Great Ife, ICT Education and Nigeria

The following interview, which followed my nomination for the OAU Distinguished Alumni award, was published in the inaugural edition of eWorld Magazine (pp 41-44). Other awardees include Engr. Ernest Ndukwe (EVC of Nigerian Communications Commission), Prof. C. Angaye (DG of the National IT Development Agency), Dr. Emmanuel Ekuwem (President of the Association of Telecom Companies of Nigeria), Mr. Demola Aladekomo (GMD of Chams Group), Mrs. Florence Seriki (CEO of Omatek Computers), Ms. Funke Opeke (CEO of MainOne), Mr. Chima Onyekwere (Chairman of Linkserve), Mr. Karl Toriola (CTO of MTN Nigeria), Major General G. Umo (Commandant of Nigerian Army Signal Corp), Mr. Tim Akano (CEO of New Horizon) and Mrs. Bunmi Afolabi (MD of Bi-TraxAxxent). Enjoy.

 

 

1. How would you describe your experiences at OAU, How has it helped you in what you have achieved so far in the ICT sector.

Going to Great Ife was a dream-come-true for me, having had a tee shirt gift – with a Great Ife inscription – from my dad many years before I even sat for my university entrance examinations. In Ife, my theory of life was tested and remoulded. Beyond what I learnt in class, the culture of greatness that was evident in any activity (either on- or off-campus) always left me thinking about how to live up to the name. From my involvement with the Evangelical Christian Union to the Electronic Club, I had the opportunity to work directly on the task of helping others and that formed a major foundation for my future career. The presence of legends like Prof. G. O. Ajayi (who I later on worked with while he served as Nigeria’s pioneer IT Agency director) and Prof. L. O. Kehinde (under whose supervision I completed my final year research which focused on eRegistration) also represented another level of inspiration and challenge for me.

 

The fact that Ife exhibited greatness when we were met with the exciting news of internet access in 1999 also helped a lot! I stayed back on campus during the holidays to devour as much knowledge as possible on the Internet, and I’m sure much of what I know today only builds on that foundation laid while on campus. It was during that period that I wrote to Philip Emeagwali about coming to address us as students, and he replied to connect me with Chris Uwaje – who in turn invited me to come to the ITAN Expo in Abuja in December 2000 where I made a presentation about eCommerce and also demonstrated the project I was working on as a final year student. It was also during the same period that I submitted an essay on “Information and Communication Technologies: Development Opportunities and the Role of Youth” to Prof. G. O. Ajayi, who then forwarded it to the International Telecommunications Union. That essay earned me an ITU Fellowship in 2001, and gave me the first opportunity to see the airport and travel by air.

 

While on the fellowship in South Africa, I learnt a lot more about how globalized our world had become and started working on what is now known today as Paradigm Initiative Nigeria – a social enterprise that connects underserved groups with ICT-enabled opportunities. In fact, my first set of colleagues on various youth initiatives were friends from Great Ife – Titi Akinsanmi, Tope Soremi, Deolu Ashaye, etc. And it was on that same campus in 2000 that I teamed up with Ogemdi Ike to host a training session on website design (using HTML) for fellow students. Building on that, we digitized Year Books for various student groups and hosted discussions on Information Technology in order to get industry experts to share thoughts with students. Thinking of Obafemi Awolowo University now, three key things stand out as preparatory to my present-day industry involvement: learning opportunities, online access and people!

 

2 How do you describe ICT or technology education at OAU, has it been relevant to what you are doing.

OAU was one of the first universities in Nigeria to demonstrate the importance of ICT or technology education. Through the school’s cooperation with various international institutions, the establishment of the Information Technology Unit (INTECU) and the drive of globally respected scholars, Ife presented students with the unique opportunity of connecting with educational resources. We subscribed to online journals, visited websites, started using eMail in communication and basically developed a new learning culture by searching for information online. I can’t forget how we stumbled upon the erstwhile top-secret book that one of our lecturers took all his notes, examples and test/exam questions from. Some even went as far as copying entire final year thesis for use in their own work! I’m not surprised that most IT companies in Nigeria today boast of Great Ife graduates because there was no certification exam that was strange on campus and no international association we didn’t write to.

