How far can ICT help education and development in Africa? Will too much emphasis on ICT cause a ‘digital divide’, leading to ever greater inequalities? Dr. Mindel van de Laar sends her insights from this year’s eLearning Africa conference.
In the heart of the Ethiopian capital, the African Union Conference Centre is a modern and mostly glass building — one that would fit well in many cities across the world. Yet it seems rather incongruous in this dynamic East African metropolis.
Addis Ababa is growing organically, busy 24-hours-a-day, with countless small shops selling fruits, vegetables, furniture and clothes. Some are housed in stone buildings, in small markets with goods displayed on the pavement, while others ply their trade in wheelbarrows and baskets on street corners and along the roads. All told, they present an active, friendly and colourful picture of a city full of entrepreneurs, keen to develop the country.
Traffic is also endless, with election vans spreading the word via loudspeakers, people walking to or from school or work, dodging minivans packed with goods on their roofs, while construction work goes on all over the city. Using wood and other traditional materials for scaffolding, new glass office blocks rise skyward in the city centre. Yet the same streets also host cramped living areas: houses with tin roofs and doors made of cloth. Large contradictions, big changes, in a city in constant motion.
Freeing minds & futures?
Similar contrasts played out at this year’s eLearning Africa conference, which hosted 1,389 participants from 68 countries. In the opening plenary, Mr. Seyoum Bereded (President of ICT-ET, a national association) set the scene: “ICT should be seen as a source of development. Yet we need to be careful that lack of ICT and internet will not become another source of inequality. So we should be promoting ICT development, build ICT infrastructure, as well as integrate ICT in the daily lives of the citizens.”
Next, Mr. Noah Samara (Chairmain and CEO of Yazmi, an ICT firm), said that African countries are not performing well in terms of educational scores — which is a shame because education is the most powerful tool for development and ‘catching up’.
Beyond this, some patterns were recurring. I discovered that merely offering eLearning services will not per se lead to capacity building. One example is Open Educational Resources (OER), which are freely available for all to use and learn. Sukaina Walji (ROER4D) explained that the majority of OERs and MOOCs are provided by the global North, and the majority of users of OER and MOOCs also come from the global North, even though the South might benefit from and need the services most.
It seems difficult to adjust existing material in such a way that OER would be useful and indeed used by the global South. In other words, just developing our materials and opening them up for free will not do the job. African students neither find them nor use them, and so capacity building will not be enhanced by such OER. This is interesting background, as UNU-MERIT and its School of Governance are now planning a community of learning specifically for African PhD students. Some careful consideration is required on how to i) identify the relevant group of students, and ii) develop a service to offer what is needed by our target group. If we succeed, it could become a useful capacity building effort.
Equally, even if we offer the right service, they may not reach the target audience if we do not take the local ICT conditions into account. In many institutions or organisations, ICT infrastructure is lagging behind. I joined an interesting talk by John Marco Pima (Institute of Accountancy, Arusha, Tanzania), on ICT infrastructure for blended learning in Tanzanian higher education. Based on an assessment of infrastructure needed to make eLearning possible, Pima stressed that we should not underestimate mobile phone use in higher education, and make our supply fit this mode of use. He added that local institutional policies need to better support eLearning.
New supply for old demand
It is now clear that eLearning has huge training potential for specific target groups. Another example is an initiative by Prof. Izzeldin Osman (Sudan University of Science and Technology), who set up an online PhD programme in computer science to attract and retain researchers – particularly women – and help them obtain a PhD. Or the Kenyan Institute of Curriculum Development, which uses eLearning as one way to instruct and support female entrepreneurs in setting up and making their own enterprises successful.
All of which brings me full circle: can ICT advance development in Africa, or could it become a new source of inequality? To me the answer is simple: a project using ICT as a tool is just like any other initiative that aims to address and improve a situation. Clearly, those people or institutions not included in a project cannot benefit; if we fail to engage, no-one will benefit.
Listening to the wide range of projects discussed at this conference – from primary education training (e.g. ‘one laptop per child’), to increasing (e-)literacy, to offering health education and much more – makes me convinced that eLearning is a new and useful tool that can help us offer a service. It will not be an easy fix: eLearning is costly and more difficult to successfully implement than many face-to-face alternatives. Yet, with enough care and commitment, it can be a powerful tool to build capacity, as many projects have shown me over the last few days.
UNU / M.v.d.Laar; Flickr / World Bank