NewsEast & Horn AfricaTechnology: Joining the digital race


Posted on Friday, 04 December 2015 11:00

Technology: Joining the digital race

By Gemma Ware

Photos© JGI/Tom Grill/Blend Images/CorbisCompanies and policymakers are looking at ways to transform teaching with new technology, which requires the development of infrastructure, creation of content and the training of a new generation of teachers

What comes first for e-learning in Africa – the software or the hardware? Local content or accessible and affordable devices and internet? For Narend Baijnath, chief executive of South Africa's Council for Higher Education, these debates are the 'chicken and egg paradox' that can freeze progress.

we were able to persuade most of the providers to give a special deal to the hundreds of thousands of UNISA students for cost-effective internet access

It is also a hurdle Nivi Mukherjee knows well. A few years after founding eLimu, a Kenyan software company providing local content for schools, she kept hitting the same obstacle: the computer tablets on the market were not right for African classrooms.

Kit fit to last

"The cheap hardware that we're getting from the East wouldn't last and the good hardware from the West was too expensive. We really needed something for Africa in Africa that would last but was also affordable." Something as simple as chalkboard dust – an irritation relegated to history for teachers in New York and Shanghai – can be a big barrier to using some tablets in African classrooms. "The reality on the ground is that content lies on top of hardware, and hardware lies on top of infrastructure," says Mukherjee.

Alongside her job at eLimu, she is now president of BRCK Education, a wing of the Kenyan-based technology firm that makes the BRCK internet modem. In September, it launched its own tablet for the African classroom, the BRCK Kio. It is a $100 dust-protected, 1GB tablet with an eight-hour battery life that uses Google's Android operating system. BRCK Education is also selling a $5,000 kit that comes in a rugged suitcase with 40 tablets and a BRCK modem that provides wireless charging for all the devices. Within a week of its launch, Mukherjee said BRCK Education already had orders for 100 Kio kits.

in Africa
by 2020
Source: Ambient insight

The company has also submitted an expression of interest to the Kenyan government's digital literacy programme and is in conversation with several governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) about the devices.

There are signs that technology solutions for Africa could become a lucrative market. A report published in September by analysts at Ambient Insight estimated that revenue from e-learning in Africa could reach more than $1bn by 2020, with 16.3% compound annual growth between 2015 and 2020.

There are a growing number of education tech start-ups bidding for the attention of teachers, students and their parents as education moves further online. For example, Nigerian start-up PrepClass sells students subscriptions to an online database of material to help them prepare for university entrance exams. Elsewhere, Tanzanian social enterprise Ubongo creates popular animated videos teaching children about maths that are broadcast in Kiswahili on local TV.


Cost-effective access

In 2014, tech giant Google launched the $15m Global Learning XPRIZE to reward a team of tech engineers whose technologies boost access to and the quality of education in developing countries. The first entries must be submitted at the end of 2016 and semi-finalists will be announced in early 2017. Almost 200 teams have already entered from around the world, including the Gauteng-based educational NGO Class Act in South Africa and Kenyan education content creator Boresha.

But the Council for Higher Education's Baijnath says that internet penetration in primary and secondary schools is not improving fast enough to keep up with these educational developments. He points to useful pilots in some schools and a roll-out in secondary schools across Gauteng Province, but he worries that internet access is not widespread enough to "really transform the way in which teaching and learning occurs at school level".

He says telecom providers will always make their decisions based on profitability, although this "does not mean they are not open to proposals". For example, at the University of South Africa (UNISA) where Baijnath was formerly pro vice-chancellor, "we were able to persuade most of the providers to give a special deal to the hundreds of thousands of UNISA students for cost-effective internet access."

In such large institutions, Baijnath says careful cost-benefit modelling is necessary to work out how savings on the printing and distribution of textbooks can be used to offset the cost of tablets and the upkeep and upgrading of technology. But he adds that institutional politics in higher education can hijack large digitisation projects. And sometimes "a culture of consultation can also prevent progress or slow it to a glacial pace, making it difficult to achieve the leap into a digital future," he explains. He is hopeful that progress will continue and act as a societal leveller. "With more infrastructure available and increasing competition, it is hoped that the result will be even lower prices, making high-speed internet access ubiquitous in society regardless of one's class position."

Integrating lessons

However, a report published in mid-September by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) called Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, warned that just introducing technology in classrooms is not enough to improve the quality of education. The OECD stressed that teachers also need to be better trained in how to integrate digital technologies in their teaching.

The success of tablets such as BRCK's Kio will hinge on the teachers and how they use it. The Kio tablets give access to local and international content – including from education company Pearson – accessed via cloud-based servers. But in the future, Mukherjee hopes that teachers will start uploading their own videos and content onto the platform, which could become a real marketplace where teachers passionate about certain subjects could share their lessons.

Because of this, teacher training on new technology should not just be about how to switch on new devices and play videos, she argues. In a 'flipped classroom', teachers would assign students things to read or watch in their own time and then spend time in class discussing them. There, teaching would be more of a curating role. It is about "saying that your job has changed from being an instructor to being a facilitator," she says.

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