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Studying technology in a developing country

ASU professor wins Fulbright to teach, study in Nigeria

March 22, 2016

Patience Akpan-Obong, an associate professor in the College of Letters and Sciences at Arizona State University, has been able to return Nigeria, the country of her birth, to teach and do research.

Akpan-Obong was awarded the Core Fulbright U.S. Scholar Grant and has been working at the Center for E-Government and E-Business at Covenant University. She is studying the integration of technology in Nigeria’s political processes.

Besides teaching and research, she also is organizing an international conference on e-government in Nigeria.

“In the process, I have done a lot of marketing, soliciting for corporate sponsorships and exhibitors and knocking on doors. I didn’t think that I could succeed in sales and marketing,” said Akpan-Obong, who teaches at the Polytechnic Campus.

“While I am definitely keeping my day job as ASU faculty, the success here has boosted my self-confidence in project management.”

Akpan-Obong answered some questions about her Fulbright experience, where she has found the students to be engaging and the early-morning activities to be a challenge.

Question: Please describe your project at Covenant University:

Answer: The Fulbright Core Grant has two components: Teaching and research.

I co-teach courses in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences.

I am conducting research on the integration of information and communication technologies in the administrative practices of federal government ministries and departments, state governments and federal universities in a process called e-government or e-governance. The federal government aspect of the research has been completed. I am currently working on the state government dimension, with a case study of one of the states, and should be finished by the end of the Fulbright period, just a few months from now. I will continue the federal universities dimension when I return to Nigeria in spring 2017 for a half-year sabbatical leave.

The research on e-governance is expected to provide a snapshot of the state of information and communication technologies in the country and inform the formulation of policies for more strategic leverage of the technologies in all activity sectors such as economy, politics, society and culture. Also, the research will provide practical insights for the establishment of a conceptual framework for the study and understanding of e-governance in Nigeria and other similarly situated developing countries. This is important because one cannot assume that the integration of information and communication technologies in government in emerging democracies will follow the same pattern and achieve the same outcomes as occurred in more mature democracies.

I am also involved in other activities at Covenant University. A major activity, besides teaching and research, is the organization of an international conference, the 3rd Covenant University Conference on E-governance in Nigeria (CUCEN 2016), scheduled for June 8-10. As conference facilitator and chair of the planning committee, I work with university management, faculty and graduate students to ensure that the conference is robust in content and participation, and that it can pay for itself.

I am editing a book of readings on e-government in Nigeria. The materials are mostly generated from the 2015 Covenant University Conference on E-governance in Nigeria. The book will be published by the Covenant University Press. I am hoping to have it ready in time for the June conference.

I am also working with the vice chancellor (equivalent of president) of the university on an application to establish a UNESCO Chair on E-government in Nigeria. We have so far been able to secure the support of two U.S. universities (not including ASU) and organizations in the country on the application. (Institutional collaboration and corporate partnership are major requirements for a successful UNESCO Chair application.)

I am invited to attend the monthly university-wide senate and certain university management meetings. These activities provide immense insights into the intricacies of university administration.

Q: Why did you decide to pursue this project?

A: Earlier focus on information and communication technologies in African development centered mostly on the socioeconomic dimension. However, policy and research interest has, in recent years, shifted to the integration of information and communication technologies in governance with emphasis on the capacity to bridge the chasm between the state and citizens. Nonetheless, it appears that for many developing countries, e-governance/e-government is understood simply as the creation of websites for government departments and agencies. Traditional methods of non-interactive and one-way communication are often “uploaded” to the online environment without any transformative impact on state-citizen relational dynamics. I chose to pursue this area of research because an understanding of these practices as well as the political dimension of information and communication technologies is critical to policy and development of practical of infrastructure.

Q: How will your work in Nigeria relate to your teaching at ASU?

A: I will be returning with practical knowledge of the role of information and communication technologies in the process of development, broadly defined. And therefore, as I teach courses on the intersection of science, technology and society, I will include practical examples in my materials in ways that enrich students’ learning experience and expand their understanding of the course content.

Patience Akpan-Obong

Patience Akpan-Obong in her office at Covenant University in Nigeria.

Q: What is a typical day like for you there?

A: Covenant University is a private Christian university with spirituality as the first of its seven core values. The university is closely connected with its founding church, Word of Faith Bible Church International, a.k.a. Winners’ Chapel. A typical day begins at 5:30 a.m. with Covenant Hour of Prayer, a one-hour church service. While it is recommended, the Covenant Hour of Prayer is not mandatory for staff and faculty but it is for students. Staff and faculty are expected to sign in at the office at 7:45 a.m. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, there is Chapel Service (a two-hour church service) that begins at 8 a.m. It is mandatory for students, faculty and staff. On Fridays, there is a mandatory two-hour Faculty Fellowship. In addition, we have a two-hour service on Wednesday at 6 p.m., a one-hour Bible Study on Saturday at 5 p.m. and church on Sunday. A typical day for me therefore depends on what day of the week!

