Using the Internet to enable developing country universities to meet the challenges of globalization through collaborative virtual programmes
First Monday

Using the Internet to enable developing country universities to meet the challenges of globalization through collaborative virtual programmes

Using the Internet to enable developing country universities to meet the challenges of globalization through collaborative virtual programmes by Derek W. Keats, Maria Beebe, and Gunnar Kullenberg

Globalization represents a significant threat as well as a substantial opportunity to the economies and educational systems of Africa and other areas of the developing world. This paper shows that, if used wisely, information technology has the power to help create powerful and synergistic educational partnerships at local, regional and global scale. Such new and large-scale partnerships, only possible because of the existence of the Internet, have the potential to allow educational institutions to respond positively to globalization and help promote development if enough partnerships can be created and sustained. This paper explores two emerging educational partnerships, NetTel@Africa and the International Ocean Institute Virtual University (IOIVU), in terms of the lessons for how technology can be used to respond to the challenges and opportunities of globalization, and to allow institutions in developing countries to achieve results that could not be achieved by either institution acting alone. Although they are responses to different circumstances, and operate at different scales, NetTel@Africa and the IOIVU have many common elements. These partnerships serve as examples of how the Internet can unite widely the scattered expertise in most areas of human endeavor that exist in Africa and other areas of the developing world to create virtual concentrations, or "centres of excellence" that do not have a single physical base.


NetTel@Africa case
International Ocean Institute (IOI) Virtual University case
Lessons learned





Globalization represents both a significant challenge as well as a significant opportunity to the economies and educational systems of the "developing world". Universities are increasingly facing pressures from globalization and the knowledge society (Heydenrych, 2002), and there is a widening gap between the developed and developing worlds ("digital divide") in this area (Wolff and MacKinnon, 2002). In End of Millennium, Manuel Castells (2000) predicts the emergence of a "Fourth World" that is isolated and marginalized by lack of adequate access to technology and a scarcity of trained and educated human resources. According to Castells (1998) this Fourth World exists everywhere, but is inevitably dominant in Africa (Castells, 2000). Even some African scholars have made suggestions, in line with this view, that virtual education for Africa should be based out of the continent (e.g. Darkwa and Eskow, 2000). However, such a fatalistic view fails to recognize is the power of technology, if used wisely, to help unite people and create powerful and synergistic partnerships or alliances at local, regional and global scales. Such new and large-scale partnerships, only possible because of the existence of the Internet, may have the potential to transform societies at risk if enough of them can be created and sustained.

One of the manifestations of Globalization is the emergence of the Virtual University in its many forms. For example, the U.S. has a large number of virtual universities that are projects of state institutions, individual institutions, or only exist as virtual institutions (e.g. Michigan Virtual University, Some form of online teaching-and-learning by individual institutions has become so commonplace now (Baker, 1999), that it has become almost mainstream practice, but this is beyond the scope of this paper.

In many countries, virtual universities are collaborations among many institutions. For example, Canada has established the Canadian Virtual University ( comprising 13 Canadian universities offering over 175 programs online or via other distance methods. In 2001 the UK established the "e-University" as a collaborative project designed to give U.K. higher education the capacity to compete globally with the major virtual and corporate universities being developed elsewhere ( In Germany, the Bavarian Virtual University (Virtuelle Hochschule Bayern, VHB) opened in May 2000, funded by the Bavarian state government. The VHB offers online-courses, with students enrolled at one of the Bavarian state universities that comprise the VHB. The member universities also examine participating students and award and certify the degrees offered. So-called corporate universities have also emerged as a recent phenomenon, many of which operate as virtual institutions (Brown, 1999).

On a world scale, we have seen the emergence of the mega virtual university, such as Universitas 21, as for profit companies exploiting the global education market (Newman and Couturier, 2001 Futures Project, 2001). The University of Phoenix, Jones International University and the Global University Alliance fall into this category, as they operate for profit on a global scale. In Africa, there is the African Virtual University, which has operated mainly through the use of satellite and broadcast technology [1], but it has recently been undergoing restructuring under new leadership.

These are just examples; there are many other examples of virtual universities around the world, with all of them potentially competing for students within Africa and the rest of the developing world. With the increasing commoditization of higher educational services under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) or the World Trade Organization (Cohen, 2000), this competition is likely to increasingly put pressure on the education systems in developing countries. Currently it is only the high costs and the current low availability of technology in Africa acting as impediments to successful competition from outside.

Aside from the emergence of the virtual university, the past three years have seen a proliferation of new organizational arrangements in higher education (Farrell, 2002). One of these organizational arrangements made possible by the World Wide Web is the establishment of partnerships among institutions to deliver new programmes. This paper explores two emerging partnerships, NetTel@Africa and the International Ocean Institute Virtual University (IOIVU), in terms of the lessons for how technology can be used to respond to the challenges and opportunities of globalization. It does this in the context of the African continent where skills and expertise exist, but are scattered and in short supply on national and smaller scales.



