Keeping the mandarins on their toes

Interview with Alex Corenthin, by Olivier Barlet

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The internet’s arrival in universities has profoundly modified student-tutor relationships, although it has not done away with them all together. The example of Senegal, and its perspectives.

How did you come to be interested in the internet?
I took over the university’s I.T. department in the Nineties. I worked with Orstom on the RIO network project (Réseau Intertropical d’Ordinateurs). The aim was to develop a mailing system for the different Orstom research stations in Africa, and beyond too. In 1990, we already completed the work on the connections and transferred the technology to Orstom’s partners. The first partner linked up was the University of Dakar. We started studying e-mail systems, etc.
We then worked to expand this network, initially on a national level. In 1992, we declared the national domain of Senegal, in which I held responsibilities. From ’92 to ’95, we worked on a technology transfer system from Orstom to the university in an effort to appropriate these techniques. Little by little, we expanded the national network: first of all to the research centres connected to the internet (the material resources came from Orstom), then when Senegal linked up in ’96, we completely transferred all our skills to all the universities. I am now in charge of managing the internet for the whole of Senegal.
What has the internet brought to the university?
First of all, it breaks the isolation of African researchers, enabling them to communicate with overseas laboratories. The researchers were immediately won over. The difficulty came, above all, from the lack of means provided by the university, whose resources are practically nonexistent. Resources have always been provided by the technical assistance agency, or by internationally-backed schemes. At present, the universities are still not linked up to each other, which forces researchers to have to group together in the same university. Cybercentres have been set up in each university, which already enables them to host a thousand or so subscribers, with a growth rate of around 10% a month. The only obstacle today is the lack of equipment: the university research centres’ computing infrastructures are obsolete.
What kind of infrastructures are obsolete?
The university’s internal communication infrastructures, for example the internal phone system’s automatic commutation switches, the analogical systems which aren’t compatible with the new technologies… Links between the different buildings are practically nonexistent. This up-dating will take time and resources. There are currently two major projects providing funding: the World Bank for equipment, and the French Cooperation for the communication infrastructures.
There are not only technological hurdles, but mental barriers too. How has the university milieu evolved with the internet?
To simplify things somewhat, let’s say that there are two different populations: young people and the « ageing » academics, or mandarins, who are resistant to this technology. This is obviously a problem, as they are the ones who hold the purse strings when it comes to deciding on the necessary investments. But they are coming round anyhow. An anecdote: the former rector wouldn’t hear of the internet until he noticed, in the international congresses, that all his peers kept asking him for his electronic address so they could send him documents!
Isn’t this the kind of generational conflict which exists at all levels of society? An older generation who, we can understand, does not want to have to get to grips with technologies that are tricky to understand, but who are afraid of losing a certain power, and, on the other hand, young people who want to keep up with the rest of the world…
Absolutely, it is indeed about losing power. I consider that to control information is to control power. We aren’t yet used to the idea that this is accessible to everybody. This is where the major difficulty lies. However, there is a whole generation of young wolves who want to affirm themselves, and to prove something in order to keep up internationally.
We have studied the consequences of having put the internet at the disposal of a group of students in our department to carry out bibliographic research in particular. We very quickly realized that this forced the tutors to call themselves into question, because the students were becoming much more informed than them about the development of technology and methods. The tutors saw the difference in the content of their classes and the student’s knowledge, which destabilized them. From one day to the next, a large number of tutors came to ask for access to the internet themselves as they were being overtaken! This is one of the major interests of making the internet available to tutors and students: it forces them to keep on up-dating. You have to be a researcher to become a university tutor, but some get nominated, have their post, and don’t carry out any more research. This new tool forces them to really get down to their research.
Has this caused a profound change in the structures of knowledge transmission?
