CLEVER THINKING

Technology is providing the tools to positively influence education at all levels

To see how technology is transforming the education of Africa’s young people, head down to the video arcade. Specifically, the Paradise Game Centre, located in Cosmos Yopougon, the new shopping mall in Abidjan. Here, in a cavernous 1 200 m2 space in the Côte d’Ivoire capital, thousands of youngsters enjoy the latest video games while warming up for local e-sports events. But hidden away among all the keyboards, motherboards and flickering screens is an 80 m2 room where middle school and high school students attend classes on computers, robotics and (of course) video-game development.

In 2020 the game centre will host Yopougon’s first edtech and e-learning programme, where start-ups, teachers, students and entrepreneurs will get together to game out the educational tools of the future. ‘[Our] ambition [is] to transform the entertainment industry in Africa by using games as a way to learn and by allowing young Africans to discover the video-game field, robotics and virtual reality,’ says Paradise Games founder Sidick Bakayoko.

At the same time, South African media group Naspers recently led a funding round for global peer-to-peer e-learning platform and mobile app Brainly, which raised US$30 million. The Polish start-up connects students and parents who require educational advice to tutors across the globe, and currently has a presence in 35 countries and more than 150 million monthly visitors. ‘Every student struggles with school work at some point, but never before has there been such widespread access and opportunity for students to learn from one another,’ says Brainly CEO Michał Borkowski.

Video games, online platforms, mobile apps… Not too long ago, those technologies were distractions and time-wasters; the things that kept pupils and students from doing their homework. Increasingly, though, technology is serving as an enabler for Africa’s education revolution – despite the gaps in digital access. The expert panel that compiled Educause’s latest Horizon Report on higher education suggests that the achievement gap to student success worldwide might be addressed through efforts that include open educational resources, digital courseware platforms, and personalised learning pathways. ‘The other difficult challenge in this year’s report is the evolving roles of faculty with edtech strategies,’ the panel notes. ‘[We] identified advancing digital equity as a wicked challenge, one that is difficult even to define.’

The University of Cape Town’s Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) recently concluded a two-year study of the emergence of online learning. The findings were presented by CILT online education project manager Sukaina Walji during a keynote address at the 2019 Apereo Africa Conference in April. ‘The importance of digital technology […] is around increased flexibility, scale and access,’ she said, noting that ‘although it’s unequally distributed, more people are interacting digitally for all sorts of things – communication, shopping and banking, particularly using cell-phones. Higher education [institutions] have changed as a result of digital technology, and all of this is impacting on a range of possibilities for classroom teaching’.

It is also impacting on higher education itself. Across Africa, a new class of edtech start-ups are delivering tech-driven education solutions that are changing the way Africans learn and teach. In Uganda, web and mobile app BrainShare helps students exchange class notes, past papers and course work, while enabling remote connections between teachers, parents and students. The app allows teachers to upload notes and assignments, and moderate student discussions, while students can access content with or without the internet. In Kenya, e-learning platform M-Shule uses AI to deliver personalised education to primary school students via SMS. That delivery mechanism is key, because it removes the dependence on permanent internet connections and expensive equipment.

The list continues: Nigeria’s Tuteria app links qualified tutors to students within their area (and within their budget); while South Africa’s Obami uses a Facebook-like online interface to let people share and discuss educational lessons and resources from anywhere in the world. In Zambia, the ZEduPad tablet teaches basic numeracy and literacy skills to primary school children, while also offering adult education on health, farming and financial literacy. The device has been approved by the Zambian Ministry of Education, and is programmed in eight local languages.

The roll call of edutech innovators makes for inspiring reading, yet – as any teacher would tell you – sometimes the most important learnings come not from success, but from failure.

Step forward Elvis Chidera. A young Nigerian who taught himself how to code on an old Nokia 2690 smartphone, Chidera founded the edutech start-up Prepup, an exam preparation app that seemed to tick all the boxes. It was free (with advertising support). It provided personalised assistance, with access to more than 35 000 past question papers (with answers!). And its gamified interface made it fun for high school students to use. The app had in excess of 120 000 users across West Africa at its peak, and was a finalist at the West Africa Mobile Awards 2016. Then, in 2018, Prepup shut down. While Prepup is still available on the Google Play Store, the support team has been let go, the back-end support has been mothballed, and Chidera now works for a Dubai-based tech firm.

So what went wrong? Speaking to Ventureburn in 2019, Chidera cited a number of factors behind the app’s demise. One of the main challenges lay in distribution – especially when it comes to internet connectivity. ‘You cannot rely on online distribution channels alone to reach a majority of your target users,’ Chidera said. ‘Currently, the offline distribution channels are fragmented. Many edtech products have failed while trying to figure this out.’

Chidera added that Prepup found (to its cost) that many students either spend a limited amount of time online, or they spend most of their online time on a few apps. ‘When we started working directly with some schools to install the app on students’ devices, it was not uncommon for us to see a device that hadn’t been online for over two months,’ he said.

Connected edtech solutions can only reach connected students. To bridge that gap, perhaps a more lasting solution lies in going back past the mechanism of edtech delivery, and to the roots of education itself. John Luis, head of academics at JSE-listed ADvTECH Group’s ADvTECH Schools, believes that tech in the classroom can never replace the fundamental core skills required for academic excellence. ‘In the rush to get on board with the Fourth Industrial Revolution – a term many are invoking without truly understanding the issues involved – private schools have increasingly been offering coding, robotics and digital learning on their campuses,’ says Luis. ‘However, simply offering content that previously used to be in book or paper format, and not investing time and money in an holistic approach to content and delivery, as well as proper educator and support staff training, will render such initiatives futile and expensive mistakes.’

Although South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a six-year roll-out of digital workbooks on mobile tablets during his 2019 State of the Nation Address, edtech expert Neelam Parmar warns that much still needs to be done before anybody starts unboxing those devices. ‘It’s extremely important to understand that learning is served and not defined by technological tools,’ according to Parmar. ‘All too often we think that the technology will fix our teaching and learning problems in school, but what is truly important is that the technology is embedded firmly and seamlessly within the curriculum and lesson delivery in the classroom.’

In a warning that comes a year or so too late for Elvis Chidera, but just in time for many other African edtech innovators, Parmar says: ‘There is a great deal of hype around the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and undoubtedly change is taking place at a phenomenal level, yet any change at this level needs to come with a vision, and with a vision we need a strategy.’ That strategy, she insists, needs to be appropriate for the market – and it needs to take into account the enabling technology that’s available to the end users. ‘For technology to become relevant in education, a strategy considering the grand scheme of systems, teaching and learning, curriculum redesign, teacher training, community, new partnerships and the relevant stakeholders, has to be considered,’ she says. ‘It is now time to act on delivering the right education to our students by using the technology we know can make it happen.’

By: Mark van Dijk
Photography: Gallo/Getty Images