EdTech Summit Africa, now in its fifth year, has been gathering teachers in Ghana, Swaziland and South Africa for connected workshops on how to integrate more EdTech into the experience of African students in the classroom and beyond.
EdTech focuses on both the technological resources and educational theory used to improve learning outcomes. That use of technology to facilitate learning has exploded worldwide in recent years, with the increasingly connected African continent poised to tap into EdTech resources that create new opportunities for learning.
What is e-learning?
Electronic learning is just one component of EdTech but is a term most people are familiar with. Since the late 1990s, it has referred to the use of electronic devices like computers in learning situations such as online courses, multimedia presentations or interactive classrooms. E-learning has evolved over the years and now includes mobile learning, or m-learning, which refers to learning via mobile phones, tablets and electronic notebooks.
E-learning is increasingly used to reach students who currently have little or no access to traditional bricks-and-mortar educational experiences. Figures released by UNESCO in June 2017 show that 32.6 million children of primary school age, 25.7 million lower secondary students, and 34.4 million upper secondary-aged students across sub-Saharan Africa are not in school, with girls disproportionately affected. Innovations in e-learning have the potential to change lives in and out of the classroom for these young students, but also for adult students seeking education.
For example, the emergence of massive open online courses – or MOOCs as they are more commonly known – has opened new doors. A MOOC is an online course with open, web-based access and unlimited participation. Many MOOCs provide interactive user forums and encourage interaction between students and lecturers.
The African advantage in e-learning
Africa is perfectly situated to embrace the opportunities the e-learning revolution provides. Smartphone usage is skyrocketing, Internet access has improved and the technology is steadily becoming more affordable. Digital entrepreneurs in Africa are leveraging the technology in agriculture, finance, business – and in education.
Africa, with 16 percent of the world’s population, now accounts for 13 percent of its mobile connections and 10 percent of its Internet users. That’s according to the Digital Report from the global We Are Social organisation. The connectivity explosion in Africa isn’t just in the historically more tech-advanced Ghana, South Africa and Egypt either. The growth in Internet users in Lesotho was 78 percent over January 2016 numbers; there was a 70 percent year-on-year increase in mobile users in Djibouti, and a 77 percent increase in Burkina Faso during the same period.
Since smartphones are capturing the African market, the challenge now is to embrace the technology and utilise it as an educational resource accessible to everyone. Mobile apps provide a great opportunity for tapping into the EdTech industry by providing mobile learning in an ‘easy to access anywhere’ format.
E-learning is an incredible resource and its use extends far beyond the traditional teacher-student relationships and setting. E-learning can be a primary mechanism for delivering educational material, including university level courses, or as an aid in classrooms. Employers use it to deliver professional development courses to staff, or for sharing information via social media. E- and m-learning allow students, teachers, employees and the wider community to access high quality digital learning platforms.
South Africa’s m-learning leads the way
In South Africa – the central hub of EdTech Summit Africa – there are a number of m-learning providers that include schools, universities, nonprofit and business enterprises. Established universities such as the University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University and Wits University deliver online courses through the MOOC platform. These courses are locally produced and provide an African context.
MOOC SA is an online college with many free courses; the college acts as a central collection of free courses produced by professionals in the region and elsewhere. Its focus is on providing free education, not necessarily on achieving a qualification.
Government commitment to m-learning is evidenced by the Western Cape Education Department’s e-learning Game Changer Strategy. Part of this strategy is the development of an ePortal where learners and teachers can access information and digital assets including apps, videos, ebooks and online courses.
Another exciting m-learning initiative emerged in 2016 with the launch of THINK Digital College. This virtual school provides an alternative education system for children that is flexible, cost effective and only requires a smartphone or tablet plus Internet access. It’s one of many e-learning providers that reach beyond South Africa and are emerging or established in places like Nigeria, Kenya, Togo and Senegal.
A bright and connected future
EdTech has a promising future in Africa, when the advances in technology access are coupled with the power of youth and demographic trends across the coming decades. Although there are many challenges facing education in Africa today – including language, culture and technology – EdTech may prove to be part of the solution.
It can provide quality educational resources that are accessible to students who cannot access traditional schools or universities, due to their location or financial status. E-learning puts within the reach the goal of universal education for African students young and old, and can make meeting development goals a reality.