Sierra Leone is introducing the Internet in its educational institutions in the year 2002. This article discusses some of the prospects and challenges that the Internet will bring to these institutions.
Sierra Leone is located on the western coast of Africa between latitude 7 and 10 degrees north and longitude 10 and 13 degress west. It is bound on the north and southeast by the Republic of Guinea, on the south by the Republic of Liberia and on the west by the Atlantic Ocean. The country has a total area of about 72,000 square kilometres and a coastline of about 485 kilometres. It is divided into four major administrative areas namely: the Eastern province; the Northern province; the Southern province; and the Western area where the capital city, Freetown is found. The provinces are further divided into twelve districts. The population is estimated at 4.3 million with an annual growth rate of 2.6%. There are sixteen ethnic groups, the largest being Mende and Temne. Krio, Mende and Temne are widely spoken, with Krio being the lingua franca. English is the official language.
Sierra Leone has a 6-3-3-4-education system with six years of primary, three years Junior secondary school, three years Senior secondary school and four years tertiary education. This system emphasizes basic and non-formal education with the education of girls as one of the key elements. Some of the features of this system are:
- the primary school curriculum is transformed to include indigenous languages, practical creative arts, pre-vocational subjects, and social and physical/health education;
- the secondary level is divided into two sublevels, each of three years duration, the JSS and SSS. Each of these levels has an end point external examination;
- the curriculum of the secondary level emphasises Mathematics, the Sciences, vocational and technical subjects; and,
- the curriculum facilitates movement from school to the world of work.
In all educational institutions enrollment is growing steadily. There has been an enormous increase in the number of students acquiring secondary education in the capital city, Freetown, due to the detriment of other regions as a consequence of the civil war (1991-2001). Similarly, enrollment at the tertiary level is continuing to increase due partly to an expanding school population and the introduction of new programmes in these institutions. However, the increase in student numbers is imposing financial constraints on already stagnated libraries in these educational institutions with very little returns realised by staff and students These libraries are under pressure to give services to a wide range of clientele who vary in age, education and interests. The libraries are limited in their ability to tap new technological sources of information and are constrained financially in upgrading their present manual methods to automated systems. These problems and deficiencies denigrate the success and achievement of many students. If meeting their academic related information needs is important, then devising a mechanism by which accurate and timely information could be provided with the introduction of the Internet in schools and colleges would be extremely appropriate.
In 2002, schools and colleges in the country will for the first time have free access to the Internet to download educational materials relevant to their academic courses on CDs. At the same time this new access will allow students to gain hands-on-experience on the Internet. The programme, known as Knowledge Aid Sierra Leone, is the initiative of a group of Oxford graduates, who are alumni of the Christi Corpus College from 1950-1953. This Group will be working in collaboration with the Ministry of Youth, Education and Sports to ensure that teachers and students gain valuable experience in using the Internet. The first beneficiaries will include Fourah Bay College, Milton Margai College of Education and Technology, Prince of Wales and St. Helena Secondary schools. The idea is to boost the education system with the same communication tools that are being used by government, the military and some special libraries such as the Bank of Sierra Leone and the British Council. With the introduction of the Internet in educational institutions it is anticipated that teachers will share teaching methods and ideas; students would do cooperative projects; and, everyone would get a taste of what is happening in the computing world.
The development of education in general and the introduction of the Internet in a war-torn country like Sierra Leone will not be an easy task. During the civil war, educational institutions were targets of destruction. If peace continues in the country, what prospects do educational institutions stand to derive from this electronic network?
In recent years there have been changes in the educational system with emphasis on the need for more individual work by students. Resource-based learning has placed greater importance on learning by handling information. It is therefore speculated that introducing the Internet in educational institutions will bring about fundamental changes and developments. It will help students' capacity for independent learning and information retrieval and will increase their exposure to new technologies, irrespective of their specific courses.
Indeed with the introduction of the Internet the role of the library in these institutions will change. It will become a focal point of the educational community as a resource for information, knowledge, and experience. Rather than becoming a static enterprise, the library's work will become much more informative and viable as it will be dealing with digital-based information rather than paper. The work of librarians will also change from being mere keepers of the book to guides through a universe of knowledge. They will no longer be vulnerable to the vicissitudes of technological change but will play a vital role in harnessing and shaping current and future information technologies.
