By Kunle Awosika
A considerable 92% of government decision-makers in the field of education throughout Africa believe that e-learning is extremely important in improving education on the continent, and 57% believe their governments could be doing more to implement e-learning initiatives and to bridge the digital divide.
This emerged from a survey conducted among attendees at this year’s Innovation Africa Summit, held in Kenya in September. Innovation Africa is the largest annual gathering of high-level officials from more than 40 African countries, who come together to discuss challenges and opportunities around education, ICT, science and technology.
While Africa’s e-learning market doubled from 2011 to 2016, reaching $513 million, a number of challenges still hinder adoption across the continent – and the first step to finding a solution is to admit that there’s a problem.
For African ministers, challenges include limited funding for devices (55%) and a lack of stakeholder (28%) and teacher support (17%). Respondents also highlighted inadequate infrastructure, a lack of locally made digital resources, and cultural considerations.
They are all in agreement, however, that technology would greatly assist with the delivery of education services and has benefits such as creating opportunities where none previously existed, increasing access to education resources to those in remote areas through mobile phones, and meeting a rising demand for personalised learning.
So how do we overcome these challenges and realise the full potential of e-learning in Africa?
Could the answer lie in public-private partnerships (PPPs)? There are exciting business opportunities for technology vendors and startups in digital education, which is still a largely untapped and rapidly growing market.
Governments generally have specific mandates when it comes to education but it’s impossible to achieve these goals alone due to the sheer magnitude of the task.
African governments have also been criticised for not having the political will to move forward with digital transformation in education but it seems those who attended Innovation Africa would disagree. Among government measures being implemented around digital learning, PPPs came in at 19%, with 92% of those respondents believing such partnerships were very important.
Other focus areas for governments, including developing better policies (23%), formulating e-learning curriculums (20%), investing in e-learning training (17%) and increasing education budgets (10%), can also be fast-tracked and amplified through PPPs.
We recommend that governments and the private sector, as well as other stakeholders like universities and industry, work together to develop locally relevant content that can be easily distributed and accessed on affordable e-learning devices. With the massive mobile penetration rate across Africa, there’s no reason why education content shouldn’t be tailored for the mobile device, which is more suited to millennials than the traditional education method of long-form texts.
Of course, in order to achieve this reach, governments and the private sector need to collaborate to get more people connected to the Internet, whether through Internet cafes or a wider rollout of 3G, 4G and affordable WiFi services.
Data charges are still unaffordable in many regions across Africa, which brings with it the risk that, even if we achieve device and connectivity ubiquity, students might not use the service because they cannot afford to.
Again, there’s a simple solution. Telecoms providers can support governments’ e-learning mandates by zero-rating these services – this means users don’t pay to access educational content.
When it comes to teacher and stakeholder support, it’s up to governments, universities and industry to educate teachers on the value of e-learning, in that it makes their jobs easier in terms of monitoring students and delivering content, and improves collaboration by making their lessons more interactive and personalised. The result is more engaged students that actually enjoy learning – and isn’t that the goal of any teacher?
But we’re not just paying lip service to PPPs. We’ve seen first-hand the difference working with partners can make. Microsoft recently partnered with the Ministry of Education in Rwanda, through its Partners in Learning programme, to help teachers and schools improve students’ experiences and skills through technology. To date, the programme has benefitted more than 1.3 million students in sub-Saharan Africa.
In rural Limpopo, in South Africa, Microsoft worked with government to connect five schools to a TV white spaces station at the University of Limpopo. The programme uses technology to teach maths and science, and textbooks can be accessed online. Already, the pass rate in these subjects has increased from 40% to 80%, demonstrating the power of e-learning to improve teacher and learner experiences.
Microsoft believes in the transformative power of technology in education to create social and economic opportunities. Immersive learning, enabled by technology, improves experiences and education outcomes for teachers and learners, as it shifts behaviour and motivation and helps to develop an educated workforce with globally applicable skills and knowledge.
Yet, according to ministers at Innovation Africa, less than 30% of schools are implementing e-learning and those that have, have found implementation quite difficult. It doesn’t have to be that way. Through PPPs, we can scale digital education to reach more students, deliver locally relevant content and deliver quality education for Africa’s growing population.
Kunle Awosika is Microsoft Kenya’s Country Manager, a position he has held since July 2013. Kunle has worked in various capacities at Microsoft in a career panning over 15 years.