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eLearning: Classroom Technology

By Gemma Ware in Dakar
Posted on Monday, 27 July 2009 00:00

The way ICT is beginning to be used in education provides the

promise of change, even though innovations also bring their own

challenges

.

Join in the discussion about eLearning at The Africa Report’s special Education Forum

In January 2007 the Open University of Tanzania registered 1,500 secondary school teachers on a distance training course. The teachers were meant to attend an intensive session during the school holidays and then return to their schools to study by themselves, but there was a breakdown of communication and a year later 825 had dropped out. “They were missing updates, missing assignments, so they dropped out,” says Jabiri Kuwe Bakari, director of the institute of educational technology at the Open University. This academic year the university shifted into a new gear, using mobile phones to keep in touch with its students.

Though still in its early days, lecturers have been uploading course material via an online platform. The material can be sent to the teachers’ phones as a digital file, which they can either download or view on screen if they have the right type of handset. Quizzes, presentations and audio files will follow. The strong demand for more education capacity in the developing world is driving a wave of innovative pilot projects, teaching hard-to-reach groups using information and communications technologies.

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In South Africa, Nokia has partnered with the MXit platform to give grade- ten students access to 10,500 maths exercises via their handsets, while in Ghana, instructions are being sent via mobile phones to communities on how to maintain solar-powered water-purification units.

Such experimentation has come out of the race between two competing waves of ICT – the mobile phone and the internet. Slow progress in the spread of computing and broadband infrastructure across much of Africa has hampered the growth of traditional computer-based eLearning programmes. Mobile handsets – of which the continent has one for every three people – are a clear solution.

Technological obstacles?

“The biggest obstacle is really bandwidth,” Cheick Modibo Diarra, Microsoft’s chairman for Africa, told The Africa Report at the eLearning Africa Conference in Dakar in May. “Without the bandwidth you cannot have students being able to access information from their home, do their homework from home, send it to the teacher, you cannot have interactive sessions where you have images and voice data coming in and being streamed.”

Undersea cables should provide more bandwidth to Africa this year, but there are still obstacles in the unstable electricity supply and lack of computer equipment and access at schools. Mobiles bring their own problems: charging batteries is difficult in rural areas, and the cost of credit and of handsets capable of performing complex tasks can be high.

The problems of affordability do not go away. “Students need to have the funds to attend the courses,” says Bakary Diallo, rector of the African Virtual University (AVU), a Nairobi-based university that has offered online courses across Africa since 1997.

Though the $4,000 cost of a four-year computer science programme delivered by the AVU and run by Université Laval in Québec would only buy one term as an international student in Canada, students currently owe the AVU $153,000 in unpaid fees. “It’s very hard to sustain such programmes when you have such debts,” says Diallo. The AVU plans to create a new campus next year aimed at selling services to NGOs and development agencies that should help it to raise money.

Distance learning can increase the number of people in education. Even in Senegal, where the government spends 40% of its budget on education, there are still 5,000 students a year who cannot enrol at university because of the lack of space. Online courses run by foreign universities also bring some success in mitigating the brain drain of top-level students leaving Africa. “We will not need to travel to Europe or the US, particularly as Europe is closing its doors and handing out visas somewhat parsimoniously,” Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade told the eLearning conference. Many who enrol in online courses with Western universities still hope to find better jobs outside of Africa.

Practical problems remain unsolved, such as concerns that teachers and lecturers are being expected to do too much when it comes to creating course material for their students. Often teachers do not have the training or the time to manage online courses and feel they should be better remunerated for the extra students they take on outside of their normal workloads.

Although ICT can deliver education straight to mobile phones throughout Africa, pedagogy must not get left behind. “Each innovation comes with changes and challenges,” says the AVU’s Diallo. Teachers and students need time to experiment with the new technology. And with motivated self-study of the sort required by distance courses – like teacher training at Tanzania’s Open University – eLearning can only be part of the solution to Africa’s education crisis.

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