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The Digital Humanities and Digital Literacy: Understanding the Digital Culture in Nigeria

The Digital Humanities and Digital Literacy: Understanding the Digital Culture in Nigeria

Titlola Babalola, University of Lethbridge: babalola.titlola@yahoo.com

Peer-reviewed by: The 2013 CSDH/SCHN Lancashire Award Committee; Christine McWebb, University of Waterloo.


Abstract / Résumé

As Daniel O'Donnell's review of global participation in digital humanities suggests, digital activity may be correlated with the economic situation of a country, such that countries with high income witness a high participation in digital activities while countries with average or low income have partial or low participation (2012). Therefore, in this paper, I investigate the digital culture of Nigeria as a developing country with the goal of teasing out explanations for the gaps between digital literacy and digital humanities activities. I focus on the reasons for a low participation in digital humanities activities in the country by looking into the problems that internet users face in the country and why, despite the amount of digital activities taking place in the country, there appears to be an absence of digital humanities in academia. I conclude by proposing ways through which digital humanities can be incorporated into the Nigerian digital culture, especially in the education sector.

Comme le suggère Daniel O’Donnell dans son examen sur la participation mondiale aux humanités numériques, il peut y avoir une corrélation entre les activités numériques et la situation économique d’un pays. Ainsi, dans les pays où le revenu est élevé, le niveau de participation à des activités numériques est vaste, alors que dans les pays dont le revenu est moyen ou faible, le niveau de participation est partiellement ou peu élevé (2012). Par conséquent, dans cet essai, j’examine la culture numérique du Nigeria comme pays en développement dans le but de rechercher des explications aux écarts entre les activités de la culture numérique et des humanités numériques. Je me concentre sur les raisons de la faible participation à des activités d’humanités numériques dans le pays en examinant les problèmes auxquels sont confrontés les utilisateurs d’Internet, et les raisons pour lesquelles les humanités numériques semblent être absentes dans les universités, malgré le nombre des activités numériques qui ont lieu dans le pays. Je conclus en proposant des moyens par lesquels les humanités numériques peuvent être intégrées dans la culture numérique du Nigeria, particulièrement dans le secteur de l’éducation.

KEYWORDS / MOTS-CLÉS

Digital Humanities, digital literacy, digital culture



Introduction

As an interdisciplinary academic field that is focussed on the development and use of applications that improve the quality of research and teaching in the humanities, the digital humanities is not evenly distributed across the world. Daniel O'Donnell's review of global participation in digital humanities suggests that this activity may be correlated with the economic situation of a country, such that countries with high income witness a high participation in digital activities while countries with average or low income have partial or low participation (2012). His finding is based on Melissa Terras's map that shows the distribution of digital humanities centres across the world (2012); on this map, Africa is at the bottom, with only one centre situated in South Africa.

This hypothesis may be true considering the poor economic situation of most African countries. Many African countries are on the list of top poor countries in the world, and out of the fifty-four countries on the continent, only seven have a GDP per capita higher than $10,000. On the other hand, a World Bank team set to review the economic position of the continent in 2011 reports that Africa has many of the fastest growing economies in the world (2014, 3). So while it is poor, it is growing rapidly.

According to the 2013 World Population Review report, Africa is the second largest and second most populous continent in the world. However, despite its size and population, Africa, according to the internet world statistics, accounts for only seven percent of the world's internet users. At the same time, some parts of the continent have developed a robust technological culture: Egypt and Nigeria for instance, were ranked among the top twenty countries in terms of their number of internet users in the world in 2012. Nigeria occupied the eleventh position on this list with a total of 48.366 million users as of June 30, 2012 (Miniwatts Marketing Group 2014).