The Internet in the country's educational institutions will lead to a society which is better educated, more literate and conscious of the potentials of computers. Writers, educators and publishers will continue to produce books and journals but the pattern of use and production of these materials will shift in the favour of electronic means. Scholars and researchers will use this medium to transform ways in retrieving and using information in conducting their researches. In the same vein teachers and students will augment the classroom and textbook with interactive digital materials. Increasingly, they will use library services without having to go to the library (Buckle. 1994).
Sierra Leone, like other developing nations, needs information as a vital ingredient for nation building. And the Internet in the educational sector will help the process of nation building by providing access to formally published Scientific and Technical Information (STI). It will help to make human communication possible. School and college authorities will be able to downsize their administrative systems to a computer-based network. A computer-wide fibre network could be installed to distribute administrative tasks to schools and colleges. It will also provide access to members of staff through departmental networks.
The introduction of the Internet will be vital for the future careers of students. Upon graduation they will become adult consumers, employees, benefit claimants and members of different groups in society to name but a few. In these aspects, information through the Internet will be an everyday part of their lives, and it is important that its subsequent application in educational institutions is seen in the light of students' ability to use the new technology to find and use information directly related to their immediate purposes (Obenaus, 1994).
The Internet will make a huge contribution to leisure in the educational system. It will help students develop and exploit their own imaginative and intellectual capabilities. In this way it can aid continuing self-education. It will make it easier and more efficient for students and teachers and school and college authorities to request information from colleagues in and outside Sierra Leone. It will facilitate collaboration among students and teachers. These collaborative efforts will promote information sharing, guides learning, and helps to integrate learning experiences. In sum the application of the Internet in schools and colleges will facilitate the following:
- negotiating links with other schools and colleges at departmental level;
- submitting research papers, proposals and reports and coordinating research for staff on study leave overseas;
- making library contacts and discussing issues pertinent to these institutions with regard to provisions and services;
- providing access to e-mail and files;
- publicising educational institutions to order to seek funds for projects and research; and,
- applying for further studies overseas and ordering equipment from suppliers outside the country.
The application of the Internet in Sierra Leone's educational institutions will make it the medium of choice for a vast majority interested in creating organising, storing, retrieving and disseminating information. But how this will be easily attained cannot be forecast with precision. The specifics will depend on future trends of technological and economic development in Sierra Leone. If Internet will be successful, it must be integrated into the working lives of the users and their respective institutions. This will be the first major challenge for programme implementors. Any integration will depend on identifying and addressing some key social and behavioural issues related to the use of the network by would-be users (McClure, 1994).
Programme implementors should determine in the beginning the network operations needed and the number of workstations required in each institution. Many Internet projects fail due to under-estimate of the needs of the network in terms of workstations, software, connections and training. In advance of implementation, information should be collected and analysed to determine the requirements of each educational institution.
It is a challenge to discern appropriate choices among the morass of computer equipment needed to kick start the programme. Assuming that the need for this technology has been established, an investigation should be made that describes what is available in schools and colleges for Internet service; how this equipment should be utilised and whether it is economically viable. Programme implementors should therefore consider that (i) in each institution, there should be an IT section dedicated to hardware and software; and, (ii) the costs of installation and training of users. In many cases, equipment is overloaded due to a lack of technical training. Hence, it will a challenge for the implementors to thoroughly explore the compatibility and suitability of the equipment already existing locally.
Potential users of the network will have to identified and acquainted with the rich variety of educational uses of the Internet. Teachers, students and authorities need to have a basic level of knowledge about the technology and then be continually educated about it and how it can be used and applied to enhance information services. Coupled with this, would-be clientele should be made aware of the benefits of digital information use. Invariably the programme implementors should be imaginative, open-minded and willing to experiment. They should provide, in addition to access, their own expertise in educating their clientele about the Internet. To promote the Internet to a largely unaware school and college population, graphic designers should be employed to produce leaflets and brochures and these should be distributed freely. Free publicity in the form of articles in some of the country's leading newspapers, radio/TV adverts and jingles could suffice.
