This blog post was written by Iain Macdonald, a CCIB Solutions associate.  Iain Macdonald runs an industry training and capacity-building centre at The University of British Columbia, and has sixteen years of experience in the creation and delivery of training, education and capacity-building solutions in Canadian and international contexts. As a consultant, he has worked on projects in the UK, Canada, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean for audiences including youth, higher education, and adult and workplace learners.

In Africa, when an old person dies, a library disappears

I was recently reading Fernando Alfaro’s thought-provoking blog post on technology and social change, and it caused me to reflect on my own experiences in the world of teaching and learning, and how Internet and telecommunications (ICT) advances have opened up dramatic new educational possibilities for those in the developing world. Sitting here in Canada on our island of high-speed connectivity, one could be forgiven for assuming that the gadgets we take for granted are irrelevant to low-income countries where the majority struggles to earn enough to feed their families. The reality, however, is that for several years, innovative efforts have been underway to transform educational delivery by leveraging the power of technology.

In Africa, where I have done the bulk of my development work, an eLearning Africa conference has been held annually since 2006,elearning africa and its success and popularity illustrate the growing importance of learning technologies on the continent. The first event, held in Addis Ababa, attracted 892 participants, over seventy percent of whom were from Africa nations. Since then the conference has been hosted in every region of Africa, and by 2012, there was a delegate count of almost 1500, with fully 89% of those attending from Africa. The conference has highlighted a wide range of inventive projects.  For example, an Oxfam mobile learning project in Cambodia designed to promote women’s’ empowerment provided female community leaders with mobile phones to give them access to health and economic information and allow them to contact each other. The initiative was known as the “Pink Telephone” project because the handsets were produced in a vivid pink colour – to dissuade men in the communities from expropriating them.

In 2012 an eLearning Africa survey was conducted: all 447 respondents were teaching or training practitioners utilizing learning technologies in Africa. One finding that stands out is the fact that 48% of respondents were using mobile phones in educational projects. Also of interest, although we might surmise that improving access and reducing cost might be the biggest drivers in using ICTS in the development context, the most popular reason given (42%) was to improve the quality of teaching.

A commentator writing in the same report, Gaston Donat Bappa, recommends that many more television-receiving and radio-broadcasting centres should be rolled out in rural areas to promote community engagement in education. He also quotes writer Amadou Hampate Ba; “In Africa, when an old person dies, a library disappears”. To avoid rich indigenous knowledge from being lost, he advocates for the establishment of real rural libraries, using computers and wireless networks to save the information and connect it with regional and national centres.

Some of the main constraints to improving education using learning technologies are lack of bandwidth, inadequate financial and human resources, and unreliable electricity supply. Fortunately, new undersea fibre-optic cables are coming onstream around Africa and small-scale solar and wind generators offer more affordable power options. By marrying effective development project design with the flexible tools offered by ICTs, there is enormous opportunity to generate real and sustainable improvements in education throughout the continent.