November 29, 2015

An analysis of the e-Learning Africa 2015 report

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Refugees and iPads 2

Elletson, H. and Burgess, A. (eds.) (2015) The eLearning Africa Report 2015 Berlin, Germany: ICWE GmbH

It is difficult to do justice in a short blog post to this 130 page plus report about the state of e-learning in Africa. I need therefore to be selective. As a result, although the link between primary, secondary and higher education is critical, I will focus in this post mainly on higher education, infrastructure and policy issues raised in the report. However, for anyone concerned about development in Africa, I strongly recommend reading the whole report rather than relying on this analysis. I have put selected extracts from the report in italics.


Technology is driving change in Africa and fuelling the economic growth of African economies. There is now an urgent need for radical change. Africa is at a ‘tipping point.’ The upward momentum of the continent’s economies can continue or they can start to slip back. Much will depend on the nature of the change the continent is now prepared to embrace….

Education is the key to Africa’s future and, if it is to do what is expected of it, technology has to be at the heart of it…. 

More attention also needs to be given to the forgotten child of African education – the higher education sector…

It is time to put eLearning at the forefront of the radical change Africa needs.

The state of e-learning readiness in Africa

This chapter from Dr Aida Opoku-Mensah, Special Adviser Post-2015 Development Agenda, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) addresses the following:

Whilst eLearning services and products are freely on offer in Africa, with many interesting initiatives and projects in place, the real question is whether the continent is ready fully to benefit from this revolution….

The key question is whether governments are providing a centrally coordinated eLearning implementation programme that aligns national goals to educational reform and the use of effective technology.

An eLearning strategy should be a subset of an ICT in Education policy that:

  • lays out a roadmap for countries with an eLearning architecture
  • addresses curriculum issues
  • provides for capacity development for teachers across a nation
  • supports administration and the management of systems

Other important aspects of such a strategy should be:

  • infrastructure development that provides affordable connectivity for education
  • content development especially when it comes to procurement of eLearning content, including its contextualisation
  • exploring the prospect of developing a local eLearning business support sector that can sustain any eLearning environment, whilst nurturing innovation and creativity in this sector.

She goes on to argue that:

eLearning becomes possible when there is an integration of ICTs in the education system, which requires a policy and strategy of its own. It may be derived from marrying a national ICT policy with national education goals and strategy. Without this approach, African countries are not and will not be ready.

The neglect of higher education in sub-Saharan Africa

Guy Pfefferman, an economist by background and CEO of the Global Business School Network, points to the neglect of higher education in Africa in the 2000 United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, because of its sole focus on primary education. However, demand for higher education has exceeded supply in Africa, resulting in a rapid growth of private higher education institutions. Funding has not kept pace with enrolment growth, and as a result quality is a huge challenge.

Although HE in Africa is now back on the development agenda, Pfefferman argues that the existing institutions require major reform:

What is necessary in order to meet the need for skills and employment is radical, not gradual, change. eLearning is therefore the only way … of scaling up the reach of good and relevant higher education.

The reality of Internet and phone access in Africa

Firoze Manji, Director of the Pan-African Baraza, which is aimed at reclaiming the past, contesting the present and inventing the future, offers some valuable counter-perspectives to the type of education being offered to Africans and the romanticism about [the Internet] and telephones. 

If one looks at the continent as a whole, something like less than 14% of the population has access to the internet. If you exclude Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and South Africa, you are left with 4% with access to the internet. You are, therefore, only reaching a tiny minority by doing it this way.

With regard to phones:

The majority of people who do have phones in Africa really only use them for text messaging. The cost of sending messages, although it has come down significantly in some countries, in many places costs anywhere between 20 and 35 cents. If you’re on less than a dollar a day then that’s a large proportion.

This theme was also taken up in the article by Nnenna Nwakanma, the cofounder of The Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa.

  • Internet access is priced as a luxury good. Overall, in emerging and developing countries, the cost of entry level broadband (averaging across mobile and fixed line access) exceeds 40% of average income (in many countries it is over 100% of monthly income).
  • 500 MB per month is the minimum needed to access two or three educational videos a week, and fewer than 3% of Africans, 25% of Asians and 30% of Latin Americans, can afford a 500 MB mobile data package.
  • In some cases, schools are trying to meet the costs of eLearning programmes by introducing additional student fees, thus clearly discriminating against the poor.
  • The high cost to connect limits access to information and distance learning opportunities for women in the developing world, which is particularly worrying because the overwhelming majority of adults excluded from formal schooling are women.

