Digital evolution

2013-05-12 14:00

A decade from now, textbooks and bulky school bags will be history, writes Pieter Verkade

A decade ago, the prospect of a fully functional e-learning-based education system in Africa seemed far-fetched. The continent’s broadband penetration was at an ultimate low, hindering the development of a decent communication infrastructure that would make e-learning a reality.

Fast track to this year and the advent of technology is presenting a silver lining for governments attempting to propel their education systems into the new digital age.

The digitisation of education is providing many alternatives to address the socioeconomic challenges facing many emerging economies, particularly to improve access to education.

Today, we can claim to have a better glimpse of what the emerging markets’ education landscape will look like in the next decade. As well as a growing sense of cautious optimism, there’s consensus that, 10 years from now, teachers may no longer need blackboards and chalk.

Textbooks, pencils and pens will be redundant, and the dreaded bulky school bag will be history. There’s hope that pupils across the emerging world, parts of our continent included, will trade their textbooks for affordable smartphones and tablets packed with entire curricula. This is, in fact, already happening in some parts of the emerging world.

As far back as 2011 (in IT terms), governments in the Middle East were discussing the complete digitisation of curricula with the likes of Microsoft.

In Ghana, a total of 40?000 laptops had been distributed to 372 primary schools across several regions by the beginning of this year. This as part of the nation’s efforts to digitise the academic syllabuses of both primary and secondary schools.

In the same vein, Sunward Park High School in Boksburg, Ekurhuleni, became the first public school in South Africa to fully embrace digital access to education. This followed a pilot project between the school and MIB Technologies.

According to the department of basic education, Sunward Park, a former model C school, has eliminated all use of textbooks. Its pupils from grades 8 to 12 and their teachers now use Android tablets. Each classroom has Wi-Fi.

As opposed to spending significant amounts of money on textbooks, pupils’ parents will, in future, only have to pay for tablets to be updated with the relevant academic year’s curriculum.

Other African nations also embracing e-learning include Uganda and Rwanda. In Rwanda, MTN has partnered with Swedish mobile phone maker Ericsson to launch Connect To Learn. The programme connects schools in remote areas to the digital world with the intention of exposing pupils to a bold new world of rich media content.

In South Africa, mobile phone maker Nokia has capitalised on the popularity of the social networking platform Mxit to launch MoMath, a teaching

tool aimed at the youth.

There are many compelling reasons why the digitisation of education should be embraced.

According to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, an estimated 61?million children across the world of primary schoolgoing age are not in school. This in addition to a further 71?million of lower secondary-school age and almost 800?million adults. The majority of these are in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

The digitisation of education can help solve many challenges, including access to education, affordability, language, distance and discrimination.

It also enables the mass delivery of quality education across geographical boundaries.

Also, e-learning is easily accessible through the most popular mode of electronic communication on the continent – the cellphone.

Africa has the highest mobile internet connectivity levels in the world and, for many on the continent, a cellphone is the first and probably only “computer” they will ever own.

This makes the inclusion of this tool, as a key medium for delivering education, a logical choice. The continent is also on the brink of an exciting digital era brought about by a combination of governments’ concerted efforts to make information and communication technology (ICT) a major part of their development plans, and Africa’s investment in undersea fibre-optic cables.

The government of Ethiopia, for example, has invested billions in the construction of a huge ICT park. The project will, in a few years, potentially be the equivalent of Silicon Valley in the US. The nation has prioritised investment in ICT as part of its five-year growth and transformational plan aimed at putting it among middle-income nations by 2025.

The Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (Eassy) and, most recently, the West Africa Cable System (Wacs) have connected several African nations with the world. The digital dividend of both Eassy and Wacs will set the continent on an unimaginable economic growth path that will change the face of many industries.

»?Verkade is MTN Group’s chief commercial officer

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