There is an urgent need for innovative solutions for the African education system
How can the African education system be transformed post COVID-19?
N’Gunu Tiny, Founder and Executive Chairman of the Emerald Group is an expert in Transformative Technology and Social Innovation.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention. And it’s certainly true that times of great challenge are often catalysts for transformative change. In Africa, COVID-19 has resulted in a renewed focus on education reform. There is an urgent need for innovative solutions for the African education system, and for Governments to invest in high-quality, freely accessible online education.
The pandemic has had a negative impact on the African education system
COVID-19 has led to 250 million children across Africa with no schooling at all. This crisis in African education means social innovation in education has never been more important.
Most developed countries around the world were able to flip over to online schooling with relative ease. However, developing countries have not had the same experience. A lack of infrastructure and a prohibitively high cost for data usage has simply left children with no education at all.
Some African countries are struggling against the highest costs of data in the world. And this is why innovation for education is needed right now.
Inequality and basic lack of infrastructure and accessibility
An example of the struggle for African children during lockdown can be seen with South Africa’s response. Three days after the national lockdown was imposed in March 2020, the STEM Digital Lockdown School was launched by the Department of Basic Education and Africa Teen Geeks (ATG).
Using an AI-based platform, this system reached more than half a million students across the country. It was made available to all children in South Africa with access to the internet and a computer.
This all sounds great until we look at the numbers of learners who couldn’t access this online school system. There are more than 12 million learners in South Africa, and yet just over 500,000 children could use this system. Why? Because of inequality. Online learning is the only weapon in our collective arsenal to continue education during times of unprecedented crisis, such as COVID-19. But for people with no internet, no computer and no hope of accessing either, it’s devastating.
So why is Africa lagging so far behind developed countries when it comes to digitisation and accessibility?
Millions of Africans have no access to the internet
In 2017, the House of Lords said that digital literacy should be considered the “fourth pillar of a child’s education alongside reading, writing and mathematics and should be resourced accordingly. But the fact is, in Africa millions are not connected to the online world. According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Internet for All project, here’s why:
- Unavailability of a reliable internet connection
Almost a third of the world’s population does not have 3G coverage. A disturbing 15% still have no access to electricity. Across sub-Saharan Africa, around two-thirds of the population do not have access to regular, consistent and reliable electricity. The same applies for almost 25% of people living in South Asia.
- Prohibitive cost of internet connectivity and hardware
Around 13% of the world’s population lives beneath the poverty line. For these people, and for billions of others, it’s just too expensive to access the internet. Broadband is only deemed affordable for the entire population in 29 out of the 195 countries of the world.
- Lack of awareness and skills
A barrier to the skills needed to access the internet is education. Around 15% of adults around the world are illiterate. We can also add in cultural issues here, with women half as likely to use the internet than men in many countries.
- Difficult to sell to sceptical local communities
Online learning can create barriers between people. Most of the content available for online learning online (around 80%) is only accessible in ten languages. Africa has around 2,000 languages. There is also a level of distrust and scepticism in some local communities throughout the continent. They don’t necessarily trust technology and would prefer to avoid this kind of technology.
Africa must transform its education system for a better future
This hiatus in education for millions of children in Africa should act as a reset button for the continent. COVID-19 must be a catalyst for proper reform and Africa must seize the opportunity to change its education system.
There is a true technological revolution reaching every corner of the world. And it’s now finally having a transformative effect on Africa too. There is a chance to reset the education system by properly addressing the problem of exclusivity and inequality.
Africa, for the most part, is moving straight towards smartphones and mobile technology. In a way, there is an element of bypassing a whole stage of adopting fixed line technology. And this is a real positive for the continent. Technology should be used to push forward as fast as possible.
Here are some ways Africa can change its education system.
- Ensure internet and tech infrastructure is allocated as a basic need
Access to cheap internet is urgent. It is critical that African Governments quickly understand that this is a basic need for everyone, and an essential service. It’s hoped that there will be a continent-wide broadband infrastructure project to ensure this happens.
As well as IT infrastructure, there is an urgent need to improve the education infrastructure. This is particularly true for rural areas. Many schools throughout Africa do not have access to basic sanitation and clean water. In South Africa, almost three-quarters of schools have no library, and 81% have no laboratory. There is an urgent requirement to modernise resources and improve the basic structure provided to teachers and schools.
- Remote learning should be embraced and prioritised
COVID-19 is still here, and it isn’t going away any time soon. The world is waiting for a vaccination. Until then it’s about adapting to the new normal. The focus must switch from when schools might reopen properly and fully to tech based remote learning in Africa. Classes should be provided either live or through recorded content.
Most importantly African Governments must now invest in this online, high quality education. They must ensure it’s available to all Africans. Internet access is a problem particularly in more rural areas. However, higher education institutions such as the University of Witwatersrand have shown it is possible to come up with innovative solutions. They have worked to provide both devices and precious data to those who need it most.
- Improve digital skills across Africa
There is a basic lack of digital skills throughout Africa. This can be tackled by providing broadband and investing in IT infrastructure everywhere. Investment in digital education is also necessary, as is access to funding.
Collaborative solutions are needed within education, particularly with the need to move beyond basic computer literacy into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Africa has vast untapped potential due to the lack of training and education.
The recovery of education in Africa means a thorough revision of the curriculum. It must be relevant to today’s market demands and to future market demands. The Department of Basic Education in South Africa is developing a new Coding & Robotics curriculum to close the digital skills gap. Young people in Africa have the motivation, the innovative ideas and the will to succeed. They just need a fair chance, and this means access to education and training.
There is no better time for African Governments to make these profound changes to the continent’s education system than right now. It’s essential Africa can create a brighter future for its up and coming youth. With a skill base including coding and emerging tech, there are no limits to the future of this generation of Africans.