Nnenna Nwakanma concludes that:

to unlock the internet revolution in access to knowledge and empowerment we need to ensure that all people can access all of the internet all of the time [and] can use it freely to express their views and seek information without political restrictions….Globally, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should include a commitment to achieving universal and affordable access to broadband internet, including the expansion of free public access facilities, as part of a larger commitment on access to infrastructure. The SDGs must also commit to upholding the rights of all to freedom of expression, information and association, both online and offline.

What is appropriate technology for e-learning in Africa?

Niall Winters, Associate Professor of Learning and New Technologies at the Department of Education, University of Oxford, looks at three rationales for the use of technology for teaching in Africa:

  • to provide students with the skills they need to take part in the knowledge economy of the 21st Century
  • for teachers to improve their teaching practice
  • a means by which self-guided informal learning will flourish.

He argues that each of these rationales require nuanced and in-depth analysis to succeed. He argues that each is ‘problematic’ and the problems that arise from using technology for these purposes need to be addressed; merely providing technology in the hope that these goals will succeed is likely to fail. He uses One Laptop Per Child and the Hole in the Wall projects as examples of the need for a more nuanced approach.

Basic data on ICTs in education in Africa

An overview of the latest ICT in education data is provided by Peter Wallet, Programme Specialist in ICT in education statistics at the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. The first point he makes is that there is a major data gap in ICT in education data in Africa. In fact in six sub-Saharan countries, no data at all is collected. As a result, Wallet focused on three areas:

  • electrification
  • computer density
  • Internet connectivity.

He found that electricity was available in less than 20% of primary schools in ten countries for which there was data. More than 75% of all schools had electricity in just five countries (Mauritius, Sao Tome, South Africa, Botswana and Djibouti), although in Zambia and Niger over 75% of all secondary schools also had electricity.

The learner-to-computer ratio (LCR) varied considerably across countries, but Wallet reported that computer resources are greatly overstretched in primary education in a number of countries, including the Gambia, where 214 pupils on average share a single computer and in Zambia and São Tomé there are more than 500 pupils per computer.

The primary level LCR in South Africa, Botswana, Rwanda and Mauritius is 90:1, 55:1, 40:1 and 23:1, respectively, with Rwanda’s being relatively low due to the One Laptop Per Child program. Ratios are better in secondary schools (around 54 learners per computer). Wallet comments:

While the LCR is an average, computer resources may, however, be so strained in many schools that time on task is too limited per pupil to allow a meaningful learning experience

Internet availability ranges substantially within sub-Saharan Africa. For example, internet availability is negligible in primary schools in Burkina Faso, Liberia, Madagascar, and Guinea. At the other end of the range, Mauritius has connected over 90% of all its schools, while Botswana has connected all public secondary schools to the internet.

The impact of undersea fibre optic networks on Africa

In 2009, sub-Saharan Africa began to see its first international submarine fibre-optic cable connections. Now the region has multiple cable systems on both coasts, with more countries being connected each year.

Social entrepreneur Steve Song has been working with the online community to map the history and development of African undersea cables. He shares … his continuously updated African Undersea Cables map – April 2015 version – as well as his review of the continent’s 2014 telecom infrastructure development, to paint a picture of where and how the continent is getting connected.

Africa undersea cables 2

Country profiles

The report ends with profiles of each African country.

The country profiles allow for a more detailed view on a country-by-country basis, analysing national trends, policies and best practice, highlighting how each country in Africa uses ICT for education and development.

They show the scale of Africa’s achievement, the obstacles that remain to be overcome and, in many cases, the enormous opportunities that are now within reach of so many people across the continent.

Other topics

There are also interesting sections in the report on the following:

  • Education is the first step toward peaceful societies, by Emmanuel Jal
  • The Cruise of a Thousand Clicks: A poem by Bobana Badisang
  • The power of open knowledge: How Wikimedia is transforming education
  • Teaching teacher trainers to teach online
  • Stop the education blame game and start looking at the bigger picture
  • Spotlight on eLearning in Egypt and eLearning for agriculture in Malawi
  • The eLearning Africa survey
  • Putting mobile learning into context
  • Finding funds

Each one of these is worth a blog post in itself.

