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Open Education and an It-Enabled Economic Growth in Ghana: Musings of a Dutiful Citizen

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Letter to The Presidentt: # 4:

Open education and an IT-enabled economic growth in Ghana: Musings of a dutiful citizen

Excellency,

First, a caveat. This epistle does not seek to re-write an IT policy for the nation, a task that is beyond the current time and space constrictions. However, it seeks to put issues in a fresher perspective.

There is an interconnect between the IT education policy in a country and the economic growth experienced or expected. The current brief seeks to bring home a few take-aways from the lessons of the past few decades, based on summation and extrapolation of observations extending at least a century and a half into the past. Two significant forces are explored: IT policy, especially with regard to adoption of free and open source software, and learner-focused education.

One of the most apt criticisms of the nation's education system was provided by Patrick Awuah, President of Ashesi University College, that flourishing private liberal arts college that has managed to win acclaim both home and abroad. The occasion was the 58th Annual New Year School Lecture at the University of Ghana. There have been other significant contributions from both educators and laypersons, coming from areas including academia, traditional institutions and industry .

A number of seemingly unrelated events that have occurred over the past few weeks are interesting with respect to the country's stand on Information and Communications Technology, especially relating to free and open source software (FOSS) and IT education in general. The ante was delivered by The Director of Finance at The Ministry of Communications, Mr. M.B. Alhassan, in a speech at an ICT career exposition event."ICT can create open learning environments in which people are free from the constraints of time and space, ICT is a self-propelling, self replicating and self sustainable driver of welfare and development," he said.

Next, a little over a month ago, the nation was blessed with a familiarization visit by Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web. He was accompanied by a staffer at his (Berners-Lee's) World Wide Web Foundation (WF). Berners-Lee is known for his stance on ensuring global barrier-free access to the web: "The Web Foundation will break-down the barriers that now prevent billions of people from being connected and empowered by the Web, while advancing future technologies leading toward a more capable, useful and usable Web for all people on the planet." To achieve its mission, the WF says it intends to "fund and coordinate efforts that work towards a future:

* served by One Web that is free and open, * where understanding, capability and robustness of the Web improves * where the Web is usable by all people, and * where useful content and services are available for all people who might benefit from it "

That visit enabled the team to make contact with people and organizations doing work interesting for web access and also to find out the barriers and opportunities that faced not only the nation's internet business, but also the entire IT and mobile communications sector. Three of the key personalities they met are Deputy Minister of Commnications Gideon Quarcoo, about the most prominent IT figure in Ghana, Dr. Nii Quaynor, and David West, an internet entrepreneur and owner of Busy Internet.

Still on the local scene, this year's Software Freedom Day (SFD) marked by the theme: "Open Source: Solutions for Business.", was celebrated with a keynote delivered by Dr Richard Boateng, Director of Research at the International Centre for Information Technology Development Southern University in the USA, who said "businesses have much to gain not only in adopting software free of charge but also being able to shape and localize them to solve peculiar problems".

It was not the first time SFD was being marked in Ghana. It has been celebrated annually since 2004. What was new was the collaboration between The Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT (AITI-KACE), The Accra Linux User Group, organizers of the celebration, and the Association of Ghana Industries, (AGI) to hold a press conference to inform the general public about event, which occasion was also used by the AITI-KACE to launch this year's Innovation Week The efforts of the indefatigable Dorothy Gordon, Director of AITI-KACE and her team deserve the highest commendation. Under her leadership, that institution has stood in defense of free and open source software (FOSS) and has served to introduce the larger portion of the general public to the existence of FOSS and its (FOSS') viability as a business model.

Still on the topic of free software, a major event announcement was made involving global IT giant IBM, Canonical, the company behind the most popular and fastest growing distribution (Ubuntu) of the Linux operating system and other partners. They launched a Cloud- and Linux-based Netbook Software in Africa. Described as a "flexible personal computing software package for netbooks and other thin client devices to help businesses in Africa bridge the digital divide by leapfrogging traditional PCs and proprietary software", the bundle is the first cloud- and Linux-based offering from IBM and Canonical. The initiative targets the rising market for netbooks.

"Businesses in emerging markets are looking to gain the freedom and flexibility afforded by open standards," said Bob Picciano, General Manager, IBM Lotus Software. "The IBM Client for Smart Work builds on the movement toward open standards and Web-based personal computing by giving people the power to work smarter, regardless of device."

Around the same time, a breathtaking speech was made by Michael Tiedmann, VP of Open Source at Red Hat Inc., President of The Open source Initiative (OSI), and one of the most experienced open source entrepreneurs on the planet. He stated that open source software could save the global IT industry $1 Trillion annually! Before that assertion is treated by anyone as a bluff, it might help to remember what Tiedmann did some twenty years -or thirty-five internet years!- ago. He probably knows more about making money from free software than anyone else. It was Tiedmann who as far back as 1989 approached Richard Stallman, author of The GNU C Compiler (GCC), for the latter's blessing to set up his (Tiemann's) company, CYGNUS, a little while after coming across Stallman's compiler. He was amazed by the quality of Stallman's compiler, and decided that it must be possible to build a business around it. Not only

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