AFRICA: Fifth eLearning Africa conference

"The internet flattens hierarchy, reduces social distance, makes me closer to you and, paradoxically, makes all our serious connections more authentic. I witness how this helps young people in the process of learning values and how it assists in the planning of positive community actions." This year's eLearning Africa conference started with a stirring speech by the Right Reverend Dr S Tilewa Johnson, Bishop of Gambia.

He prompted the audience to "explore how the digital technologies you are developing can also remain in touch with the traditions of learning and encounter of Africa," in a paper on Online Social Education of African Youth.

A total of 1,778 education professionals from 78 countries gathered in Zambia's Mulungushi International Conference Centre, in the capital Lusaka, from 26-28 May. eLearning Africa 2010 - the fifth pan-African event focussing on information and communication technologies for development, education and training - identified major trends on how to empower the continent's education systems, teachers and learners.

Mobile phones provide access to learning

Being cheaper and easier to access than traditional internet connections, mobile phones tend to be turned into learning tools in many contexts in Africa. By 2009, 28% of the continent's population had a mobile phone subscription.

For example, nurses and health workers in Kenya who are trained by the African Medical and Research Foundation can download tests and reference material or exam dates on their mobile phones. Health workers in remote areas can also post difficult cases on a website, through a forum that is moderated by the foundation with input from experts in the field.

In South Africa, the Shuttleworth Foundation has started a major mLearning campaign to encourage reading and writing among school children and young adults. The logic behind the approach is obvious: while many South African teenagers don't have access to books, they do have cell phones - about 90% of those living in urban areas are connected.

In the Shuttleworth Foundation's effort, called the m4Lit project, a teen mystery story was published in English and in isiXhosa on a mobisite (, as well as on South Africa's most popular mobile instant messaging platform, MXit. Steve Vosloo from Shuttleworth Foundation explains: "In the first three months of publication, over 12,000 teens read the whole story on their phones. A total of 30,000 people have read the full story."

Green IT and alternative power solutions

From cloud computing to small-scale power generation and governmental rural electrification programmes, the sustainability of eLearning in Sub-Saharan Africa is increasingly dependent on alternative energy solutions.

Persistent power outages add to the high cost of investment in Africa, as most businesses are forced to use expensive alternative power sources such as generators. To help mitigate this problem, eLearning Africa showcased a range of best practices in alternative energy sources such as solar energy, bio fuel, and biogas.

"How would I be able to enjoy seeing Ghana beat Germany 'live' in the World Cup Football final in my tent in the Sahara Desert?" asked Professor Anthony Rest of Southampton University in the UK. He answered his question:

"Using a camel carrying solar panels linked to a simple cost-effective solar energy generator system based on a Dell M109S low-powered data and video projector. If I can see my football, and I can with my camel system, I can provide the means of education for students and communities in the remotest rural regions anywhere in the world."

Together with Keith Wilkinson, a teacher at the International School in Lusaka, Rest presented this low-cost energy device. The solution consumes only 47 watts, in contrast to most current data-video projectors, which require 200-300 watts and cannot be economically sustained for long. The projector is used as a multimedia resource for teaching chemistry.

Professor Thomson Sinkala, from the Biofuels Association of Zambia, pointed out that to improve living standards there is a need to switch from low-quality energy sources such as firewood and charcoal to better quality energy sources such as biofuels and biogas. These products could also be used as household fuels or to supply electricity for computers or laptops in schools and community centres.

Inclusive education key to development

Various African governments often face similar problems when implementing ICT and education programmes at a local level. Obstacles can include the bureaucratic structures of institutions, scarce resources and a lack of leadership strategies to harness the opportunities presented by ICT.

A high-level political Round Table at eLearning Africa saw government ministers and senior policy advisers from Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Equatorial Guinea and Zambia discuss how ICTs can foster capacity development and inclusion in African education systems.

eLearning is seen as one a key development accelerator by most African administrations. National ICT strategies focus on issues such as access to ICTs and equipping institutions with the most appropriate software and hardware, as well as curriculum development, fostering digital literacy and the provision of initial teacher training.

At the conference practitioners and researchers provided vital insights into gender and inclusion issues in ICT integration in schools.

Canada's International Development Research Centre Observatory is unique in the depth and breadth of its ICT-in-education indicators, and is recognised in particular for its sex-disaggregated school-scale data on the use of computers. At eLearning Africa, the Observatory provided a forum to share results from initial analysis of this pan-African data set.

Dr Alice Ndidde of Makarere University presented her work on the use of ICTs by female and male educators and learners in Uganda, noting that while institutional policies largely support equity of access to computers, current 'use' data showed that for both educators and learners, males have an advantage.

Reasons ranged from the perceptions and attitudes of girls toward higher education and careers in ICTs, the lack of female role models in schools, social and cultural barriers, as well as infrastructural inadequacies.

Access could be improved by training more female teachers in ICTs to serve as role models to encourage girls. Also helpful would be increasing the number of computers in schools to widen access. Sensitisation programmes and workshops were also seen as important.

These results were echoed in Professor Thierry Karsenti of the Université de Montréal's pan-African study, which looked at ICT integration in teacher training.

A promising example for successful inclusion of marginalised people through the use of ICTs came from Kenya. Students and teachers of various ethnic groups from different schools in the North Rift Region that were affected by post-election mayhem in 2008 have been brought together through the eLearning project Good School Neighbours.

In this endeavour students, teachers, and opinion-makers get the chance to encourage dialogue and peaceful co-existence between feuding rural communities in this vast, arid region, which is home to around 1.8 million people and where armed cattle rustling has been a way of life.

The North Rift eLearning consortium, which supports the project, has developed an eLearning resource centre to provide a wealth of information on peace and conflict resolution, using education manuals, teacher training and eLearning with websites, e-mails and recorded programmes, helping to bring peace to armed, nomadic peoples.

The next eLearning Africa conference will take place from 25-27 May 2011 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. More information can be found at

* This feature was produced by conference organiser ICWE GmbH with input from Brenda Zulu (Zambia) and Toby Harper-Merrett (Canada).