My comments

I cannot praise too highly the work of the eLearning Africa project of ICWE GmbH, which also runs the annual eLearning Africa conference. They provide essential documentation and networking regarding what’s happening in e-learning in Africa.

The report highlights the tension between the enormous possibilities of the use of technology for teaching and learning in Africa, and the reality and challenges on the ground. The editors state:

It is already clear that the ambitious aims of the Millennium Development Goals have not been fulfilled. Despite some progress, universal attainment of the goals remains distant. Progress has been uneven too. Some statistics nevertheless stand out: since 1999, for example, the number of children enrolled in primary schools in sub-Saharan Africa increased by 75% to 144 million in 2012. In the same period, the gender parity gap was halved in primary education. In the 2000’s, the percentage of countries carrying out national assessments of learning almost doubled.

Overall, I came away optimistic about the real progress that has been made and is continuing to be made in education in Africa, and the role that e-learning is beginning to play.

However, e-learning is way down the development food chain and does not exist in a vacuum. First comes political, economic and infrastructure development (particularly electricity), accompanied by investment in and the building of formal education capacity. Then comes teacher training and the development of ICT infrastructure linked to educational goals and policy. Only then is the ecological framework that enables e-learning to be successful in place.

This does not mean that e-learning cannot help bring about radical changes, but it has to be seen as just one part of many highly complex developments that are needed to reduce poverty and provide freedom and well-being to the peoples of Africa. We do Africa a disservice by suggesting that there are simple short cuts through mobile learning, free computers or online learning, although these are all developments that can help speed up change in Africa, provided that the other pieces are also being put in place.

What do we mean by ‘open’ in education?

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Malala 2

I’m just a committed and even stubborn person who wants to see every child getting quality education

Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Prize speech, 2014

This is the first of five posts on ‘open-ness’ in education for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, covering:

  • open education, open access and open universities (this post)
  • open educational resources
  • open textbooks, open research and open data
  • the implications of ‘open’ for course and program design
  • a scenario for a post-graduate program based on an approach to ‘open’ design.

Once again, I’m saving the best until the end!

Open education

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in open education, mainly related to open educational resources and MOOCs. Although in themselves OER and MOOCs are important developments, they tend to cloud other developments in open education that are likely have even more impact on education as a whole. It is therefore necessary to step back a little to get a broader understanding of open education. This will help us better understand the significance of these and other developments in open education, and their likely impact on teaching and learning now and in the future.

Open education as a concept

Open education can take a number of forms:

  • education for all: free or very low cost school, college or university education available to everyone within a particular jurisdiction, usually funded primarily through the state;
  • open access to programs that lead to full, recognised qualifications. These are offered by national open universities or more recently by the OERu;
  • open access to courses or programs that are not for formal credit, although it may be possible to acquire badges or certificates for successful completion. MOOCs are a good example;
  • open educational resources that instructors or learners can use for free. MIT’s OpenCourseware, which provides free online downloads of MIT’s video recorded lectures and support material, is one example;
  • open textbooks, online textbooks that are free for students to use;
  • open research, whereby research papers are made available online for free downloading;
  • open data, that is, data open to anyone to use, reuse, and redistribute, subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share.

Each of these developments is discussed in more detail below, except for MOOCs, which are discussed extensively in Chapter 7.

Education for all – except higher education

Open education is primarily a goal, or an educational policy. An essential characteristic of open education is the removal of barriers to learning. This means no prior qualifications to study, no discrimination by gender, age or religion, affordability for everyone, and for students with disabilities, a determined effort to provide education in a suitable form that overcomes the disability (for example, audio recordings for students who are visually impaired). Ideally, no-one should be denied access to an open educational program. Thus open learning must be scalable as well as flexible.

State-funded public education is the most extensive and widespread form of open education. For example, the British government passed the 1870 Education Act that set the framework for schooling of all children between the ages of 5 and 13 in England and Wales. Although there were some fees to be paid by parents, the Act established the principle that education would be paid for mainly through taxes and no child would be excluded for financial reasons. Schools would be administered by elected local school boards. Over time, access to publicly funded education in most economically developed countries has been widened to include all children up to the age of 18. UNESCO’s Education for All (EFA) movement is a global commitment to provide quality basic education for all children, youth and adults, supported, at least in principle, by 164 national governments. Nevertheless today there are still many millions of ‘out-of-school’ children worldwide.

