July 7, 2015

Update on online learning in Africa

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One of the AVU’s new distance-learning centres is launched at the University of Education, Winneba in Ghana. Photograph: AVU

One of the AVU’s new distance-learning centres is launched at the University of Education, Winneba in Ghana. Photograph: AVU

Anderson, M. (2015) Out of Africa: e-learning makes further education a reality for tens of thousands The Guardian, May 20

The opening this week of the 10th e-Learning Africa international conference prompted this informative report by the British newspaper, the Guardian, about the state of virtual learning in Africa. I have used this to pull together a number of different strands about online learning developments in Africa.

The e-Learning Africa conference

Only 6% of Africans continue to any form of higher education (compared with a world average of 26%). Thus this year’s e-Learning Africa conference is particularly significant as it is taking place in Addis Ababa, the HQ of the African Union,which has prioritized virtual learning in its long-term development strategy.The conference is also hosted by the government of Ethiopia. Rebecca Stromeyer, one of the driving forces behind e-Learning Africa, has done a tremendous job in using the conference to promote the development of virtual and online learning in Africa.

The African Virtual University

The African Virtual University, a Pan African Intergovernmental Organization established by charter with the mandate of significantly increasing access to quality higher education and training through the innovative use of information communication technologies, is a major force in promoting virtual learning in Africa.

It is still relatively small in terms of student numbers, with a total of 43,000 students since it started in 1997. So far, 19 African countries signed a charter establishing AVU as an intergovernmental organisation. The AVU offered its first MOOC to 1,700 African students in March this year. Perhaps more significantly it is opening 29 new distance learning centres in 21 African countries at a cost of $200,000 each.

The AVU at the moment does not offer its own degrees, but works in partnership with other African universities to deliver online programs across Africa, sometimes in partnership also with foreign universities such as Indiana University in the USA and Laval University in Canada. AVU plans to start offering its own degrees next year.

UNISA

South Africa has been a leader in distance education in Africa for many years, with over 300,000 students a year currently enrolled in UNISA (the University of South Africa), but although it has some programs offered online, it has been somewhat reluctant to invest heavily in online technologies, because as an open university it has been concerned with the high cost and difficulties of access to the Internet for many Africans.

However, the AVU is considering making lectures accessible on mobile phones, which would tap into Africa’s estimated 112-million smartphones, and UNISA will need to move more quickly if it is to stay relevant in South African online and open education..

Fibre optics

Another major factor that is impacting on virtual learning in Africa is the spread of fibre optics. The first map shows the submarine networks and their international links and the second shows the internal, terrestrial fibre optic networks.

African submarine fibre optic networks Image: © African Politics Portal, 2010

African submarine fibre optic networks
Image: © African Politics Portal, 2010 

African terrestrial fibre optic networks Image: AfTerFibre: https://manypossibilities.net/afterfibre/

African terrestrial fibre optic networks
Image: AfTerFibre: https://manypossibilities.net/afterfibre/

The key factor here is capacity. Fibre optics enable much higher Internet speeds and bandwidth than mobile technologies (although of course the two will be used in combination) but the end result will be much cheaper Internet connectivity in Africa in the coming years.

Comment

I hesitate to suggest solutions for Africa – I’m too far away and the best solutions will be African originated. However, here’s my opinion, for what it’s worth.

Those institutions and organisations that are moving now into virtual learning will have a major competitive advantage as Internet access widens and the cost of access drops dramatically. Bakary Diallo, the rector of the AVU, believes that the AVU can drive down the cost of higher education in Africa, without losing quality. Timing will be critical though – too early a move and the large market will not be ready; too late and other providers will have moved in.

The key challenges though will be the following:

  • appropriate content: African developed OERs (such as OER Africa’s and the OERu’s) will be an essential component of a low cost, high quality, virtual learning system in Africa; at the same time, actual courses and programs available online will also be critically important and this will need substantial investment, mainly in teachers and instructional designers;
  • political recognition of the integrity and quality of virtual learning: African politicians have been very conservative in the past in recognising the value of online and distance learning. Nigeria, the major economic nation now in Africa, for instance, has almost no publicly funded online learning at a higher education level., because the government won’t recognise such qualifications. It is good that 19 countries have signed on to the AVU and the African Union has made virtual learning a priority. This though now has to be accepted by other African countries, and policies and strategies for virtual learning and above all recognition of qualifications now need rapid implementation by African governments;
  • institutional management. Even in highly developed countries, university administrators have struggled to manage well the development and maintenance of online learning. African universities will struggle even more with this challenge;
  • lack of qualified professionals: Africa has few professional instructional designers, although countries such as Kenya do have very good IT professionals and web designers. However, the private sector can offer much better salaries;
  • lack of funding: there is a high cost of investment in adopting online learning, and it will take political courage to put aside the funds needed at the level of magnitude to drive real change. However, this is no longer impossible for many African countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, whose economies are rapidly growing. It is therefore more a question of political will than resources, for at least some African countries, although others will take much longer to catch up;
  • corruption: this has two aspects, open corruption, where government funds for online learning are diverted to individuals (usually politicians, but also sometimes local administrators), but probably much more significant will be the influence of major technology-based multinational corporations, who will lobby for money to be spent on (their) technology rather than on the human resources needed to sustain online learning (i.e. well qualified teachers).

Lastly, the challenge for Africa is to walk two paths at the same time. Online learning should not be used as a replacement for a high quality campus-based higher education system but as an integral part of a comprehensive system of higher education that includes face-to-face teaching, blended learning and fully online learning. Getting that balance right will be a mjor challenge.

Overall, though, I am very optimistic that the future belongs to Africa, and that online learning will be a critical component of that future.