This high level of internet penetration can be attributed to the use of mobile phones; Neil Gough writes that "the number of subscribers in Nigeria, the world's fastest-growing market according to the International Telecommunications Union, increased by 143 percent in the 12 months to June 2003" (2005, 2). According to the Nigerian internet user survey, the highest users are students at tertiary institutions who fall between the ages of 18-27 (Jidenma 2011). It is only logical to expect that with such a high level of internet usage among Nigerians, especially students, the level of digital humanities participation would be equally high. And yet it is not. If there are many internet users, most of whom are digitally literate, what then could cause the low level of digital humanities participation in the country? Digital literacy is not uncommon in Nigeria—though this often refers to proficiency in the use of Microsoft Office and other basic tools. But, if computer literacy means that the individual possesses some level of technological know-how, why are there no digital humanists? What do the digital humanists do differently from the digital technologist or any other digital or computer literate? These are some of the questions this paper addresses. It considers the difference between the digital literate and the digital humanist, and how both function within the Nigerian digital culture. It also examines the multifaceted mix of problems that impede the development of digital humanities in Nigeria.

The digital culture in Nigeria

Nigeria as a developing country witnessed a rapid change in the last two decades after the government opened her doors to technological investors from both within and outside the country. Prior to this time, the Nigerian Telecommunications Plc (NITEL), the state-owned communication agency, monopolised the communication sector and few Nigerians had access to computers and the internet. However, with the deregulation of NITEL in 1992, the information technology sector boomed; investors like MTN, GLO, and Econet emerged to invest in modern telecommunication infrastructure. This also increased the level of technological awareness as many Nigerians gained access to a range of telecommunication/technological products and services, including mobile phones, smartphones, digital tablets, the internet, and computers. Nigerians now engage in various web-based activities for both academic and non-academic purposes. Many of these web-based activities, especially social networking, are performed via mobile platforms. Emil Protalinski reports that at the end of June 2012, 56.86 percent of Facebook's total user base connects via mobile devices (2012). According to a report by TechLoy, Nigeria topped the list by accounting for eighty percent of this group (Loy Media 2012).

Similar to its impact on social networking, technology has caused a revolutionary change in research methodology. A number of researchers have conducted analytical surveys on the impact of technology on education. In 2008, Lawal conducted a survey on the level of computer literacy and the use of the internet for research among the students and staff of computer science and engineering faculties in a Nigerian state university. The result revealed that ninety-four percent of the respondents are computer literate and eighty-four percent of these computer literates acquired their skills through trainings in ICT centres (Lawal et al. 2008). In 2006, Bukky Omotayo did a similar survey by distributing a thousand questionnaires among undergraduate students in ten faculties in a federal University; 664 of those were returned and usable and show: 89.9 percent of the respondents are familiar with using the internet; 40.2 percent of the respondents use the internet on a daily basis; 38.3 on a weekly basis; and ten percent on a monthly basis. The result also reveals that 83.2 percent of those who use the internet use it for academic purposes (2006, 217).

Alongside providing an analytical result on the level of internet usage among Nigerians, these surveys reveal the problems internet users face in the country. On the top of the list of obstacles is poor network connectivity. From the sampled responses, many of the respondents expressed dissatisfaction with the Internet Service Providers (IPS); internet users constantly experience slow, poor, or no connectivity. Also, unavailability of wi-fi connection access on most of the university campuses in the country affects the quality of research done in these academic communities. Unfortunately, only very few universities in the country have functional wi-fi spots that are open to the academic public. The situation is the same in most public places, such as fast food restaurants and hotels. Wi-fi resources installed by corporate institutions or individuals are locked and inaccessible to the public. Invariably, a large portion of internet users access the internet by purchasing airtime vouchers which are used at cybercafés or through their mobile phones and laptops. These vouchers, despite being split into various affordable amounts, are expensive when compared to the high level of poverty that pervades the country (a report from the National Bureau of Statistics [NBS] reveals that Nigeria's relative poverty measurement stands at sixty-nine percent as of 2010).