There is a confrontation of knowledge, but the students nonetheless need a tutorial presence. Without a structure, they soon finds themselves bogged down in the multitude of information, which reinforces the power of the tutor if he/she masters this information. The unions were soon up in arms about the arrival of this new technology, saying that people were trying to replace tutors with projects such as the virtual university which people tried to set up in Dakar. But it’s not the case, as the students are soon lost, and are forced to fall back on a tutor, at least for a pedagogical guide.
It has sped up the acquisition of knowledge, and, above all, has made people highly operational, giving them an ability to self-train which they didn’t have before. For example, in technical colleges, the latest generation of students going into industry are much more capable of immediately adapting to the industrial obligations. Previously, industrialists reproached the African education system because they had to retrain the students. This capacity for self-training makes them operational, and that has already caused a revolution on the job market, as the companies which only used to choose overseas people are now recruiting locally again.
Can students easily gain access to the internet?
The only difficultly in giving all students access is the lack of infrastructures. We have therefore restricted access in our university to post-graduate students and tutors. Each faculty has its own completely autonomous equipment management policies, and they need to be encouraged to set up locally, so that we, as the central service, can link them up. Alternatively, the students can go to the cybercafes, but this is more costly for them.
How much?
At present, an hour’s connection costs 15 FF (1500 FCFA), which is relatively expensive, whereas access for post-graduates at the university is 1000 FCFA a month, unlimited, with an e-mail address…
Can you give us an idea of how many computers are available to the students where you work?
At present, there are fifty or so computers which have a 90% usage. A self-service room houses 10 computers which are permanently connected. The 40 others are used according to needs and according to a strict schedule. Next year, an extension will allow us to put another dozen computers in another centre, and we have, above all, received a donation of 300 computers from the World Bank, which are to be set up in the different faculties.
The material consulted essentially comes from the North. Is there a desire in the universities to develop specific contents?
This is still a problem. Information is still considered to be highly sensitive. People have great difficulty in getting their information on-line. They only publish the content pages: the question of copyright, the fear that their work be published by someone else… It has to be said that there is a judicial void in this respect. Furthermore, the process of digitalizing documents is not perfect yet. Many people are still working with archaic methods. The tutors’ level of equipment is very poor. Digital format systems in digital need to be found, and skills in using web techniques developed, but there isn’t a global policy yet. We are in the process of completely re-equipping the new university library, which will be computerized with access to the internet and data bases.
Concerns about publishing on the web aren’t specific to the South!
We have one very good example: Orstom, which disposes of an extraordinary wealth of documentation on all the agronomic research work carried out over the last 50 years does not want to put it on the web. Except for internal use, with passwords, codes, a subscription system…
Have students created sites, or university journals on the web?
Yes. There is a great demand from student groups. But we come up against the eternal problem of equipment. What is more, the Administration is about to demand the right to oversee things, which risks causing some problems. For the time being, self-regulation works.
What are the stakes in terms of north-south relations in the coming years?
The main stake is the appropriation of technology: it is the only way for African societies to catch up. The second stake is economic. We need to valorize our cultural assets and develop relations with France and other countries. The internet is a means of development which needs to be appropriated.
There has been an extraordinary turn-around: low standards of living and high population rates have become an asset…
The excess of information in the north is turning against it. It can no longer handle what it produces itself. We represent the opportunity to remedy that. We are a potential market, which we need to understand how to valorize. The politicians are beginning to understand the stakes. But we musn’t go too fast if we are to do things well. We need to go in the right direction. The discussions about cultural issues are extremely important if we are to avoid ending up like South-East Asia, at the mercy of the slightest little upheaval on the stock markets, which will destroy all we have acquired if we are only a money-spinner.
Do the political circles share these thoughts?
In Senegal, yes. We have been working in this direction for years, and the politicians understand the stakes. In the other countries, people are still afraid of these new technologies. But the development of the internet is inevitable. It is exactly the same schema as what happened at the university between the mandarins and the students… On the one hand the partisans, and on the other, the politicians who are afraid of losing all they have gained…

Alex Corenthin is head of Department at the Ecole Polytechnique in Dakar (Senegal)///Article N° : 5418

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