Access to post-secondary or higher education though has been more limited, partly on financial grounds, but also in terms of ‘merit’. Universities have required those applying for university to meet academic standards determined by prior success in school examinations or institutional entry exams. This has enabled elite universities in particular to be highly selective. However, after the Second World War, the demand for an educated population, both for social and economic reasons, in most economically advanced countries resulted in the gradual expansion of universities and post-secondary education in general. In most OECD countries, roughly 35-60 per cent of an age cohort will go on to some form of post-secondary education. Especially in a digital age, there is an increasing demand for highly qualified workers, and post-secondary education is a necessary doorway to most of the best jobs. Therefore there is increasing pressure for full and free open access to post-secondary, higher or tertiary education.

However, as we saw in Chapter 1, the cost of widening access to ever increasing numbers results in increased financial pressure on governments and taxpayers. Following the financial crisis of 2008, many states in the USA found themselves in severe financial difficulties, which resulted in substantial cuts to the public education system. Thus solutions that enable increased access without a proportionate increase in funding are almost desperately being sought by governments and institutions. It is against this background that the recent interest in open education should be framed.

As a result, open is increasingly (and perhaps misleadingly) being associated with ‘free’. While the use of open materials may be free to the end user (learners), there are real costs in creating and distributing open education, and supporting learners, which has to be covered in some way. Thus a sustainable and adequate system of publicly funded education is still the best way to ensure access to quality education for all. Other forms of open education are steps towards achieving fully open access to higher education.

Open access in higher education

Open universities

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a rapid growth in the number of open universities that required no or minimal prior qualifications for entry. In the United Kingdom, for instance, less than 10 per cent of students leaving secondary education in 1969 went on to university. This was when the British government established the Open University, a distance teaching university open to all, using a combination of specially designed printed texts, and broadcast television and radio, with one week residential summer schools on traditional university campuses for the foundation courses (Perry, 1976). The Open University started in 1971 with 25,000 students in the initial entry intake, and now has over 200,000 registered students. It has been consistently ranked by government quality assurance agencies in the top ten U.K. universities for teaching, and in the top 30 for research, and number one for student satisfaction (out of over 180). It currently has over 200,000 registered students. However, it can no longer cover the full cost of its operation from government grants and there is now a range of different fees to be paid.

There are now nearly 100 publicly funded open universities around the world, including Canada (Athabasca University and Téluq). These open universities are often very large. The Open University of China has over one million enrolled undergraduate students and 2.4 million junior high school students, Anadolou Open University in Turkey has over 1.2 million enrolled undergraduate students, the Open University of Indonesia (Universitas Terbuka) almost half a million, and the University of South Africa 350,000. These large, degree awarding national open universities provide an invaluable service to millions of students who otherwise would have no access to higher education (see Daniel, 1998, for a good overview). It should be noted however that there is no publicly funded open university in the USA, which is one reason why MOOCs have received so much attention there.

As well as the national open universities, which usually offer their own degrees, there is also the OERu, which is basically an international consortium of mainly British Commonwealth and U.S. universities and colleges offering open access courses that enable learners either to acquire full credit for transfer into one of the partner universities or to build towards a full degree, offered by the university from which most credits have been acquired. Students pay a fee for assessment.

10.7.2 Limitations of open access education

Open, distance, flexible and online learning are rarely found in their ‘purest’ forms. No teaching system is completely open (minimum levels of literacy are required, for instance). Thus there are always degrees of open-ness. Open-ness has particular implications for the use of technology. If no-one is to be denied access, then technologies that are available to everyone need to be used. If an institution is deliberately selective in its students, it has more flexibility with regard to choice of technology for distance education. It can for instance require all students who wish to take an online or blended course to have their own computer and Internet access. It cannot do that if its mandate is to be open to all students. Truly open universities then will always be behind the leading edge of educational applications of technology.

Despite the success of many open universities, open universities often lack the status of a campus-based institution. Their degree completion rates are often very low (the U.K. OU’s degree completion rate is 22 per cent – Woodley and Simpson, 2014 – but nevertheless still higher for whole degree programs than for most single MOOC courses). And as noted previously, there are no comparable publicly funded open universities in the USA (the Western Governors’ University is the most similar), although private, for-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix fill a similar niche in the market.

