e-Learning conference calls for sustainable innovation

The 8th International Conference on ICT for Development, Education and Training – aka e-Learning Africa – ended in the Namibian capital Windhoek with delegates calling for homegrown, sustainable innovation in e-learning to spur development across Africa.

Namibia’s Prime Minister Dr Hage Geingob officially opened the conference, which was held from 29-31 May and drew nearly 1,500 delegates and more than 300 speakers from 65 countries.

He said Africa was fast adopting and using information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the private and public sectors, changing the way governments and businesses operate. This, he said, was also driving entrepreneurship and economic growth.

Geingob said ICT had an important role to play in stimulating innovation and economic growth by ensuring that the population was made aware of the latest technologies, which would then be transferred to product development and production.

“There is no greater catalyst in stimulating the rapid and sustainable growth rates that government has envisaged through our National Development Plans and ultimately Vision 2030,” he said with reference to Namibia’s development blueprint, which aims for a knowledge-based economy by 2030.

While acknowledging the need to preserve tradition, Geingob told the delegates to be wary of traditional practices that thwart development, saying that only societies that innovate would prosper in a rapidly changing world.

“In view of the complexity of [the] environment, technological advances, climate change, world recession, natural and other disasters, we are increasingly being faced with an urgency and necessity to change and to innovate if we are to sustain our economies. The complexities and demands of living in the 21st century make change imperative.”

He called for a shift from the conservative and traditional approaches to learning and teaching that he said were still prevalent in some education systems on the continent.

The future of learning

Delivering tone-setting remarks through a paper titled “The Future of Learning", Professor Sugata Mitra of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom said experiments he conducted over several years revealed that if children were left to their own devices, away from formal school and supervision, they could teach themselves and others in a very short period.

Mitra said some skills that were imparted to learners through various education systems had become irrelevant. He called for a paradigm shift.

“Imagine that a young man of 18 has just completed high school and goes for a job interview with a technological company and he says: ‘Sir, my handwriting is very good, I know very good drama and I can recite the 17 times table.’ That would have got him a job 150 years ago, not now.”

He claimed that his experiments on self-organised learning had shown that 300 unsupervised children fiddling with one computer connected to the internet could reach the same level of computer literacy as “the average office secretary in the West” over nine months.

Discussions during the three-day conference revolved around local innovation in education, healthcare delivery, livelihoods and agriculture, especially for rural communities.

They also looked at the value of university partnerships in promoting collaborative learning and imparting employability skills. The use and value of PC tablets for learning and teaching were also explored.

Sustainability versus innovation

The conference ended with a spirited debate over the motion: “Sustainability is more important for education in Africa than innovation”.

Setting off the debate Donald Clark, who writes extensively on e-learning and its application, and the University of Namibia’s Dr Maggy Beukes-Amiss, an expert on computer-integrated education, called for meticulous planning to make innovation sustainable.

They argued that there was a need to think about sustainable technology, teachers and teaching, stakeholders, culture, resources, change management, and cost, as well as whether the intended beneficiaries of technology would like or use it.

Clark took a swipe at Sugata Mitra’s "Hole in the wall" project, saying it was "anti-teacher", unsustainable and not inclusive. Earlier, Mitra had shown a photograph of children gathered around one of the computers that he installed in a wall in India.

Younger children and girls were not in the picture, giving the impression that, with no supervision, only the fittest and the biggest of the children would access the technology. Clark urged Africans to develop African content to solve African ICT problems.

Dr Adele Botha, an expert in implementing and using mobile technologies in goal-oriented interactions, teamed up with Angelo Gitonga from the Ministry of Education in Kenya to argue that innovation should take precedence over sustainability.

In closing the conference, Namibia’s Minister of Education Dr David Namwandi argued, to rapturous applause, that innovation and sustainability were “twin brothers” that should be vigorously promoted to develop communities.

Namwandi said the Ministerial Roundtable, which took place during the conference, had made commitments to address issues related to policy gaps, reviews and implementation.

“These issues will be further analysed and necessary action will be taken. We agreed that policy documents should be live documents, be regularly reviewed and updated using top-down and bottom-up approaches. The targets should be achievable, mutually understood and agreed.”

He said change was inevitable, and he stressed: “We cannot continue with business as usual. We cannot apply the teaching methods of previous centuries to prepare our children for the demanding future that awaits them.”

The minister called for subsidised electricity and broadband as well as a curriculum based on questions in the continent’s schools.

The next e-learning conference will be held in Uganda in 2014.


Ministers and directors-general of the departments for education and training in the various African countries need to be directly involved in this important project. Some form of peer-review mechanism will be needed to monitor progress in this ICT for Development, Education & Training programme in every country.

Solomon Yirenkyi-Boateng on the University World News Facebook page