eLearning – The challenges of implementation

While most African governments are upbeat about e-learning opportunities, they often ignore the fact that information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure is expensive and out of reach of many schools and even universities, former World Bank managing director Dr Mamphela Ramphele told the eLearning Africa conference in Rwanda last week.

Ramphele, who is also a former vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, accused African governments and the political class in African countries of ceaselessly playing the political card related to the liberation of the continent.

Speaking at the 13th International Conference and Exhibition on ICT for Education, Training and Skills Development in Kigali, Rwanda, on Wednesday, she said: “Since Africa is politically free, why do we always hear some people talking of how they fought for independence as if they did it all alone?”

She said Africa was frequently held captive by politicians with unchanging mindsets and who are not ready to use the continent’s vast resources for the development of all its people, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa where most people in rural areas live in abject poverty.

If any meaningful development agenda is going to take place in Africa, then first and foremost, people must learn to share the available resources, said Ramphele. She said millions of children were out of school in Africa and were outside of any organised learning process, let alone e-learning.

ICT – A key source of hope

Ramphele’s comments were made against the backdrop of a statement issued after a closed door high-level inter-governmental meeting which said e-learning through ICT was not only connecting the continent but was a key source of hope for Africa not to be left behind in reaping the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“ICT is connecting Africa, creating opportunities not just in education but preparing Africans for innovation and industrial take-off,” Dr Eugene Mutimura, Rwanda’s education minister, told delegates as he opened the two-day conference.

According to Mutimura, if African countries are to make progress in innovation and industrial development, they will have to leapfrog their competitors in other parts of the world through e-learning in schools, universities and in the workplace. Echoing the goals of the knowledge-based economy agenda of the African Union’s 2030 roadmap, he said: “Our end goal is nothing short of a digital revolution in all sectors of African development.”

Africa – In the race

University of Cape Coast computer scientist, Professor Nii Narku Quaynor, chairman of the African Network Operators Group and the founder of the first internet service provider in West Africa, said any kind of transformation was a slow process. However, Africa was definitely “in” the innovation and industrialisation race, albeit far behind.

“For now what matters is that we are in the race,” he said.

Margot Brown, the director of knowledge management at the World Bank, was confident that Africa could make strides in e-learning. She noted with the economy being steady in Sub-Saharan Africa, most countries could invest in ICT infrastructure to improve access to education and training through partnerships.

According to Brown, investing in human capital by providing workers, especially the youth, with the skills they need to compete in the global market was crucial to regional development and stability. She urged African countries to embrace ICT and e-learning as a delivery mode for teaching different types of skills that include health and agriculture.

The need for proper introduction

Towards this goal, Hans-Peter Baur, the deputy director-general for the Department Global Issues at the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, told delegates ICT can make a great impact on African education if it is properly introduced.

During a plenary session, “Uniting Africa: Learning together, growing together”, Baur urged African governments to embark on teaching ICT in all sectors of schooling.

“The world is already in a digital revolution and African countries risk being left behind and unable to create 21st century jobs for the bulging youth population if they stay outside or on the periphery of the digital world,” said Baur.

He reminded delegates that education goes beyond teaching in school classrooms and university seminar rooms and laboratories as different ICT platforms had opened up new learning avenues that include team building, creativity and, above all, the ability to communicate anywhere.

“ICT is unstoppable and it is affecting everybody in an environment in which the internet of things, robotics and other forms of artificial intelligence have become key drivers for big data transfer, connecting markets and opening new pathways for performing research,” said Baur.

African languages

Ramphele also raised the issue of languages of instruction, pointing out that African languages are absent as modes of delivery tools in e-learning. “How can you expect students to learn effectively in languages that they don’t understand properly?” she asked.

“African students need to understand their worldview, culture and history and then apply those values to face the future with courage and confidence,” said Ramphele.

Towards this goal, Ann-Therese Ndong Jatta, director of the UNESCO Regional Office for Eastern Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, said local languages are central to effective learning. She highlighted the historical dominance of colonial languages in education systems which had stunted students’ natural learning abilities and lifelong learning.

“We must create convergence in learning processes and strategies by promoting and adopting languages that are easily understood by learners,” said Jatta.

Taking into account that Africa is keen to become a shareholder in the global knowledge economy, it is urgent that African countries not only invest in ICT infrastructure, reliable power supply and capacity to produce instructional materials but that they invest in local languages that are commonly spoken and well understood in specific areas.

“Good quality learning is not only about becoming more competent and productive but also about nurturing diversity and being well rooted in one’s culture and traditions, while adapting to the unknown and being able to live with others,” said Jatta, quoting UNESCO’s policy brief, “Why and how Africa should invest in African languages and multilingual education”.

While unanimous agreement was missing on whether e-learning has the capacity to swiftly change the equation and catapult the African continent from the base of the knowledge economy pyramid to the pinnacle, there was a general sense of optimism at the close of the conference on Friday that Africa will rise – with or without e-learning.

Look out for our University World News special report coverage of the eLearning Africa conference in Kigali in our future editions.