Lastly, some of the open universities have been around for more than 40 years and have not always quickly adapted to changes in technology, partly because of their large size and their substantial prior investment in older technologies such as print and broadcasting, and partly because they do not wish to deny access to students without the latest technology. Thus they are now increasingly challenged by both an explosion in access to conventional universities, which has taken up some of their market, and new developments such as MOOCs and open educational resources, which are the topic of the next section.

Feedback, please

This part is fairly descriptive, but still necessary, I believe. However, here are some questions I have:

  1. Open education is a huge topic. Have I done it justice in the space available – given that I have separate sections on other aspects such as OERs and open textbooks?
  2. Do you think it is necessary to provide the context of ‘education for all’ and ‘open universities’ when discussing approaches to open-ness today? Or is all this now irrelevant? (I have to say this is the impression I’m sometimes given by advocates of OER and MOOCs).
  3. I clearly have a bias towards adequate, publicly funded education as the best way to increase access and open-ness. Do I push this too much, or not enough?
  4. Is there a future for open universities?

Up next

Open educational resources: principles; Creative Commons licenses; sources; limitations; how to use OERs


Daniel, J. (1998) Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media: Technology Strategies for Higher Education. London: Kogan Page

Perry, W. (1976) The Open University Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Woodley, A. and Simpson, O. (2014) ‘Student drop-out: the elephant in the room’ in Zawacki-Richter, O. and Anderson, T. (eds.) (2014) Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda Athabasca AB: AU Press, pp. 508


MIT, learning technologies, and developing countries: lessons in technology transfer

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This week I spent three days at the MIT LINC (Learning International Networks Consortium) conference in Boston/Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the theme: ‘Realizing the Dream: Education Becoming Available to All. Will the World take Advantage?’.

Because there is so much information that I would like to share, I am dividing this into two posts. This post will focus mainly on the activities reported from around the world, although many of these projects are related to or supported by MIT faculty and staff volunteers.

My second post, MOOCs, MIT and Magic, will focus on what MIT is doing to support technology-enabled learning, mainly at home.

But first some words about the conference.


The Learning International Networks Consortium (LINC) is an MIT-managed international initiative that began in 2001 and is operated by a growing team of MIT faculty, student and staff volunteers. 

The mission of the LINC project is: With today’s computer and telecommunications technologies, every young person can have a quality education regardless of his or her place of birth or wealth of parents.

LINC was the brain-child of Richard Larson, Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT.

The conference

LINC 2013 was the sixth conference on this theme organized by MIT. It presented a range of topics, technologies and strategies for technology-enabled learning for developing countries, and raised a number of questions about the implementation of learning technologies within developing countries. There were over 300 participants from 49 countries.

The conference was supported by MIT, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, and Fujitsu, enabling many participants from developing countries to be supported in their travel and accommodation.

I report below just a selection of the many sessions around the theme of technology-supported education in or for developing countries, and I apologize that for space reasons, I can’t give a full report on all the sessions.


The conference started with a session on four perspectives on MOOCs, with four speakers making short 20 minute presentations followed by a Q&A panel with the four speakers fielding questions from the audience. I was one of the speakers in this session, and because the session deserves a whole report on its own, I discuss this in more detail in my second post, MOOCs, MIT and Magic.

Sufficient here to say that Sir John Daniel made a point reinforced by speakers in other sections that open and virtual universities have been delivering mass credit-based open learning in developing countries for many decades before MOOCs arrived.

The state of technology-enabled education around the world

The future direction of virtual universities

John Daniel’s point was picked up in this session, when Presidents/Rectors from Tec de Monterrey’s Virtual University in Mexico, the African Virtual University, and the Virtual University of Pakistan described the activities of their institutions. In each case, these projects are reaching very large numbers of students in their own countries or region (around 100,000 each), but each institution has its own sets of challenges as well, especially in reaching the very poor or disadvantaged. However, each of these institutions seems to have a sustainable funding base which promises well for the future.

Bakary Diallo, Rector, African Virtual University

Reaching poor young men in Latin America

Fernando Reimers, the Director of the International Education Policy Program at Harvard, discussed the challenges that youth face in developing countries, particularly adolescent boys and young men, who are turned off by traditional teaching methods that neither fit their learning styles nor prepare them for the skills and knowledge needed in today’s workforce. He pointed out that less than 1% of the poorest 10% in Brazil have Internet access. (Similarly, in Mexico, less than 5% of socio-economic groups C, D and E currently have Internet access, and these three groups constitute almost two-thirds of the population.)