In any case, in between these activities are classes, meetings (there are lots of meetings here), research and other sundry activities. These days, I spend every spare moment sending out e-mails and making phone calls to organizations and individuals in the industry to invite their participation at CUCEN 2016 as guest speakers, corporate sponsors and exhibitors.

Q: What’s been the best part of your experience there?

A: I have enjoyed working in a university considered to be the Harvard of Nigeria. The campus is similar to any small-sized university in the United States. Indeed, the campus is a city within a city: It has its own water-supply system and electricity. There is a huge farm where one can get fresh produce, etc. It is quite self-sufficient in all the basic needs. Everyone lives on campus — all faculty, all students and most staff.

The students are hardworking and very smart. Indeed, many of the graduates end up getting merit scholarships to graduate schools in the United States, and those who go into the industry are already making names for themselves and bringing prestige to the university. It is refreshing to work in a disciplined environment with highly motivated students. The best part of my experience here would be my interactions with the students — both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. I am currently collaborating conference and journal papers with some graduate students.

Q: Have there been any challenges?

A: Well, I am not a morning person. I typically wake up late because I work late and usually don’t go to bed before 2 a.m. As much as I am a Christian and I appreciate the focus on spirituality, I have found the early-morning activities very challenging. The good thing is that since I am not a full-time employee, I have been allowed much flexibility. While I do make every effort to participate in many of the spiritual activities, there have been no recriminations when I can’t. If I were a full-time employee here, perhaps I would have trained my body to switch from being a night owl to an early bird. (Given that owls are equated with witchcraft in Nigeria, the switch would have been a spiritual transformation in more ways than one!)

Another challenge is technological. That is ironic given my research on information and communication technologies! It took a while to get used to not having on-demand and fast Internet connectivity or dependable phone connection. 

Also, I find myself getting upset at drivers on campus who drive too fast and don’t stop for students at intersections and marked pedestrian crosswalks (zebra crossing). Sometimes I deliberately step on the pedestrian crosswalk and hope the drivers will slow down for students to cross. When I do this, the students look at me as if they think I am crazy and the drivers give me the Christian equivalent of the finger (don’t ask what it is). It upsets me that these drivers — many of whom are pastors and deacons — do not consider how their spirituality should reflect their treatment of students and other pedestrians on campus roads.

Of course, my children and I miss the familiarity and predictability of our lives in Arizona. I came with my two younger children: an 11-year-old boy and a girl who turned 13 here in January. As much as it has been fun here, we have started the countdown to the end of the Fulbright year.

Q: Has anything funny happened during your adventure?

A: I don’t know if this can be considered “funny” but there is a lot of emphasis on greetings in Nigeria (not just at my host institution). It is considered extremely rude to pass someone (including strangers) without greeting him or her. When I come into the office in the morning, the security guards in the building will go:

“Good morning, Ma. How was your night, Ma? How is the family, Ma?”  I still don’t know how to answer the “how was your night” question. I would usually mumble something and quickly take the steps to my office.

Another thing that I find interesting is the penchant for people to use last name first. For instance, someone says, “My name is Doe Jane.” For names such as “Doe John” I would usually ask what the first name is.  In the beginning I would ask why they don’t say John Doe instead of Doe John. The written convention is “last name, first name.” The comma makes it clear when written, but the absence of the comma when the name is said leads to the confusion — at least for me.

Still on names, people are very formal here and take their honorifics very seriously. I am used to calling people by their first names (as I also wish them to call me by my first name). But people get very offended if you don’t add the honorific (Mr., Mrs., Dr. or Professor) even if you have good working/personal relationship with them. And God help you if you call a married woman Ms. or fail to say “Dr. (Mrs.) — (Last Name)” when addressing a married colleague with a PhD. In a society where it is considered a “curse” for a woman to be single, those who are “lucky” enough to be married take their “Mrs.” honorific very seriously.  All of that pales if one commits the capital sin of addressing a full professor as “Dr.” It’s considered the height of insult to do so!

Despite this formality, it is common for an instructor (mostly male) to address a student in class as “my daughter” or “my son.” I have found myself now unconsciously addressing students as “sweetie” or “my dear.” I must remember to check that at the border when returning to the U.S. this summer. I doubt my ASU students will stand for that!

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