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The African Internet Technology Initiative
Author: Nia Ujamaa | December 10th, 2004
Communities: Access , Access, Literacy & Learning,

When most people hear about student-run organizations, they envision parties put on by disorganized and irresponsible groups of students. However, the African Internet Technology Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT-AITI) has been breaking that stereotype for the past 5 years. Slowly but surely this organization is working to bridge the digital divide between underdeveloped and developed nations, according to Manish Gaudi, AITI's current president.

Established by a team of African MIT students in 1999, the objective of MIT-AITI is to enhance the academic experience by offering students opportunities to address real world problems through summer information technology programs in Africa.

“People often complain that students here are too caught up in the Tech bubble to realize there is life outside of [...] schoolwork. The MIT-AITI program will teach you the world is a huge but wonderful place,” said Qian Wang, a teacher in Ethiopia this past summer. Wang is currently a senior at MIT, and oversees the MIT-AITI self-learning initiative.

The project began as a 4-week Java seminar, and one-week UNIX seminar through a collaboration with Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya in the summer of 2000. In addition to teaching, MIT students assisted with the improvement of Strathmore Universities network by delivering switches and a router, which were integrated into the school's existing network. Strathmore University was the first institution of higher education in Kenya to receive International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in management systems. Since 2000, the program has expanded to a partnership with three countries and four schools: Strathmore, University of Ghana, Legon in Ghana, and Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia.

A culturally and academically diverse team of MIT students participate in this opportunity to teach abroad, including 50 MIT students and 750 different African students. Last year’s participants ranged from freshmen to graduate students, in majors including Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, Business Management, Physics and Chemical Engineering. The MIT students have described the experience as “life-changing” and “the most rewarding experience in college.” Former African students have also returned to serve as teacher’s assistants during the summer programs.

The program is enhancing the lives of MIT students as well as African students and teachers. Students and teachers at the participating African institutions are equipped with skills to obtain employment and assist in community service initiatives. The courses offered introduce them to the latest Information Technology tools and entrepreneurship skills. Students are expected to share these skills with their peers and to use these skills to assist in the development of IT in their respective countries.

During the summer of 2003, AITI piloted their self-sustained learning program. The curriculum for this program made use of the school-wide Open Courseware (OCW) program, a free, open publication of MIT course materials. During this pilot program, Kenyan students used the course materials to complete the MIT course "Introduction to Engineering Problem Solving Using Java." The objective was to prove to students that they did not need the MIT students to learn technology skills and to show the Kenyan students that there were tools readily available via the Internet. Four of the ten students who completed the pilot OCW program are working on a medical database, two of the students have become lab assistants for Strathmore University, and the remaining four are setting up a JAVA diploma course in Kenya.

The success of the 2003 pilot in Kenya resulted in a self-learning component in all three countries during the summer of 2004. As part of the self-learning initiative, the top 20 students opted out of lectures and instead learned through collaboration with one another, 3rd party books, OCW, and the curriculum from the MIT lectures many of their peers attended. MIT students facilitated the process and answered the questions the African students were unable to answer. The MIT students used their discretion in answering questions, and guided the students toward an answer rather than providing answers.

During the summer of 2004, the students in various countries participated in an entrepreneurial competition where the individual or group with the best business plan received $330 to initiate an entrepreneurial endeavor. The winner of the competition in Ghana proposed innovative technology additives for the Ghanaian stock market. All the students walked away from the program with a solid foundation in Java, Java Server Pages, Open Source Programming and entrepreneurial skills.

Problem solving went beyond mere numerical calculations for the MIT students. Access to technology and books was a complaint by the students teaching in Kenya. Language barriers were problems noted by the Ethiopia team, as well as the lack of female participation, during the summer of 2004. The MIT students addressed these issues as a team.

Community connections played a large role in the MIT student’s efforts. Entrepreneurs from the local communities were invited to speak to the African students. The MIT students also offered workshops on AIDS awareness and discussions on the United States college application process.

“Whatever I do, to be most satisfied/productive, I need to be able to directly observe the impact,” said Gaudi, as a result of his time abroad. Before AITI, Gaudi felt as if he were a “cog in this huge IT wheel.” The practical application of technology skills the MIT students have shared has given them a new perspective on life, and the skills obtained by the African students have opened them up to new opportunities.

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