National educational policies and educational reform

Robin Horn discussed a World Bank project, SABER, which stands for A Systems Approach to Better Educational Results. The World Bank has found that often educational reform initiatives fail to gain traction in many countries because they do not align with existing government policies (or put another way, without changing policies, the reforms will not gain traction.) By looking at countries that have successful educational outcomes, and comparing their policies with the policies in other developing countries, it is hoped to identify barriers to educational reform. One example is telecommunications policies. An over-regulated, government controlled access to bandwidths can lead to high Internet costs due to lack of competition, whereas loose or unregulated government policies allow for competition resulting in both increased access and lower Internet costs (Canadian government: please note). Mike Trucano at the World Bank is identifying policies that appear to facilitate or inhibit the application of learning technologies in developing countries and this will be added to SABER in the near future.

The SABER website is packed full of data and analysis and makes fascinating reading for policy aficionados, and certainly my experience is that in all countries (not just developing countries) government policies do have a major influence on innovation and change in education. However, at the same time, ‘top-down’ strategies for increasing the use of learning technologies rarely work (South Korea may be an example of this – see below). In other words, government policies can foster or inhibit educational reform, but the reforms themselves will often have to come from or be supported by those close to the action, the teachers, parents and other stakeholders who will gain most from the changes.

Reaching the poor through educational TV in Brazil

Lúcia Araújo, the CEO of Canal Futura, an educational television network in Brazil, described the extensive use of ‘open source’ educational television and support materials that are being used by teachers throughout Brazil to support their classroom teaching. The programs are freely accessible through public television stations throughout Brazil, and almost 100% of homes in Brazil have access to television, a reminder that in many countries there are still better alternatives than the Internet to reach out to the poor and disadvantaged.

Online universities in Korea and SE Asia

Okwha Lee from Chungbuk National University in South Korea gave an overview of national educational technology developments in South Korea. In terms of sheer scale of online learning South Korea is one of the world’s leaders, with 21 cyber or online universities alone serving over 100,000 Korean students. The South Korean government plays a heavy hand in financing and managing national educational technology initiatives, through KERIS (the Korean Education and Research Information Service), and some of its centralization of data collection and top-down policies have provoked both hunger strikes and a national teachers’ strikes. South Korea has also invested in the ASEAN cyber university, which will include students from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Mynmar, with plans to extend it later to other ASEAN countries. Initially students will access programs through local e-learning centres.

Using Intranets to lower the cost of online learning in Africa

Cliff Missen, Director of the WiderNet Project and eGranary, gave a fascinating talk based around access to online learning in Africa. The WiderNet Project is a nonprofit organization, based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that is dedicated to improving digital communications to all communities and individuals around the world in need of educational resources, knowledge, and training. Cliff Missen’s focus was on the high cost of Internet access for learners in developing countries, pointing out that while mobile phones are widespread in Africa, they operate on very narrow bandwidths. For instance, it costs US$2 to download a typical YouTube video – equivalent to a day’s salary for many Africans. Programs requiring extensive bandwidth, such as video lectures, are therefore prohibitively expensive for most Africans.

The WiderNet solution is the development of local Intranets linked to an extensive local library of open educational resources, the e-Granary project. The eGranary Digital Library — “The Internet in a Box” — is an off-line information store that provides instant access to over 30 million Internet resources to institutions lacking adequate Internet access. Through a process of copying web sites (with permission) and delivering them to partner institutions in developing countries, this digital library delivers instant access to a wide variety of educational resources including video, audio, books, journals, and Web sites. This means setting up local servers and terminals, and even building a small wireless station to cover the surrounding community, but not necessarily linked into the wider Internet. This cuts down substantially on the cost of accessing digital educational resources.

MIT BLOSSOMS: Math and Science Video Lessons for High School Classes

This project has developed over 60 short videos to enrich science and math high school lessons, all freely available to teachers as streaming video and Internet downloads and as DVDs and videotapes. The videos are made in short sections, with stopping points for student and teacher activities built into the videos and supported by the teachers’ guide to each video

What makes this program particularly interesting is that many of the videos have been developed in developing countries, through partnerships between MIT and local schools and teachers, and with local presenters, often from high schools themselves. The videos are of high quality, both in terms of content, which is guaranteed by oversight from MIT professors, and in production quality. There is a strong emphasis in relating science and math to everyday life. For examples see: How Mosquitoes Fly in Rain (made in the USA) and Pythagoras and the Juice Seller (made in Jordan).