There will be a problem regarding user documentation. It is important for users to have access to information to help them make the best use of the Internet. But the Internet is relatively new to many Sierra Leoneans and very few publications on it are available in libraries and bookshops in the country. The software found in Sierra Leone is to some extent very American in style and language. It will be in the best interest of the programme implementors to produce their own software guides with detailed instructions, to help those needing assistance with fundamentals.
Computers are not widely available in Sierra Leone. The vast majority of computers in many educational institutions are out-dated donated models. Overall there are far too few computers to distribute Internet access widely in educational institutions. Similarly, the number of skilled computer personnel in schools and colleges is relatively small when compared with the private sector. Top quality staff command high salaries and other fringe benefits such as housing and transport that are beyond the reach of government funded, educational institutions.
No doubt there is great enthusiasm over the introduction of the Internet in schools and colleges in the country but there is the question of funding and sustaining the programme. The current phase of funding will not continue ad infinitum. Educational institutions should be prepared to bear the grunt of financing and support information technologies and networks. Given that the financial contributions to educational institutions by government in low compared with other countries, funding will be difficult in the long term. In addition, not all teaching staff, administrators and students are computer literate. Provisions for training facilities should be made, such as seminars, workshops, talks and hands-on-experience for each selected institution. To build the capacity for computer networking the implementors should be ready to train a corps of systems operators who will train others and offer continuing support for sustainability. Since there are few personnel in schools and colleges knowledgeable in computer technology, there is every need to incorporate and develop local human resources. This will be essential in generating sustainability of the programme in both the short and long term.
The shift from paper to a digital medium will pose a major challenge to local publishers, book suppliers, information users and librarians. There will be a new demand for services thanks to new acess to online, video and sound data, bulletin boards and electronic publications. In addition, digital information will be costly; efforts will be needed to control these costs and continue to use less expensive, paper-based resources.
The implementors should be able to develop ways to bill those users without formal connections to schools and colleges. Experiments will be needed to find the best and most efficient means to charge for access and services. Some will not like flat billing but would prefer message-by-message billing, to pay as they use a given service. To avoid billing problems, the implementors should determine the kinds of audiences ready to pay for access, the kinds of subscriptions needed, installation and connection costs and the growth rate in each educational institution. A two-tier pricing structure such customers could suffice.
Another challenging issue facing the application of the Internet in educational institutions in the country is that of telecommunication and power supply. These services are very poor nation-wide and relatively expensive for educational institutions. Not all institutions have direct access to these basic facilities and in a situation where they are available they are of poor quality. A real problem during the rainy season is the threat of high intensity lighting strikes. Consideration should be given to these problems if the programme is to succeed.
Leadership and active participation will address many of these issues. In any project there are key players who affect the likelihood of success. In Sierra Leone's educational system these include senior education officials, head teachers, teachers, principals and proprietors and vice-chancellors. Since leadership and training are integral, the implementors should be cautious to avoid entangling local educational bureaucracies. Ignoring these bureaucracies will result in apathy, thus stalling or slowing down the pace of the programme.
In the course of this programme, there will be moments of success as well as instances of frustrations and setbacks. Currently concerns over content dominate the application of the Internet in schools and colleges. But success in a rapidly changing technological environment requires determination, dedication, flexibility, agility and adequate funding to meet the pending challenges. There should be on-the-ground commitment on the part of the implementors, as well as school and college authorities and Senior Education officials in order to achieve sustainability. Only through their active participation will the Internet transform the classroom, alter the nature of learning and change information seeking, organising and using behaviours.
About the Author
John Abdul Kargbo is in the Institute of Library, Archives, and Information Studies at the University of Sierra Leone.
David Buckle, 1994. "Internet: strategic issues for libraries and librarians-a commercial perspective," Aslib proceedings, volume 46, numbers 11/12, pp. 259-302.
Charles R. McClure, 1994. "User-based data collection techniques and strategies for evaluating networked information services," Library Trends, volume 42, number 4, pp. 591-6O7.
Gerhard Obenaus, 1994. "The Internet: an electronic treasure trove," Aslib proceedings, volume 46, number 4, pp. 95-100. http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/eb051350
Paper received 6 November 2001; accepted 26 February 2002.
Copyright ©2002, First Monday
The Internet in Schools and Colleges in Sierra Leone: Prospects and Challenges by John Abdul Kargbo
First Monday, volume 7, number 3 (March 2002),