 

Even before the school got connected to the internet, there were holiday-time training programs in computing and information technology. In fact, my choice of final year research title, “eRegistration: Software-based Student Registration Procedure Using HTML and Java, Hosted on the University Intranet” was built on the things I soaked in while surfing the web for new knowledge in an area I had come to fall in love with. Though the project topic was not on the list of suggested student projects at the time, I was very impressed when a student contacted me the following year to say he was offered the same topic for his research consideration. Events at the time make it clear that the technology revolution was bigger than the school itself; once it provided the enabling environment, students literally took to the web. Maybe it was peer pressure, but computers became almost as important as bed spaces at some point, with students from all disciplines saving up to buy computers – and students moved away from patronising the hitherto powerful clique of typewriter owners (who sat pretty around the school’s Student Union Building) who had become a major part of the thesis documentation culture .

 

Beyond creating the environment, the school’s policy that all students should go through at least one course in Computer Science (CSC 201/202) was extremely useful. Most of the students didn’t appreciate FOTRAN but at least, we were conscious of the fact that everyone — regardless of discipline — needed to understand the use of computers. It was also the school’s policy at the time to give each student the chance to gain online access for 30 minutes at one time, and the queues were long! Some even wrote their friend’s names so they would be able to enjoy multiple time slots. Add the fact that the school also introduced what we called “computerized ID cards” at the time, and you would appreciate the culture of technology education that Ife created. Suddenly, the children of lecturers became valued friends because they could grant access to their parents’ offices for the much-craved night browsing that many students then embraced.

 

3. How would you describe ICT education in Nigeria today, what can be done to develop it and make it more relevant.

Even when gaining access to the internet was more of plug-and-PRAY than plug-and-play, students took it upon themselves to pursue the opportunity to get online. I am surprised that now that most campuses have internet access, students are not taking wild advantage of the opportunity. It is sad each time my colleagues in the academia talk about how students don’t take advantage of campus-wide wi-fi access. In 1999/2000, we would type a web address and walk away so the page could load, and then return later to copy onto diskettes. I am sure there are many students who take advantage of new advancements on today’s campuses (and I’ve met many of them in the course of my work with students) but the struggles of our time often make me think that most students are too passive with technology. But that is the “pull” side of things, the part where students should overcome any barrier to create for themselves an enviable future.

 

Then there is what should be the “push” from the institutions themselves. Curriculum, equipment and tutor proficiency are key to ICT education — and the use of ICT in education — but we appear to have problems with these 3 in Nigeria. While I do not subscribe to the philosophy of blaming schools and lecturers for the sum total of knowledge that a graduate leaves school with, I honestly bow my head in shame when I talk to students of Computer Science, Engneering and related courses across Nigeria. It is obvious that most classrooms in our public tertiary institutions are still in the past because of the lack of dynamism in curriculum content — and I won’t buy the excuse that one ministry has to change the curriculum before it can become feasible in classrooms. Any tutor who knows his/her onions will be more than glad to pass on 21st century-compatible knowledge to students, even if it’s extra effort above and beyond the archaic curriculum such tutors are supposedly bound to. Same for equipment and tutor proficiency, we need to improve them.

 

Noting that the 21st century classroom is different in the sense that the tutor is only to provide guidance while it is the student’s responsibility to explore the cast world of knowledge, I think a fundamental paradigm shift is more important than even the curriculum review and funding that will obviously help our present situation. Until students realise that this is now the New Economy where “pull” is the law for educational content, they will keep blaming lecturers for “teaching [them] nonesense”. There’s a need for continuous development for both the tutors and the institution itself, especially with the huge global focus on ICT education in developing economies. The role played by relevant government institutions also needs a lot of help; I assume that since many of the leaders in charge of these institutions have studied — or have children studying — in foreign universities, they should know what obtains where students are clearly prepared for the immediate competition that begins once you drop the last pen on campus.

 

The private sector also needs to play a major role in improving ICT education in Nigeria. Considering how much it costs to spot and hire a ready-made talent from the many recruitment fairs across the world, some deliberate investment in ICT education in Nigeria would be wise money invested in the future because these same students would form the core of tomorrow’s workforce. Maybe the sector should follow the principle of enlightened self interest and create the kind of relationship that now exists in various Technology Parks across the world where academic institutions can literally live on the support of the industry they feed with innovation — even if government goes to sleep (or stays asleep). In the New Economy, the competitive ability of any nation is not disconnected from what it’s students are learning because they can only produce in the order of knowledge they possess. I should also talk about the many ICT-savvy student groups across Nigeria that have looked beyond the limitations to develop themselves; institutions should reach out to such groups to support them and also use their skills to develop the institution.