As a result, these videos are also being increasingly used by schools in the USA as well as by schools in developing countries. Although some of the programs are made in the native language of the country where they are made, they are also provided with English sub-titles or with also a voice-over version. By developing programs with local teachers, programs can be fully integrated within the national curriculum, and MIT BLOSSOMS team has also shown how each video relates to individual US state curricula.

What MIT is doing in technology-enabled learning

This session focused on MIT’s other activities in technology-enabled learning. I will discuss this in more detail in my second post, MOOCs, MIT and Magic.

Parallel sessions

In addition to the above plenary sessions there were also 72 presentations, each of roughly ten minutes, in parallel sessions. I cannot possibly report on them all, but I will report on two that I found really interesting .

Taylor’s University, a private university in Malaysia, is using the iPad for teaching foundational engineering. The iPads are used to access  iBooks and electronic study materials that have been specially developed by the School of Engineering to support and enhance the students’ learning. Many of the animations and applications were specially developed by final year undergraduate students, working with their professor, Mushtak Al-Atabi. There is a video on YouTube that includes a good demonstration of how the iPad is used.

The second was presented by Ahmed Ibrahim in behalf of a team of researchers from McGill University and the University of British Columbia in Canada. They investgated through interviews “sources of knowledge” for students entering a gateway science course. The found that the most common source of ‘physics’ knowledge for the students is the teacher, followed by the textbook and other sources such as the Internet – what the researchers called testimony. Few students used deduction, induction or experimentation as means to ‘verify’ their knowledge. Thus the students did not feel empowered to be able to generate valid physics knowledge by themselves and  they have to turn to experts for it. In other words students are taught about science, rather than doing science, in high schools. They concluded that instructors need to use instructional methods, and activities that promote deeper learning, more conceptual knowledge construction, and more sophisticated epistemological beliefs. In other words, stay away from information transmission and focus on activities that encourage scientific thinking. Although this is a general finding (and based on a very small sample), it is significant for what I have to say in my next post about MOOCs and teaching science.


This was one of the most interesting conferences I have been to for a long time. It brought together practitioners in using technology-enabled learning, primarily in science, math and engineering, from a wide range of countries. As a result there was a wide range of approaches, from the highly ‘engineering-based’ approach of MIT with a focus on advanced or new technologies such as MOOCs, to practitioners tackling the challenges of lack of access to or the high cost of the Internet in many developing countries.

In particular, Internet access remains a major challenge, even in newly emerging countries with dynamic economies, such as Brazil, Mexico, and India, especially for reaching beyond the relatively wealthy middle classes. Even in economically advanced countries such as Canada, wideband access, needed for video-lecture based MOOCs for instance, is problematic for many disadvantaged groups such as the urban poor or for remote aboriginal reserves.

I was therefore interested to see that non-Internet based technologies such as radio, broadcast television or DVDs are still immensely valuable technologies for reaching the poor and disadvantaged in developing countries, as are Internet-linked local learning centres and/or Intranets.

Lastly, despite nearly 80 years of aid to developing countries, finding technology-enabled solutions to increasing access to education that are long-term and sustainable remains a challenge, especially when the aid is generated and organized from developed countries such as the USA and Canada. Local partnerships, cultural adaptation, use of appropriate, low-cost technologies, teacher education, and institutional and government policy changes are all needed if technology transfer is to work.

However, there is clear evidence from this conference that in many developing or economically emerging countries, there are local individuals and institutions finding local and appropriate ways to use technology to support learning. It will often start in the more affluent schools or in universities, but as the Internet gradually widens its spread, it begins to filter down to lower income groups as well. Indeed, in some areas, such as mobile learning in Africa, there is innovation and development taking place that exceeds anything in the developed world, in terms of originality and spread amongst the poor and disadvantaged.

The MIT group behind LINC has done a great service in providing a means for participants from both developed and developing countries to share experience and knowledge in this area.


