Finding a new purpose for education in Africa

©eLearning Africa

For three days, between 11 and 13 May 2022, nearly 1,000 participants from over 70 countries spread across Africa and the world joined eLearning Africa’s 15th international conference on ICT in education, training, and skills development (eLA 2022). The conference attracted participants from Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, South Africa, Europe, and the United States of America. 

This is Africa’s largest conference and exhibition on technology-supported learning and training held annually on a rotation basis. The event was graced by experts, practitioners, policymakers, and investors committed to the future of education and training.

At eLA 2022, EdTech Hub hosted two workshops on user testing and design for a new EdTech entrepreneurship course geared towards African EdTech developers. More than 30 young technology producers from Africa joined the sessions. The course is made up of three learning modules including designing EdTech products, understanding foundational literacy and numeracy skills, and scaling up.   

In one of the sessions, David Hollow, EdTech Hub’s Director of Research spoke about making EdTech research useful for decision-makers. He reiterated that the future of EdTech is an evidence-based future that will focus on what works, why, how, and in what context, to ensure that technology can help address the global learning crisis. He added that the delivery of evidence is mostly affected by gaps where we do not know enough about the most cost-effective and scalable ways to sustainably impact student learning. There is always a disconnect between what we know and large-scale decision-making. Generating evidence and ensuring that it is scaled to improve learning outcomes is one of the key goals of EdTech Hub.  

The conference topics focused on various issues affecting learning in Africa including: 

  • Specific and practical learning challenges that are facing African countries and how the use of technology will enable Africa to respond to these challenges.
  • The suitability of global models for the African context and why we need to restructure education to cater for African countries’ future needs. 
  • Africa’s contribution to global learning and opportunities available to use African experience to solve global problems.

For a long time, Africa has been a recipient of aid in many sectors, including education, and that means that whenever there is a learning shift, learners in marginalised communities are adversely affected. 

Reflections from the ‘African learning battle’

There are a number of widely held misconceptions about Africa as a continent. Many people assume that Africa is one country — hence, one size fits all. One of the most engaging sessions at eLA  — The ‘Learning Battle’ — gave participants a chance to openly express themselves and present their ideas on how they would like to tackle the learning crisis in Africa. 

In the session, we heard how technology developers from outside Africa have often simply translated their digital learning content to Swahili and used black icons to reflect the African App user. With their yearning for scale, this approach has clearly ignored the diversity, multilingualism, and multicultural nature of Africa. Yes, impact needs scale but scaling up might kill the contextual fit if diversity isn’t factored in.

©eLearning Africa/David Hollow at a panel discussion

At EdTech Hub, we continue to work collaboratively with partners to provide evidence about how and where technology can support improved learning. Like any other continent, Africa and its diversity is open to digital education and the continent has great talent in its teachers, learners, and technology developers who can tailor tools to the African context and their own needs. The ‘battle’ is a call to allow African technology developers to thrive. 

Given that several countries within the continent are still developing, and charging schools and users for EdTech might not be sustainable for Africa, many see EdTech as a force for inequity. However, we believe that there is an opportunity for Africa to nurture its own talent. Sustainability in EdTech business models should balance equity with profit and loss — and equity starts with growing talent at home.

Technology in itself can generate options — learners and teachers can become creative enough to flip the classroom — learning is not just about listening to lectures but about taking part in activities that can boost learners’ levels of engagement and knowledge retainment. Furthermore, to foster transparency and inclusion, it is paramount that teachers are involved in policy engagement and talks. How do we do this? Through conferences? But many teachers cannot afford conference costs,  so we need to ask — Are we communicating with the right people through the conferences? It is vital to hear the voices of the teachers and learners in tech and policy debates! This would be the best way to move education forward, not only in Africa but also in the world at large. 

In his presentation, Mark West from UNESCO highlighted that for the continent to move forward wisely, we must be able to look back and look at things that will make us remember education experiences, especially during the pandemic, where children were fully reliant on technology for learning.

“It is the right time for reflection”, said West. “We are still considering, debating, and negotiating what experiences and lessons to retain and gradually, this information and remembrances will converge around certain narratives and storylines.”

The ICT promises to learning 

As he presented UNESCO’s report on ‘the learning disaster’, West commented on how EdTech has long promised to make education more accessible and more inclusive, and that when schools closed, this is what people turned to. However, a global majority experienced little to no EdTech. We see a great opportunity for partners to work collaboratively to ensure learning gaps for the marginalised are sealed. To start with, where communities feel excluded by design it presents an opportunity to impart digital knowledge to communities and create awareness of the benefits of adapting EdTech for learning. 

The conference and research have highlighted significant gaps, including;  

  1. Hardware — smartphone affordability is a factor of income that varies enormously across countries. At the low end, smartphone costs range between 4–5% of the average monthly income in countries like Botswana. At the high end, this rises to a staggering 222% of average monthly income in Burundi and over 600% in Sierra Leone. So, what are the alternatives? 
  2. Connectivity costs — An example is Malawi where data could cost up to USD 25. Maybe this is a chance to rethink developing tools that might not necessarily be entirely dependent on internet connectivity.  
  3. Digital skills — in most low- and middle-income countries, nearly a quarter or 25% of adults are not even aware that they can access the internet on a mobile device. Working in partnership with tech producers to facilitate community management and teaching will help improve digital skills at community level.  
  4. Exclusion from Edtech is especially severe for women and girls. Research shows that women in sub-Saharan Africa are approximately 40% less likely to use the internet than men. Could African technology developers create targeted products that can improve gender-equity and social inclusion?  

We believe that EdTech can deliver equity and fairness enabling marginalised communities to access quality education. At EdTech Hub, we have specific studies focused on equity, girls, and EdTech, and a gender lens is also applied to all our work as a cross-cutting theme.  

Speaking at the conference, Dr Prof. Valentine Uwamariya, the Minister of Education in Rwanda, emphasised the importance of increasing African efforts to advance learning at all levels. Rwanda has placed great importance on improving access and quality in its education. Uwamariya reiterated that learners, teachers, and the school community need to be given the power to improve teaching and learning. This will contribute to the quality of education that we want.

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