Author Archives: Jonathan Harle

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About Jonathan Harle

Jonathan Harle is Senior Programme Manager, Research Access and Higher Education and Director of the Strengthening Research and Knowledge Systems programme

Data, dialogue and development – why the last kilometre matters
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IT Network Engineers in action at Uganda’s Gulu University


This is co-written with
Sara Gwynn, INASP Associate

The last kilometre – or even the last 100 metres

Picture this. A kilometre from your desk there is a warehouse where the world’s most relevant, timely and credible data and knowledge are instantly available… but you can only access or contribute to it one page at a time.

To add to your difficulties, each page has to be carried along a long, meandering path, and the path is poorly signposted, badly maintained and crowded with other people. There are no rules and, even if there were, there are not enough people to enforce them. When you do eventually transport a page, you have to do the whole journey again for the next one.

It is a tortuous process that wastes time, money and opportunities for you and for those who could benefit from your work. And for many people this is a frustrating daily reality.

Laying the foundations

Years of effort and investment mean that the books, journals, databases, cables, servers, software, laptops and mobiles are largely in place, ready to go. Researchers, academics and students are ready too. But things grind to a halt in the kilometre between the backbone and the desktop if campus networks are not properly configured and managed.

This means students don’t get to develop their digital skills and academics can’t harness the power of online technologies to drive new research in new directions for development.

As we’ve written before, there’s a certain degree of hype about the potential of technology to transform African research and higher education. But there’s also huge potential, if the right foundations are laid – and, while the hardware matters, skilled people to manage it are vital.

In 2013, the UbuntuNet Alliance— including the Network Startup Resource Centre (NSRC) and AfricaConnect—and INASP identified a shared interest in the issue, and agreed to work with National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) to try and find a sustainable solution through a pilot project. We’ve just published a final learning report which highlights what we’ve achieved together, and what we’ve learnt.

Faster networks, more data

IT engineers developed their knowledge and skills, a core team in each country developed their skills to train others, and greater confidence and collaboration led to engineers across countries solving problems together. But perhaps most importantly there were tangible improvements to the speed of IT networks – enabling students and researchers to access journals and online books, to share data and to communicate with colleagues.

And as each NREN has improved internet connectivity for universities and research institutes, their memberships have grown, and they’ve been able to offer new services. The Research and Education Network of Uganda has now built a data storage facility, and developed secure data passport services which will enable Ugandan researchers to collaborate more effectively with their partners across the world.

To find out what we did, what we achieved and why, and what we learnt, you can read more here.

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Transforming teaching and learning in East Africa
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Students at Mzumbe University

Young people have a vital role to play in development, and universities are important sites to nurture their skills and to harness that energy for social change (as I blogged about last week). But there is work to do to realize this potential. In East Africa, the rapid growth of universities (there are now 45 universities in Uganda – and many smaller training institutions, compared to just one university 50 years ago at Independence). A huge expansion in student places – coming after many years of under-investment in infrastructure, learning resources and in academic staff – has had a serious impact on quality. In neighbouring Kenya, a recent audit by the Commission for University Education has revealed the extent of the problem. The content of many courses is out of date, the styles of teaching reflect the ‘chalk and talk’ mode of lecturing, and in many institutions there are few incentives … Continue reading

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Critical skills for change: universities, young people and learning
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Young people have a vital role to play in their countries’ development. There are now 1.8 billion young people (between the ages of 10 and 24, 2014 UN figures)  — out of a global population of 7.3 billion — and nine out of 10 of them live in developing countries. This makes youth a vital dimension of development policy and practice, and more and more, the role of young people is being recognized. In a speech last year, the UN Deputy Secretary General put it clearly: “Young people must be recognized for who they are: agents of change whose contributions will bring benefits both to themselves and to society”. A set of institutions that have long known the potential of young people are universities. It’s through university study that young people can develop the knowledge, skills, ideas and attitudes that will enable them to contribute to their societies and economies, and also through … Continue reading

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We won’t achieve the Sustainable Development Goals if developing country researchers can’t play their part
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We have a problem. We desperately need to bring research and knowledge to bear on the world’s most pressing problems. But researchers in the countries where much of that knowledge is needed are often the least able to respond. Research will only offer new solutions if it is generated in the countries that need it most, by researchers best placed to understand local contexts, and by collaborative efforts between researchers, policymakers and practitioners. Tackling global challenges From entrenched poverty and hunger, to poor health and education systems, to a steadily warming planet, our world faces some huge challenges. We need to find new sources of clean and affordable energy, and connect the 1.1 billion who still don’t have electricity. We need to take better care of our oceans and forests — vital parts of the earth’s complex ecosystem and the source of livelihoods for billions of people. And we need to tackle … Continue reading

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Re-imagining higher education in Sierra Leone
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Simon Davis/DFID

Simon Davis/DFID

‘The worst of times and the best of opportunities’

This piece was previously published on Jon Harle’s Medium blog site, republished here with his permission.

We hear many stories about the decline of African universities so it was great to hear a story of regeneration and renewal last Friday.

And it was particularly inspiring that this story came from a county better known in recent years for crisis and tragedy — Sierra Leone. Continue reading “Re-imagining higher education in Sierra Leone” »

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Who drives research in developing countries?
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This piece was previously published on Jon Harle’s Medium blog site, republished here with his permission. To what extent is research on development issues done by researchers in developing countries? To what extent do those researchers actually decide what research needs doing and what questions need asking? And if developing country researchers do decide, to what extent do they do so in collaboration with the people who might ultimately have a use for that knowledge ? These aren’t new questions, but they re-emerged for me recently in a series of studies we commissioned of research and knowledge systems in Somalia and Somaliland, Liberia and South Sudan. And they’re echoed in a series of essays on the ethics and politics of knowledge production in fragile states. It’s a well-worn maxim that appropriate solutions require local knowledge. Yet although this is well recognized, it often seems to be missing when research is commissioned … Continue reading

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