The prospects for a meaningful African participation in the “digital information commons” are decidedly mixed.
On the one hand, there are clear shortfalls to contend with in internet connectivity, in exportable informational and cultural output, and in exportable academic and research output. On the other hand, digitisation and international electronic networks possess much potential for assisting African knowledge workers and creators in sharing knowledge within the continent, in tapping into the knowledge and creative resources of other continents, and in improving awareness of – and even economic opportunities for – African creators.
A recent effort to build an online “wiki” called the African Commons Encyclopedia, linked to the May 2005 Commons-sense Conference in Johannesburg, has found that African schools can and must be in the vanguard of the digital commons movement on the continent.
At continental level, the NEPAD e-Schools project aims to support internet connectivity for all of the continent’s high schools within 5 years, and primary schools in 10 years, via wired and wireless systems. The first official e-School was launched in Uganda in July.
Meanwhile, the Catalising Access to ICTs in Africa (CATIA) project is working hard to free up national regulatory rules for use of VSAT satellite, which will need to become a key wireless connectivity solution for schools. SchoolNet Africa, with a presence in 30 African countries, is trying to build the necessary technical management and troubleshooting skills at school level, partly through its online course for Technical Service Centre Managers.
These programmes have the potential to gradually answer the “digital” part of the digital information commons challenge. But what of the “information” dimension? How can the internet become a place where African school teachers and learners find content of relevance, and content that that they are free to use and adapt in whatever manner they see fit?
This is where the open access and open content movements have a role to play – in encouraging the development of online repositories of curriculum materials that can be freely used and adapted/translated for local appropriateness. As the Johannesburg-based Access to Learning Materials (A2LM) in Southern Africa project has pointed out, even a comparatively well-off country such as South Africa finds its Department of Education budget stretched out of control by the costs of hard-copy, copyrighted textbooks produced by educational publishers locally and overseas. It seems clear that “digital commons” techniques (digital, online distribution and access), when coupled with broader national copyright exceptions for “fair dealing” educational uses, have the potential to significantly enhance the affordability of school-level education delivery.
One current schools content initiative is the Commonwealth of Learning (CoL)’s Learning Objects Repository (LOR), which provides open content course materials (free to use, copy, distribute, adapt) for teachers in all Commonwealth countries, using a free and open source software platform developed in Canada. The African Virtual University (AVU), based in Nairobi, is working with CoL to get learning objects relevant to African teachers into the repository. Meanwhile, SchoolNet Africa is providing shared continental online networking spaces for teachers and learners through their African Education Knowledge Warehouse (AEKW) and African Teachers Network (ATN).
In Senegal, the Examen project, started in 2001, is a free web resource that helps high school students prepare for examinations and make career choices, with a focus on mathematics and science. The web interface is well-used, as evidenced by the following statistics from a recent one-week period in 2005:
• 8850 page visits (between 750 and 1539 page visits per day)
• 963 site visits
• 822 distinct visitors
South Africa is also home to some interesting online work in support of math and science teachers and learners. The Free High School Science Texts (FHSST) project, initiated by graduates of the University of Cape Town, is an online collaboration among materials developers around the world to build free science textbooks for Grades 10-12. Also in Cape Town, the Shuttleworth Foundation’s “Online Text Book” project aims to deliver free open content science, technology and entrepreneurship teaching materials.
African government departments also have an important role to play in getting their schools into the digital information commons. Trade ministries need to work towards more enabling copyright dispensations for educational settings, and education departments need to seek out publishers and firms willing to develop open access and open content resources (i.e., publishers and firms willing to sign away certain of the usual default copyright rules for materials they are paid to develop).
South Africa’s Department of Education started moving in this direction in 2005, providing open content, curriculum-aligned materials for teachers and learners via a portal called Thutong – the Setswana word for “place of learning.”
And it can never hurt to have a bit of fun! – as SchoolNet Namibia is amply illustrating with its online open content comic called Hai tai!, which means “listen up” in the local Oshiwambo dialects. Teachers and learners are free to use and adapt the comic, which has a Creative Commons licence and extols the virtues of open source software and the use of the online environment for formal or informal learning (e.g., getting sports scores).
The focus on schools highlights both the difficulties faced in creating a digital commons in Africa, as well as its potential. While much needs to be built up from the ground, hence the central importance of schools, there is the potential that the better part of the continent will encounter the internet through free software and teaching materials provided as open content, thus forming attitudes towards digital information that favour access and collaboration.
 The Commons-sense Project at the Wits University LINK Centre in Johannesburg is tracking projects on the continent that are, inbuilding African participation in the commons. It produces the African Commons Encyclopedia. All projects mentioned in this article are listed there.
 Many of the issues raised in this article are further explored in presentations made to the May 2005 Commons-sense Conference.
Chris Armstrong is an Associate at the LINK Centre’s Commons-sense Project at Wits University, Johannesburg. His research includes digital TV, community TV and video, radio and new ICTs in Africa, and SADC civil society participation in the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).