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[HARARE] A virtual lecture hall, enabling lectures to be streamed to university campuses from around the world, aims to plug the gap in scientific teaching staff at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ), which has suffered years of brain drain.

The Virtual Lecture Hall (VLH) was launched last month (29 June) at UZ's College of Health Sciences (UZ-CHS) and Faculties of Science and Veterinary Science, by the UK-based Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA) and Econet Wireless, the mobile communications company funding the project.  

The VLH initiative will support academic disciplines suffering from low teaching numbers. It will also foster engagement with the Zimbabwean diaspora and help develop international partnerships, according to Laura Broadhurst, CARA's Zimbabwe programme manager.

"The brain drain of academic staff [from Zimbabwe] is a critical issue, and CARA was encouraged by a broad section of stakeholders [...] to alleviate some of the problems around this issue," Broadhurst told SciDev.Net.

She added that Zimbabwean university science departments have been hardest hit by the brain drain, — mainly the result of low salaries — with skilled staff leaving the country, often for Australia, Canada, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The VLH will provide a projection screen and adequate bandwidth for students and lecturers to view 'virtual' lectures and accompanying slides clearly.

"It is hoped that this project will not only enable members of Zimbabwe's academic diaspora to re-engage with the university's future, but will improve standards of teaching and research, and facilitate increased networking and collaboration with universities outside Zimbabwe," Broadhurst said.

Successful trial lectures have already been streamed, Broadhurst says. "In the new academic year, King's College, London, will stream the lectures required by the UZ-CHS — such as anatomy and physiology — from a large lecture hall in the centre of London."  

CARA plans to replicate the model in other universities, although subject to funding, according to Broadhurst.  

Morris Mtisi, a Harare-based educational consultant, said the VLH concept was a clear acknowledgement of the severe impact of brain drain over recent years.

"It is a brain drain management strategy that will help the country tap [into] intellectuals in the diaspora", Mtisi toldSciDev.Net. "This will obviously add lots of value to Zimbabwean intellectual or academic development".  

Midion Mapfumo Chidzonga, an oral health professor and dean of UZ-CHS, said: "This is the great moment we all have been waiting for, turning the virtual into reality".