 

4. What would you say are your major achievements since entering the ICT sector

It would be difficult to name “achievements” but permit me to use the word “efforts” because they were honestly done with no recognition in mind, I was only expressing the frustration of an angry young man who saw a bit of the world (through the Internet and physical travel) and decided to add as much value as possible. From the establishment of the BlackPioneers mailing list in 1999 to setting up Paradigm Initiative Nigeria as an online platform and creating the eNigeria mailing list (among others) in 2001, I was hoping to connect young Nigerians with the knowledge that helped change my life. The role I played during the World Summit on the Information Society is well documented in the book, “Global Process, Local Reality” and it forms a major part of my contribution to the ICT sector: hosting campaigns across all regions of Nigeria, representing Nigeria’s interest at the global summits (and I remember the final summit in Tunis where everyone kept wondering if Nigeria was represented until they saw the youth in action through our ‘Nigeria Rocks’ campaign), etc.

 

I’ve also been involved in extensive capacity building for young people, NGOs and other people groups, thanks to The Executive Cyberschuul’s “IT Youth Ambassador” scheme. I’m presently involved in a series of training programs for teachers in Niger Delta states and also do a lot of work in the application of ICTs in the development of rural communities. Over the last 10 years, I have been involved in research, writing and policy discussions that added value to the growth of the sector — either as an innocent student invited to contribute thoughts on youth inclusion to the National Policy on Information Technology, as a member of the UN African Technical Advisory Committee discussing ICT4D strategies for African countries, as a member of the group (G22) saddled with the responsibility of resolving Nigeria’s Top Level Domain issues at the time, as a member of the Presidential Task Force on ICT Harmonization (that produced a report that could have changed the face of the sector if implemented), as a member of the UN Committee of eLeaders, or as the regular young man whose technology denial experience at 13 made him commit to a life mission of connecting other young people to ICT opportunities.

 

Looking back now, I am suprised that there was a time when young people were only known as “aluta people” at major ICT events. It is popular, even to the point of tokenism, to now involve “young people” in national processes but I remember how we had to save money and borrow Cyberschuul’s bus in oder to travel to Abuja for the first eNigeria summit. When I asked for a waiver of fees for students, I was met with the usual caution of asking them not to “misbehave” during the conference but the story changed when we produced daily newsletters, contributed meaningfully to discussions and organized our own dide meetings. Maybe I was too innocent to know how much impact we had at the time but additional years have allowed me to appreciate the young men and women who slept in wlecoming mosques, fixed buses in the middle of the night, stayed late to print newsletters, met without hype to discuss issues before I would speak on them in public, etc. I am not surprised that they’re all doing well right now even though I wish Nigeria was lucky enough to retain all their expertise within our borders. In my new book, titled ‘In My Own Words’ and available in stores from September 9 2009 (09-09-09), I spent some time reflecting on my “efforts” to date.

 

5. From a youth perspective do you think Nigerian youths are facing the challenges of ICT demand.

I’m not sure I can still offer a “youth perspective” J But I think there are two sides to the challenges and Nigeria’s youth. First is the fact that a lot of young Nigerians are not globally competitive because they are limited by the many challenges in this environment. Many are unable to apply what they learnt in school because the system encourages what I love to call a CPF syndrome (Cram-Pass-Forget), and even some who pursue professional certification end up repeating the same error because they do it for the sake of showing off an extra certificate that can help them get the job. The second angle to this is more encouraging: there are thousands of young people across Nigeria who have broken through the “marble ceiling” (glass is a lot easier to break) to carve a niche for themselves in telecommunications, software development, content development, research, policy, strategy development, etc. So, another ‘half’ is facing the demands quite well even though they do so mostly without adequate support. The challenge then, for Nigeria, is to identify and support the half that are doing well — and to fix all the possible excuses the other half can give. While it is my philosophy that a (wo)man is responsible for what (s)he eventually becomes, the principle of “social contract” should also apply: if we do not fix the problems that hinder youth development for the New economy, we have no right to call them “half-baked” or complain of brain drain when they self-develop and then relocate to places that can reward them for the value they bring to the table!

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