NetTel@Africa case

The NetTel@Africa network [2] was established when the Telecommunications Regulators Association of Southern Africa (TRASA) identified the need build capacity in telecoms and ICT policy and regulation. TRASA was established in December 1997 in line with the SADC Protocol on Transport, Communications and Meteorology. The Center to Bridge the Digital Divide (CBDD) at Washington State University is acting as a catalyst to mobilize the ideas, efforts and resources of the public sector, corporate America, the higher education community and telcoms associations in developing a regional masters programme to address the needs of TRASA members.

Through a number of workshops, starting in 2001 in Arusha, Tanzania, continuing in Gabarone, Botswana in April 2002, and Cape Town, South Africa in September 2002, a masters programme consisting of 10 course modules and a thesis or equivalent has been designed. A postgraduate diploma will be possible after one year of full time or equivalent study, and a Masters degree after two years. Most of the courses will be offered via distance learning over the Internet, with supplementary materials on CD-ROM and possibly local content mirrors, the details of which must still emerge from the processes.

Of particular significance, the participating institutions in NetTel@Africa behave as a virtual network of universities in offering this programme, and students will register with one of the host institutions, who will credit the courses and award the degree (Table 1). Participants will register in the host institution, and modules developed in other institutions will be available, led by the developer from the institution that developed the module. Thesis work will be supervised from the host institution in collaboration with the network partners.


Table 1: Process model comparisons of some features of NetTel@Africa and the IOIVU as of January 2003.
Tools are not shown as both programmes use the same online platform.

Process NetTel@Africa IOIVU
Enrollment Students enroll in host institution Students enroll in IOIVU
Awarding of degree Each host institution awards degree to its students IOIVU awards degree to all students
Support/quality assurance Peer-peer, with internal evaluators who are resource partners or represent steering committee External evaluator
Finance Secured from beginning Still being sought, some internal funding
Development to fruition Rapid Slow
People & institutions NetTel@Africa IOIVU
Organizational structure Network with collaborating members Network with collaborating members, semi-autonomous centres in host institutions
Beneficiaries Specific: TRASA
General: ICT/telecommunications sector in Africa
Specific: none
General: Ocean and coastal management sector in developing countries
Resource partners Present Absent
Governance Steering committee dominated by resource partners & needs partner Council and board
Leadership Steering committee as above Full time rector
Coordinating unit Centre to Bridge the Digital Divide, Washington State University and University of Dar es Salaam IOI as global NGO
Teaching institutions Key departments in participating universities IOI operational centres in host universities, government institutions, private sector
Funding partner membership Secured from beginning Not secured from beginning, limited internal funding


Also of particular significance is the degree to which copyright, traditionally a great impediment to sharing content, has been waived in this project. All institutions involved, including the International Telecom-munications Union, the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the U.S., several U.S. universities, and all the African university partners have agreed to share existing and new content among all the participants without regard to traditional copyright restrictions within the NetTel@Africa network. In effect, copyright has been 'loaned' to the network for non-commercial purposes, although traditional copyright still applies outside the network itself.

Figure 1: Process model for NetTel@Africa. A key element is the formation of a complex multiple alliance among different kinds of partners.

The model presented by the NetTel@Africa case can be termed a multiple alliance model, since the essence of it is the alliance of many different kinds of partners. The alliance does not create a legal entity, and all participating universities remain independent legal entities; it is only the alliance of these entities that allow NetTel@Africa to achieve its results.



International Ocean Institute (IOI) Virtual University case

The IOI Virtual University (IOIVU) [3] has been longer in gestation than NetTel@Africa, but is perhaps less closer to operation than NetTel@Africa (Table 1). The IOIVU is focusing on the management of one essential part of our environment: the ocean as a whole. The aim is to create a cadre of professionals able to implement ocean governance, resources development and management, in harmony with existing international law and agreements. This constitutes an effort to help implement these agreements. It requires a global partnership which can cater for differences in culture, policy and development. Implementation can however be achieved on local and regional scales. The IOIVU is taking up the challenge of an intersectoral, interdisciplinary education on basis of requirements identified over two decades of training through individual courses, not leading to a degree.

The IOIVU involves the collaboration of around 20 operational centres of the IOI, an international NGO that operates in 26 countries. It is planned that the IOIVU be registered as a legal entity as a university in the Netherlands (where IOI is registered). It is developing a virtual masters degree in Ocean Management and Law of the Sea, and like NetTel@Africa, it plans to use a combination of online courses and internships together with a mini-thesis.

