Can E-learning bridge Africa’s education gap?
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E-Learning is once again gaining momentum as a solution to various problems in the African education system. Being delivered in various mediums through mobile phones, laptops, and tablets it is a rapidly growing industry worth over $500million in 2017. Whilst previous attempts to implement technology solutions to education problems have been unsuccessful, the question is whether new circumstances will help bridge the education gap between Africa and the rest of the world.

Observations

  • On average, the majority of African countries are lowest performers in education globally, with low rates of literacy, numeracy, years in education, and quality of education with drastic change needed to close the 100 year gap between them and the rest of the world.
  • Two major obstacles to improving the level of education in many African countries are a lack of access, and low quality teachers, resources, and training. This is affected by lack of curriculum, lack of planning and co-ordination and rampant teacher absenteeism.
  • E-learning is gaining momentum as a solution to a number of these problems. Africa as a whole has successfully benefited from a number of cases of ‘leapfrogging’ technology such as the introduction of mobile phones over landline connections, access to mobile banking through apps such as M-Pesa in Kenya and Tanzania. However, critics argue that a parallel of technology in education is unfeasible.
  • Various players have been involved in a drive to implement technology-based solutions into education systems in Africa. Telecom companies such as Vodacom in South Africa offers an e-school data package, and startups such as Eneza Education, and Kio Kit in Kenya offer software and hardware solutions. Working with these initiatives, governments have also attempted to intervene. Liberia outsourced its entire education system to private education firms, working closely with school organizations such as Bridge International Academies have played a significant role.
  • The obstacles specific to technology based solutions to education are that in many countries such as Niger, Chad, and Congo less than 25% of the population have access to electricity, and that despite rapid growth, mobile-phone penetration remains below 50% in most countries

Analysis

In the West, E-learning is often misunderstood as referring to online-only, virtual classrooms. However, in its essence, it simply refers to the incorporation of digital technology into a learning environment. Since the Millennium development goal of 2000 to ensure universal primary education, various E-learning based solutions such as the ‘One Laptop Per Child’ have been tried, and largely failed to improve education in sub-Saharan Africa where of 128 million school aged children, 17 million will never attend school, and 37million will receive such a low-quality education they will remain at a similar level. However, in recent years E-learning has gained new momentum with the introduction of a wide range of local startups originating in Africa’s booming tech-hubs with both international and local government backing. K.Boateng, the Ghanaian minister for Science argues that “the poverty gap is a technology gap” with E-learning solving two problems, lack of basic education, and ensuring an computer-literate population for an increasingly tech-oriented world.

“E-learning solving two problems, lack of basic education, and ensuring an computer-literate population for an increasingly tech-oriented world”

One example of a government backed program can be found in Uganda where Bridge International Academies provides teachers with tablets. These tablets have access to lesson plans, digital aids, and a wide variety of resources such as attendance records which keep track of students, but also tackle one of the most rampant problems in African education which is teacher absence. Research has indicated that students in these classrooms learnt at double the rate of their peers without tablets in the classroom. However, this is only one player in a wider trend. Other solutions such as those offered by Eneza Education in Kenya which as 4million users put technology in the hands of students, giving them the ability to complete practice exercises, take mock exams, and receive feedback from any teacher via SMS on basic mobile phones. This allows students to easily follow the national curriculum and was effective in improving test scores by 5% compared to a control group.

Significant connectivity improvements in recent years also make tech solutions more feasible than ever, with increased access to internet, mobiles and electricity being important. Kenya for example has increased access to electricity from 3% to 56% its population since 1990(and from 43% to 95% in schools between 2013 and 2016 alone). Such improvements have already been taken advantage of with the introduction of mobiles phones, and then mobile banking through M-Pesa allowing countries to skip massive infrastructural costs. The rapid proliferation of mobiles has been significant, with telecoms providers such as Vodacom supporting startups such as Eneza, and offering free data packages such as its E-school in South Africa. This makes it increasingly possible for technology to improve learning, bypassing the need for traditional investments such as printed materials, lesson design and administrative systems as well as preparing children for a digital future. However, E-learning should be seen as an extension to improve learning, not a replacement for good infrastructure, and physical classrooms.

Implications

  • A number of platforms have already proven successful such as the Bridge Academy and Eneza. However, with the enormous range of unproven E-learning tools in a profit driven industry, governments risk gambling precious resources with little return. This can be avoided by waiting for them to prove their effectiveness in the free market.
  • There is a possibility of monopolies developing, with a number of companies already dominated markets in multiple countries. Whilst this provides good value for money through economies of scale, such extensive control of education by private companies could worry governments
  • As an industry, mobile E-learning is expanding rapidly, increasing by an estimated 39% in 2016-17 to a value of $530million representing enormous potential for economic growth in the existing tech-hubs in Cape Town, Nairobi, and Lagos amongst others, providing a sorely needed computer-literate workforce