The next noticeable challenge faced by internet users in Nigeria is power failure. There is an insufficient power generation in the country; the demand for power is way below the supply, and this affects most facilities that are dependent on electricity. The average Nigerian uses a generator as a supplementary power supply source because electricity supply from the state-owned Power Holding Company (PHCN) is unreliable, and the country is often thrown into days of sporadic or complete power outage. The Energy Commission of Nigeria released a statement that "an estimated 60 million Nigerians now own power generating sets for their electricity, while the same number of people spend a staggering N1.56 trillion ($13.35m ) to fuel them annually" (2012). Students are affected by this inadequacy because they often have trouble charging their laptops and mobile phones.

Although many Nigerians have acquired skills that are useful in digital humanities, and though the internet and computers are widely used for research purposes across the country, the integration of digital tools into the educational system is very low. Nigerian researchers still rely on conventional methods of enquiry because most of the technological tools that are required to reshape the traditional methods of teaching are not readily available. My personal experience during my four years at university completing my undergraduate degree in Nigeria, has been that classrooms in most universities (except for some privately-owned universities), have no digital projectors. Therefore, the "sage on stage" method of teaching becomes the only feasible approach in such a situation.

Asides from the economic and technical challenges to basic internet access discussed above, there is also the problem of educational and research resources that fail to take into account the limitations faced by researchers and students outside high income economic regions. The same expense and lack of infrastructure that makes it difficult to access the internet in countries like Nigeria, also makes it difficult and expensive to work with standard digital humanities tools, resources, and methodologies. One example of this is the attitude towards crowdsourcing and data curation in Nigeria. Given the level of poverty in the country, one can understand why Nigerians are generally non-responsive to online surveys that are not financially beneficial. The stipend attached to outsourcing tasks (if a stipend is attached at all) is not a good-enough incentive when compared to the cost incurred on internet usage: a student who pays about the equivalent of a dollar to purchase thirty minutes of airtime at a cybercafé will be reluctant to participate in a crowdsourcing activity that pays nothing or a nominal sum per page. Unless such activities can be attached to grades or some other forms of incentives, such activities are simply too expensive in terms of time and money to allow wide spread adoption in a Nigerian context.

The fact that Nigeria could in principle benefit from such an approach if it could be made economical, makes the situation all the more tragic. As a poor country with a rich but threatened cultural heritage, much of which is orally transmitted, Nigeria would be ideally suited to the use of crowdsourcing as a means cultural reserve and preservation if only a means could be found to get around the prohibitive economic constraints that prevent its update.

While digital literacy in Nigeria continues to increase despite the economic and physical difficulties of access, the use of technology in humanities research and education (i.e the practice of the digital humanities) is almost non-existent. This reiterates the debates within the global digital humanities community about where to draw the lines between digital literacy and digital humanities. Scholars like Cathy Davidson have attempted to provide an encapsulating definition that accommodates both concepts. In her classes, "This Is Your Brain on the Internet" and "Twenty-First Century Literacies," Davidson asked her students to come up with a list of social media skills acquired and mastered in their peer-led class. They came up with a list of sixteen skills that she says defines "digital literacies." Four of these definitions are:

Using online sources to network, publicize content, collaborate and innovate... Demonstrating technical and media skills... Learning how to champion the importance of the open Web and 'Net Neutrality... Incorporating technology efficiently and wisely into a specific classroom or work environment. (2012b)