The IOIVU development team met in Cape Town in December 2002, and confirmed that it will credential and award its own degrees. Like the NetTel@Africa project, the IOIVU has agreed to suspend traditional copyright, and indeed to use Open Content (Keats and Shuttleworth, 2003; Keats, 2003) licensing principles wherever possible.

Figure 2: Process model for the IOIVU (virtual entity model).

The model presented by the IOIVU case can be termed a virtual entity model, since the essence of it is the formation of a legal entity that replaces many of the functions of the individual member partners, including the awarding of degree credentials. We have not called it a virtual university in the context of this paper, despite its official name, because it is not a true university in terms of scale. A key element is that there is an existing global network of regional and local operational centres of a global NGO that are based mainly within universities around the world. Students registered at participating universities can sign-up and receive credit for courses but, unlike in the multiple alliance model, the courses are credentialed by the IOVU and not the host institution. Students graduate with a masters degree in Ocean Affairs and Law of the Sea from the IOIVU. Like NetTel@Africa, each course module is unique and does not duplicate modules developed by other institutions.



Lessons learned

The lessons learned from these initiatives can inform other attempts to engage in collaboration on programmes and courses, as well as outreach (Keats et al., 2001) at local, regional and global levels. The relevance of the lessons learned for processes taking place as part of the Cape Higher Education Consortium (local level), the idea of a national ICT university (national level), other SADC collaborations (regional level), potential African initiatives, and the further development of the IOIVU (global level) will be discussed.

Some of the lessons learned from these case studies arise out of a comparison of some of their features (Table 1). The much more rapid pace of development of the NetTel@Africa programme can be attributed to a number of factors. NetTel@Africa was created at the request of a single regional coordinating body, while the IOIVU arose through common needs identified by a diverse array of IOI alumni and other partners in many countries. The main difficulty in obtaining funding is also associated with the fact that IOIVU has a focus on a part of the environment that is not high on the agenda of governments, donors or foundations. This is one reason for the need to pursue the idea of the IOIVU, in that there is a need for a cadre of educated people who can address the ocean needs intellectually and practically on the basis of a common understanding and interest before it is too late.

NetTel@Africa has also had content resource partners providing content from the beginning, thus making the provision of content a quite rapid process. Although the IOIVU courses for online delivery have to be put in place, much of the content and other learning materials already exist through the individual courses given at various operational centres. In this respect the two projects are similar, and this emphasizes the need for access to content and other learning resources in such collaborative programmes.

Neither of these projects are virtual universities in the strictest sense of the term (Cornford, 1999; Pollock and Cornford, 2000). There are a number of virtual universities in existence, and they offer large-scale, multiple programmes, and have costly, separate administrative structures. Rather NetTel@Africa and the IOIV represent virtual collaboration at the programme level, hence should be called collaborative virtual programmes. It seems likely that the NetTel@Africa model holds the best recipe for the rapid development of collaborative virtual programmes in response to a specific need.

In the context of the processes taking place in response to the need to restructure higher education in South Africa, as well as the Cape Higher Education Consortium in the Western Cape, such virtual programme-level collaborations may present a more cost-effective means to offer synergistic new programmes than the formation of a full-blown virtual university with all its costly associated structures. However, in developing collaborative virtual programmes, it is essential to understand the full technological and administrative implications of such programmes if one is to avoid the pitfalls noted by Pollock and Cornford (2000). Ad hoc projects often underestimate the complexity, costs and difficulty of running online programmes, so many of them stall or fail entirely. Therefore, if collaborative virtual programmes are to succeed as the means of cooperation among institutions, then processes will need to be put in place to ensure that training and support is available to those planning such programmes.

Where collaborative virtual programmes have great potential impact is in Africa, where there are urgent needs to increase the level of participation in higher education (Nwuke, 2001). Such partnerships can create synergies that would otherwise not be possible without technology, and allow strong virtual programmes to be based in African universities and targeted at Africa as well as the global market for higher education. Unlike programmes brought in from outside, such collaborative virtual programmes can only strengthen the participating institutions and contribute to the development and strengthening of higher education in Africa. End of article


About the Authors

Derek W. Keats can be found at Information & Communication Services at the University of the Western Cape (P. Bag X17, Bellville 7535, South Africa).

Maria Beebe is at the Centre to Bridge the Digital Divide at Washington State University (Pullman, Wash. 99164-1067 U.S.)

Gunnar Kullenberg is located at the International Ocean Institute at the University of Malta (Tal-Qroqq, PO Box 3, Gzira GZR 01 Malta).








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Editorial history

Paper received 17 March 2003; accepted 22 September 2003.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2003, First Monday

Copyright ©2003, Derek W. Keats, Maria Beebe, and Gunnar Kullenberg

Using the Internet to enable developing country universities to meet the challenges of globalization through collaborative virtual programmes by Derek W. Keats, Maria Beebe, and Gunnar Kullenberg
First Monday, volume 8, number 10 (October 2003),

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