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Education Technology: What is Africa missing?

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Globally, one of the first measures taken to curb the spread of Covid-19 was the closure of schools, colleges and universities.

This affected over 1,576 billion learners, constituting slightly over 91% of enrolment.

In Africa, about 297 million learners were affected. Their teachers and resources have been underutilised for a while.

In light of this, in a bid to close this learning gap and help Africa’s students to continue their academic pursuits, most of Africa has followed suit with rest of the world and slowly but surely turned to engaging its students via education technology (EdTech). This has led to an unprecedented popularity for virtual classrooms, TV, radio and online learning in Africa.

As a case in point, a long-running school radio programme set up to reach remote areas in Kenya recently got a new lease of life.

It now broadcasts nationally to over 12 million primary and secondary school learners — a jump in utilisation to over 90% from 23% in 2013.

However, even though large parts of the continent might be gradually moving towards the physical reopening of schools, it remains valid to ask, “How efficiently has Africa employed EdTech to close the education gap so far”?

Image Source: WorldRemit

This question is valid, given that online learning is likely to continue to be necessary for as long as large populations of the continent remain unvaccinated against COVID-19, and from several indications, even after the health crisis has been put firmly behind us.

Meanwhile, online learning continues through mass communication and internet-based resources. However, even within her most advanced countries, the experience is uneven for Africa.

For one, the abrupt nature of school closures ensures that about 75% of the continenet’s learners have little or no access to interactive and internet-based learning materials. Even though these materials are open access, they are largely unreachable due to connectivity-related challenges.

Be that as it may, while the main focus at the moment is rightly on providing learning opportunities to the already reached population of students, attention must also be given to the vast majority of African students whose educational pursuits have been effectively upheld y the pandemic.

Even those among them whose schools are gradually churning out feasible arrangements for physical resumption still lag behind their peers within and outside Africa whose education was successfully salvaged in the interim via edtech.

Subsequently however, African governments and stakeholders will need to explore possible solutions to make the innovations of edtech more sustainable and more accessible, and therefore, more effective in Africa.

The response so far

Unesco’s most recent assessment shows that EdTech tools are considerably common in middle-income African countries and reach many students. While some of these tools require a subscription, the majority offer free access.

However, a majority of the tools require internet connectivity, leaving students in areas with little or no internet access at an automatic disadvantage.

Also, the education technology products available to education systems and schools come with different capabilities, and education managers will have to use their discretion to determine what is feasible in their own contexts.

Image Source: UNESCO

It is the reality, that at the moment, the effectiveness of educational technology depends on the strength of national networks and connectivity to technology. That practically determines the extent of use that the internet service providers and the devices at the disposal of schools, parents and learners, can be of to the students’ studies.

Putting it together, internet penetration in Africa stood at 39,3% of the total population compared to the rest of the world at 62,9% as at March 2020.

This undoubtedly means that, in all their executing, African governments must execute successful projects to close these internet connectivity gaps within their borders.

Another point of emphasis in boosting edtech in Africa would also be to increase the accessibility to smartphones in Africa. A 2017 survey showed that smartphone penetration was at 51% in South Africa, 30% in Kenya and 13% in Tanzania. These are all grossly inadequate rates for a continent intent on educating its (youth) population at anything close to the current global pace.

In some countries such Ghana and South Africa, smartphone and internet penetration seem to go hand in hand, but for other countries such as Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal, internet penetration is ahead of smartphone penetration by leaps and bounds.

Final Notes

The Covid-19 crisis, for as long as it lasts, presents an opportunity to strengthen education technology in Africa. This could ensure less reliance on on-campus instructional delivery and create an ecosystem that allows learners in both public and private institutions to access digital learning materials.

A good way to do this is by making smartphones more accessible to more people by, for example, zero-rating smartphones and providing subsidised WiFi in low resource areas.

This would fill the digital divide gap created by the inability to pay for internet services and increase access to internet devices to match internet penetration.

Technology and digital solution developers, information service providers and governments will also need to join forces with other education stakeholders to close the technological learning gaps sooner than later.

The pandemic also gives rise to the need to design and provide alternative contextualised cost-effective learning delivery channels that would outlive Covid-19.

These could address some service delivery gaps pre-dating the crisis, including the weak mechanisms to reach those furthest left behind, special needs children and managing the cost of schooling.

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