While these answers attempt to provide boundaries for the term "digital literacy" and subsequently the activities expected of a digital humanist, they are tailored towards defining digital literacy as the acquisition of technological skills to enhance knowledge within the academic arena. But digital literacy is not exclusive to the advancement of scholarly works. There are several kinds of digital skills that have no relevance to research. For instance, the cyber fraudster (commonly referred to as "yahoo boys" in Nigeria) who swindles people of their money and properties via online interactions is able to carry out these dubious activities through some digital knowledge. Also, a professional photographer who uses Photoshop to enhance the quality of his pictures does so not as a scholar, but because it is a necessary skill that affects his livelihood. Would these then qualify as digital humanists just because they are digitally literate? There is no doubt that digital literacy is a necessary prerequisite in the digital humanities because it enables the digital humanist to function effectively. But it will be misleading to assume that every digital literate is a digital humanist. Ibrar Bhatt claims that the relationship between institutional domains (such as classrooms) and digital literacy is complex (2012). He suggests that we need to remember that there is a distinction between being digitally literate and being comfortable with tools that are commonly used in an educational and/or research context. In this regard, he examines how digital tools are used by a student in her personal and academic activities, and he discovers that for this student and her classmates, Facebook was the preferred tool for academic work rather than the Moodle site provided by the school. Even though the skill required for the use of both Facebook and the academic site is the same, the use of social network platforms, or any other technological platform, for academic purposes does not make this student a digital humanist (2012, 294-295). Similarly, just because Nigerians, especially those operating within the academic environment, are comfortable using computers does not mean that we can assume that they are familiar with, know how to use, or are aware of the possibilities for using standard digital humanities tools in their work. The core function of the digital humanist goes beyond bridging the gap between traditional research in the humanities and technology. This function requires a proper matching between pedagogy and technological tools; it takes a step beyond digital literacy by teaching students to critically evaluate a range of technological tools and methodologies and create digital humanities research inquiries that can be enhanced using these approaches.

In Nigeria, there are digital literates who use their skills for academic research in the humanities, but these do not regard themselves as digital humanists because there is virtually no awareness about digital humanities as an academic field or its functions. When compared to the wave of digital humanities activities sweeping across the world, little has been done on digital scholarship that focusses on the history and culture of Nigeria and there are few digital resources for Nigerian cultural heritage. An example is Amos Tutuola's master piece, The Palmwine Drinkard (1952): though translated into about fifteen languages and considered a great work that reflects Yoruba oral folklore, no digital edition that could provide an insight into the publication process of the text exists, among other things. In the area of encoding literary text in order to make textual analysis easier and more accessible, Nigeria still has a long way to go. Based on my interaction with literature students in several Nigerian universities, I discovered that close reading is the only approach they adopt in textual analysis. This is because they are not aware of alternative approaches provided by new digital tools like Voyant or Wordseer. As a result of the inactive digital activities in the humanities, planning and developing new digital tools that will meet the necessities of the Nigerian humanities community is impeded. Such tools, when designed, can be used for an algorithmic textual analysis on texts that have a distinct linguistic code like Tutuola's The Palmwine Drinkard and Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Statistical tools can also be designed to provide a taxonomy of grammatical patterns in Achebe's works. This simplifies the texts and reveals evidences for a new set of meanings and theme by quantitatively confirming or testing claims by past critics.

In essence, while there is a considerable amount of digital activities in the country, some of which are carried out in ways that can be termed as digital humanities, the phrase "digital humanities" itself is not popular within the country. For instance, going through the sites of the universities in the country, especially government-owned institutions, it was discovered that none of the Nigerian federal universities offer courses titled "digital humanities" or any other related course title. Generally, these tertiary institutions are not looking into the place of humanities in a fast developing world where technology keeps changing the outlook of things. Although, a number of Nigerians, mostly abroad, have contributed and actively participated in the development of projects pertaining to Africa (a few have even joined digital humanities groups on Linked-in and other social networks, like professor Abdalla Uba, professor Eno-Abasi Urua, and Godwin Ihemeje, who are Nigerians resident in the county), but it seems like they are not quite familiar with the pedagogical functions and roles of digital humanities. Even though the development of infrastructure and technical skills that are necessary for the growth of digital humanities as an academic field are underway, the country still has a long way to go in order to meet up with the current digital trend in the world. There is a great need for a rapid change in digital culture and a total overhauling of the educational and economic sectors before the digital humanities can fully emerge and function as a revolutionary approach to humanistic research in Nigeria.


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