Entering the Information Age:
A Nigerian University Gets Digital

On the face of it there's nothing unusual: it's just a computer lab at a university with fifteen Pentium computers, all of them wired to the network and running the latest Windows software. However, a closer look reveals something extraordinary: Nigerian undergraduate students using cutting-edge computers to create documents, images, databases, and World Wide Web pages.

In a country where the universities have fallen on hard times, where faculty salaries are considered half of what one needs to survive, where many library journals date back to the 1960's and 70's, where whole cadres of Computer Science students graduate without ever touching a computer, and where labor strikes and electrical failures plague universities on an almost daily basis -- the University of Jos has created a digital oasis.

"We're getting ready for the Internet," says Prof. Nenfort E. Gomwalk, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Jos and the driving force behind the university's computerization campaign. "It has become increasingly clear that Nigerian universities are fast losing ground because we're not connected to other academics and on-line information."

Prof. Gomwalk toured American universities in 1994 as a guest of the U.S. Information Service and saw first-hand how information technologies were reshaping higher education. Since then, he has moved this 10,000-student university into the forefront of networking and computers.

The University of Jos now has a fiber optic network connecting 24 departments, with over 100 computers attached. Students, staff, and faculty from all disciplines are being trained to use the computers. Moreover, over 900 email accounts have been set up for campus users, generating more than 5,000 messages a month that go out beyond the university's walls to the wider Internet.

"It's not about whether one has computers," says American Fulbright Scholar and computer guru Cliff Missen, "It's about what one can accomplish with one's computers."

Since arriving at the University of Jos in September of 1998, Missen has emphasized the practical uses of computers and networks. As a Systems Analyst and instructor at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, Missen brought to Nigeria a wealth of experience in academic computing, multimedia development, and distance education. Employing software donated by Microsoft and computers donated by Gateway, Inc. as well as individuals from Iowa City, IA, he has spent the year demonstrating how computers and networks can be used effectively in universities.

"In the U.S., when I'm looking for ideas, I tour other universities to see how they are using their digital technologies," explains Missen. "When I see something innovative that could serve my department, I mimic it. But Nigerians don't have this option. PCs and networks barely exist in Nigerian universities and virtually everything we are doing here at UNIJOS is ground breaking."

Indeed, Missen is making a little history of his own: he is teaching course from the University of Jos that is being taken by seven students in Iowa City and 20 correspondence students from three different countries over the Internet (in addition to the 21 students in the UNIJOS classroom.)

"It has been challenging and fun," says Missen of the experience. "I've been lucky to attract a good group of students who have hung in there and created some good discussion despite a lot of obstacles."

One such obstacle is a lack of an Internet connection at the University of Jos. UNIJOS employs telephone connections to send and receive email, but full Internet connectivity is currently too expensive and tightly regulated by the government. With no telephone within a kilometer of his house, Missen spends early mornings and late evenings at a friend's home across town using the friend's telephone to dial up an Internet Service Provider in Lagos, 700 kilometers away. Even then, Missen reports that the connection is "terribly slow" and he loses the connection every few minutes.

The University of Jos is working on setting up a satellite link to the Internet. There are huge regulatory hurdles to be cleared, such as a four-million Niara license fee, and considerable infrastructural challenges to overcome, like electricity that stops flowing several times a day, but the UNIJOS technicians forge ahead.

"We're going to prove it can be done," says Daniel Inusa, the director of the UNIJOS network. Inusa has overseen the installation of the fiber optic network and is now working on setting up wireless links to the university's satellite campuses. Originally trained as a software developer, Inusa spent three months in Iowa undergoing advanced network training. With few tools and fewer resources -- and a single staff member -- he has managed two separate email systems that supply the university community with a relatively steady link to the outside world.

Like Daniel Inusa, several members of the UNIJOS Computer Centre staff have traveled overseas for computer training and now their efforts are turned towards training others at the university. The Centre runs computer application courses on an almost daily basis and the classes are always overbooked.

The most popular training is Web page design. Over 150 people have been trained to use Microsoft's FrontPage software to create documents for the World Wide Web. Now they are bent to the task of creating the first Nigerian pages on the university's Web server. Web sites describing the University of Jos, the city of Jos, places of interest in Nigeria, and faculty research have been developed. So that the rest of the world can see their work, the sites on the UNIJOS Web server are copied to a mirror server at the University of Iowa. (see http://intlinet.lib.uiowa.edu/unijos)

South African researcher Mike Jensen estimates that only .022% of all the Web pages in the world originate from Africa. The "webmasters" at the University of Jos hope to double that number when they finally connect to the Internet.

In June the UNIJOS Computer Centre will extend its influence one step further. June 14th - 19th they will offer a series of seminars and hands-on for other universities and organizations in Nigeria. With topics ranging from "NT Server Management" to "Power Protection and Supply," the seminars are designed to deal with the obstacles and opportunities faced by Nigerian network managers.

"There's no need for others to have to reinvent this wheel," says Cliff Missen. "We intend to demonstrate, warts and all, our progress here at UNIJOS. Hopefully, we'll hasten the adoption of these technologies at other universities around Nigeria."

Raising all Nigerian universities to the technological standards of the University of Jos may seem daunting, but it is necessary if the Nigerian Universities are to be relevant in the Information Age. With a newly-elected civilian government taking power this month, it is hoped that more emphasis will be placed on restoring Nigerian universities.

"All Nigerian universities will make faster progress if we learn from each other and support each other's efforts," says Missen. "The sooner other Nigerian universities catch up, the faster and more permanent our progress will be."

"Besides," he adds with an impish grin, "we need the competition!"

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This page is Cliff Missen and was last updated on July 19, 2002 by IOWA\nicknish.