Throttling access to online learning

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Lennett, B. and Kehl, D. (2103) Capping the Nation’s Broadband Future Washington DC: New America Foundation

Lennett, B. and Kehl, D. (2013) Data Caps Could Dim Online Learning’s Bright Future Chronicle of Higher Education, March 4

Lennett and Kehl provide a good, clear summary of their report in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Basically they are concerned about the following:

  • two companies (AT&T and Verizon) control two-thirds of the mobile market in the U.S.
  • these two companies are charging extra for anything more than a gigabyte of data per month
  •  if you tried to stream video lectures on that connection, you’d reach the data cap after about three hours and then face fees of $15 per gigabyte. If you tried to complete a course with 15 hours of video a month, your phone bill could arrive with as much as $70 in extra fees
  • roughly 19 million Americans still don’t have access to Internet service capable of streaming a video lecture
  • this will seriously inhibit online learning, especially for the poor and those in rural areas.

Their solution:

  • get the FCC to increase competition between wireless carriers, especially in rural areas (a familiar recommendation for Canadians)
  • get the government to invest more heavily in rural broadband connections through something like the New Deal Rural Electrification program.


Why stream video lectures? This is an absurdly expensive and inefficient way of doing online learning. Once again, we have people assuming that there was no online learning before video lecture capture.

Second, surely the issue is throttling, not online learning. Telecommunications companies should not be allowed to restrict selectively bandwidth use, or to try to cap Internet access, full stop.

Africa is the world’s fastest developing e-learning market

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Computers for student use at Tshwane University of Technology, South Africa

Adkins, S. (2013) The Africa Market for Self-paced eLearning Products and Services: 2011-2016 Forecast and Analysis Monroe WA: Ambient Insight

This is one of the most interesting reports I have come across in a long time. Even the abstract is packed with information and data. I have pulled out here just a small selection of particular interest to online learning in higher education.

According to this report, e-learning is forecast to grow in Africa as a whole at a rate of 15% per annum over the next four years, with growth rates in individual countries at the following:

  • Senegal: 30%
  • Zambia: 28%
  • Zimbabwe: 25%
  • Kenya: 25%

In terms of volume of revenues from e-learning, South Africa is the dominant country but will be overtaken by Nigeria by 2016.

There are several drivers of this development in Africa:

  • the recent arrival of fiber optic connectivity. Prior to this, satellite access was the primary connectivity medium, which is very expensive. This was inhibiting the uptake of Internet connectivity
  • a price war with telecoms and ISPs dropping prices to attract customers. This has also created a boom in the adoption of Internet and mobile technologies
  • Internet penetration in Kenya essentially doubled from 2010 to 2011, growing from 28% to 52% in just one year. Internet penetration more than tripled in Rwanda between 2011 and 2012, growing from 8% to 26% in one year.
  • The wide scale digitization of academic content in every country analyzed in this report
  • The explosion of online enrollments in higher education institutions
  • the sharp spike in the adoption of eLearning in the corporate segments in the booming economies.

According to the report:

The boom in online higher education enrollments in Africa is nothing short of astonishing. Many countries are adopting eLearning as a way to meet the strong demand for higher education – a demand they simply cannot meet with traditional campuses and programs:

  • The University of South Africa (UNISA) UNISA is a pan-regional virtual university with over 310,000 students (3,500 come from outside Africa.) Over half of all UNISA students take at least one online course a year. New virtual universities are springing up everywhere in Africa.
  • In May 2011, the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) announced the launch of a pan-African virtual university branch of IGNOU with headquarters in Ethiopia. IGNOU has partnerships with institutions in 20 African countries.
  • Innorero University, a private institution in Kenya, launched their Virtual Campus in January 2012.
  • The Virtual University of Uganda (VUU) claims to be the first online university in East Africa and started taking students in January 2012.
  • In June 2012, the Kenyan government funded the development of a new online education institution called the Open University of Kenya in an effort to meet the strong demand for higher education in the country.
  • The African University College of Communications (AUCC) and the India-based AVAGMAH Online School of Bharathidasan University announced in October 2012 that they would launch a virtual university in Ghana in January 2013 
  • in January 2012, the African Development Bank approved a US$15.6 million grant to help strengthen the capacity of the African Virtual University (AVU). As of 2012, the AVU had 31 active higher education partners across Africa, which it helps in building e-learning centres and training content developers. The new funding will be used to build 12 new e-learning centres.

With very few exceptions, most of the countries in the region now have official government policies on the use of technology in education. There are now dozens of new national digitization projects funded directly by the central governments with and without the aid of external donors.