Mobile learning (m-learning), online courses, and other aspects of e-learning technology have the potential to enhance education provision in Africa in numerous ways. From raising literacy levels in poor rural areas where education infrastructure is lacking, to complementing the existing courses at Africa’s top universities, remote learning using educational technology is flexible and very versatile.

Affordable internet access is now improving in Africa, we need to seize this opportunity to improve education across the continent.

The improvement of internet access in Africa: the statistics

Internet access in Africa varies from country to country, with the percentage of internet users in a given country’s population in some areas of Sub-Sahara Africa falling well below half.

In South Sudan, for example, statistics show that by the end of June 2016 there were just under 2,180,000 internet users for a population that exceeded 12,500,000 people. That means that only around a fifth of the South Sudanese population uses the internet.

In affluent, urbanised South Africa, however, we can see that in the same period, out of a population of just over 54,300,000 people, around two thirds (28,580,000) have internet access. Even from these two examples it is clear that internet access levels in Africa vary widely from country to country, and thus that edtech solutions such as MOOCs and online courses ought to be tailored in a way that reflects that.

One thing, however, is pretty much consistent throughout the continent, and that is the fact that affordable internet access is improving. Recent GSMA statistics show that the mobile industry alone will account for 8% of Africa’s GDP by 2020, which bodes very well for the emergence and uptake of new m-learning technologies. Though the World Bank suggests that in 2011 just 6% of the world’s internet users were African, that percentage may well reach double figures by the end of the decade.

Opportunities and challenges for mobile learning: infrastructure and innovation

One of the key reasons why internet access is so low in Sub-Saharan Africa is the fact that electricity infrastructure is very underdeveloped. The UK government’s Department for International Development (DfID) recently reported that only around a third of people in Sub-Sahara Africa have access to grid electricity. Thus, it is clear that in Sub-Saharan Africa in particular, substantial developments need to be completed to ensure that the basic infrastructure is in place so that mobile and online educational opportunities can reach the entirety of the population.

The DfID reports that when it comes to Africa, excluding Sub-Saharan Africa, access to affordable and modern energy for all is a goal that can be realised by 2030. However, Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to lag 50 years behind the rest of the continent and to receive such infrastructure by 2080.

Simultaneously, however, it is also the case that young Africans are some of the world’s most innovative and aware smartphone users. This is especially the case in urban areas of countries such as Ghana, where excellent telecommunications networks are matched with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Policy and practice: a model for implementing e-learning in Africa

A recent paper by Marfo and Okine (2010) shows that 98.35 % of people at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana (also known as KNUST), agreed that e-learning would improve their university experience. KNUST is a great case study here because it illustrated how e-learning can be implemented in a variety of ways.

The online platform Moodle was used, for instance, to collect together resources for class and to allow staff to send students group emails and announcements. At the same time, plans are being made to develop courses that can be delivered remotely, thus enabling students, including poor students who are let down by inadequate or expensive transport infrastructure, and disabled students who are not always well catered for in the classroom, to access education equally.

Another example of mobile learning and edtech in Africa is the explosion of language diplomas that are being offered in Nigeria. Here, students can, via mobile learning, study, be tested, and receive their diplomas entirely online.

There is a rising amount of local and regional companies that provide products and materials for online courses and exam preparations; the classical fields of m-learning. A list of edtech startups in several countries can be found via the African providers guide.

A summary of the potential uses of m-learning in Africa

Mobile learning, MOOCs, online courses, and other edtech can be used in varying ways in Africa. Many commentators see it as a viable solution to low literacy levels in more rural neighbourhoods, for example, where poor transport and primary and secondary education infrastructure makes it hard for people to get to school.

However, e-learning materials can only be accessed in these communities if both grid electricity provision and mobile phone network coverage are improved. Another way that e-learning, including m-learning, can be implemented in Africa is by integrating it with existing tertiary education structures.

As the case study of Ghana shows, staff and students alike find that e-learning platforms such as Moodle have definitely enhanced their teaching and learning experience. This online model can easily be extended to incorporate more m-learning too. In short, online courses delivered by mobile learning should have a bright future, and edtech can make a huge contribution to closing the skills gap in Africa.

This article was originally published on Education Technology by African edtech specialist Jens Ischebeck