their data is less secure when stored remotely on a vendor’s servers. And cloud-stored data is subject to the potentially arbitrary enforcement of privacy and security laws of the country where the servers are located.
Bandwidth connectivity is the most crucial success factor. Even if users bypass an institution’s bandwidth, they are still constrained by a country’s bandwidth speed, cost, and regulation. Fiber optic cables, now being laid on African coasts, some with landing points at universities, will help ease some of these impediments to the cloud’s on-ramp.
Despite the potential obstacles, it’s clear that extending the reach of sophisticated, high-powered computing technology to universities on the continent could effectively bridge the gap separating Africa’s researchers from their counterparts in developed nations.