Why African Education Is Ripe For A Digital Revolution

By Tom Jackson AFKI Original Published: February 9, 2017, 11:29 am
African education is ripe for a digital revolution#RuzivoDigitalLearning platform registration in progress at Kensington Primary School, Bulawayo. Photo: Twitter

Africa’s education sector remains mired in difficulties, with too many children not attending school and those that do often suffering from a lack of quality.

South Africa’s tertiary education system, for example, is in crisis as a students protest against high fees and poor quality. In Nigeria, around 20 percent of 400,000 primary school teachers do not possess the Teachers’ Grade Two Certificate, and millions of children are out of school altogether.

Yet the continent is brimming with exciting tech solutions that could have the answers to some of these problems. From digital educational materials for primary school children to the Uberisation of the tutoring space, tech is finding new ways of improving access to quality learning in Africa.

Barbara Mallinson’s company Obami operates in South Africa, offering a cloud-based platform that supports schools and businesses. Administrators can set up learning communities, while educators can create and manage courseware personalized for learners. Obami trains students and unemployed youth in instructional design and content production, and pays them to help digitize content on behalf of its clients.

Since Obami launched seven years ago, it has signed up and made an impact at hundreds of schools.

“We’ve seen amazing things happening through the platform,” Mallinson said. “One of the projects we did resulted in us developing a new model for content development using the digitally connected youth. With us broadening our focus and service to organisations beyond schools, this model has really paid off. It’s a virtuous cycle of youth development.”

This virtuous cycle is proving more and more attractive to investors, as Africa’s e-learning market doubled in size from 2011 to 2016. E-learning companies are finally starting to fulfill their potential, according to the recent African Tech Startups Funding Report released by Disrupt Africa.

Startups in the space raised US$885,000 in 2016, up 108 percent on the previous year, while one e-learning startup was acquired.

Rapelang Rabana, founder and CEO of  South African e-learning company, Rekindle Learning, says sentiments towards e-learning are generally positive.

However, she said she believes meaningful action on the ground is still limited.

“University students still struggle with constrained or expensive internet access. Moreover, universities are still only in the first generation of e-learning, where the focus is on providing online access to learning material, books and as a portal for the submission of work and assignments – essentially a focus on the administration of learning and distribution of content,” she says.

“Very, very few organisations are actually looking at e-learning as a means to improve learning pedagogy where greater learning efficiency is addressed.”

Governments in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent have spent a lot of money to enable e-learning, but have not yet seen the results, Rabana said.

“This is compounded by the fact that when governments think e-learning, they focus on infrastructure and devices on the assumption that once a tablet lands in a classroom everyone around it will get smarter, almost by osmosis,” she says.

“Very little thought is placed on what actually happens on that device, what is the learning experience, how does that experience leverage the best we know about modern learning methodology? As result, you have a lot of white elephants because the strategy was not thoroughly thought through in terms of what learning activities will be improved by the e-learning and what learning outcomes will be impacted.”

Storme Magee is a project manager at the Cape Town-based Rethink Education, which provides digital ways of delivering Grade 8-12 mathematics and science content. It has more than 10,000 users.

E-learning is clearly on the rise, but Africa is a bit behind in terms of technology, Magee says. Data is expensive, and many areas still have little or no connectivity. More government and school buy-in is also needed.

“Grades 11 and 12 tend to take their education and the resources available to them a bit more seriously due to the importance of their marks and the influence it has on their chance of tertiary education,” Magee said.

“Grade 8-10 students are mostly not as diligent and need a bit of support and pushing. Unfortunately this behavior creates an unsteady base in the subjects. This results in many students struggling in their senior years. If the platform were to be pushed and used consistently from Grade 8 it would stick and can be highly beneficial.”

Mallinson agrees schools have been slow to change.

“Of course there are many getting it right, and many trying, but we haven’t hit a tipping point yet. We definitely need government’s involvement for that. And they’re overwhelmed and sometimes too proud to ask for help, but there are pockets of opportunities where good people are making a difference,” she said.

“If and when we get it right and deliver quality education to each and every one of our children, we’re not only changing their lives and our education system, we’re rebuilding our nation as well. But we’ll only get it right if we work together.”

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