Another e-learning platform from Nigeria

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Fora.co

Adepoju, P. (2014) Nigeria is ready for e-learning – Fora.co Humanipo, January 28

I wrote about tutor.ng in a previous post. Fora.co is another e-learning platform, working with ‘Africa’s leading Universities, organizations and governments to provide young Africans with affordable access to the best educational content online, offline and on mobile‘. It offers over 500 courses or course packs, consisting of:

pre-built bundles of relevant digital learning resources that can be used as teaching or training aids in the classroom. (Minimum 6 hours of professor lectures) 
+ Lab Exercises 
+ Textbooks & required readings 
+ Test banks (Minimum 100 questions) 
+ Presentation Slide templates for lectures

Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, chief executive officer at Fora.co, believes that in Nigeria, the technology is not the main barrier. The problem is lack of local content:

We are still light years behind others countries. Nigerian e-learning content is often badly designed and instructional design for online courses still seems foreign to our e-learning content landscape. This is one of the reasons we have had to focus on selling foreign courses because the local courses we saw were quite simply not up to snuff.

For students with difficult or costly access to the Internet, Fora provides learners with a flash drive that ‘synchronizes data from offline interactions and downloads new content from Fora.co to the flashdrive whenever internet access becomes available‘.

Flora markets both directly to institutions and also to individual students. Fora charges a fee per student that depends on the size of the institution and the kind of content bundle required. The lowest priced content bundle is $59.99/student (~N10,000/student).

However, at the moment its web site does not list the courses, the institutions that provide the materials, or the institutions that Fora is working with. This will come shortly; the materials however are properly sourced with the permission of each of the institutions whose materials are used.

Comment

Again, it will be interesting to see how this company develops, and whether the business model is successful. It is likely to work best with small, private institutions who can charge a premium fee thus generating a profit.

A major test will be if any African public universities partner, and whether courses will eventually be accredited in Nigeria.

Nevertheless I am sure we will see more attempts like this around Africa to build viable e-learning or online systems through the private sector.

Footnote

After I initially posted this, I discovered that this project had a Canadian origin, originally conceived at the University of Waterloo’s Velo City Garage and with connections with the MaRS Tech project: click here for much more information about the Fora operation. See also Iyinoluwa Aboyeji’s comments to this post below.

e-learning trends from South Africa

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Chadwick, K. (2014) e-Learning Trends for 2014 Bizcommunity.com

This is an interesting perspective on corporate e-learning trends from Kirsty Chadwick in South Africa. I’ve focused on this, because trends in Africa are likely to be somewhat different from those here in North America, due to differences in access to the Internet and mobile phones. Here are her 10 picks:

  1. From textbook to tablet: the government of South Africa has launched a tablet program for high schools. ‘In 2014, 88,000 Huawei tablets will be distributed to 2200 public schools in Gauteng as part of a new e-learning initiative.’
  2. The shift to mobile: ‘Smartphone growth in Africa has increased by 43% annually since 2000, and experts predict that 69% of mobiles in Africa will have internet access by 2014.’
  3. More gaming
  4. MOOCs: ‘While MOOCs currently don’t have standardised quality assurance in place, this will likely change in the near future.’
  5. Social media: students’ success is very reliant on their ability to participate in study groups and that those who engage in these groups learn significantly more than students who don’t.
  6. Classes online: ‘2014 is likely to see a large number of businesses moving over to online training. Recent studies have projected that by 2019, 50% of all classes taught, will be delivered online.’
  7. Trading desktop for mobile: ‘2014 will be the year in which the number of mobile users will exceed the number of desktop users.’
  8. More learning for everyone: 47% of online learners are over the age of 26, compared to a significantly lower age group a few years ago
  9. HTML5: ‘improved JavaScript performance will begin to push HTML5 and the browser as a mainstream enterprise application development environment.’
  10. More interactivity: ‘courseware is likely to be more immersive and interactive ….the use of animations and games within learning environments keeps the tech-savvy generation engaged and entertained, leading to increased knowledge retention.’

Comment

How can I argue with someone in Africa on this? It looks pretty good to me from the other side of the world. However, I think there are some unique developments in online learning that will come out of Africa. So here’s my very tentative suggestions for e-learning in Africa in 2014.

I agree that in Africa generally, mobile learning, cheap tablets and open textbooks will become driving forces, saving on expensive and often hard to get foreign textbooks, and ensuring more locally adaptable learning materials.

The big growth though will be in non-formal education, where major strides have already been made in supporting small farmers and small business development for women, the development of entrepreneurs, and of IT competencies and skills, using mobile phones, social networking, and direct links to university and government agencies in the field.

Corporate education will be not far behind, but e-learning will be focused mainly in large and/or multinational companies.

Unfortunately, in many African countries, the penetration of online learning into formal education will be much slower, due to government bureaucratic barriers, lack of investment and failure by established institutions to recognize the importance of technology in education, and by governments not giving equal consideration to the need for teacher training in technology use as to investment in technology.

One or two African universities though will become world leaders in online learning through the use of local wi-fi networks and becoming commercial ‘hubs’ for global connections to the Internet, enabling them to cross-subsidize their online teaching activities.

Whatever the eventual outcome, what strikes me about Africa is the hope and the potential for major breakthroughs in online learning and e-learning. Necessity is the mother of invention.

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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.


A project using e-readers in Africa

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The WorldReader project in Ghana © Wired Magazine, 2010

Trucano, M. (2012) An update on the use of e-readers in Africa EduTech, March 16

Michael Trucano’s excellent World Bank blog here reports on the use of e-readers in Africa, based mainly on a Kindle-based project from an NGO called WorldReader.

Dust and breakage were a problem. Most low cost e-readers are just not robust enough for climatic and usage challenges by children in Africa. (Incidentally, this is a problem the very lost Aakash tablet has run into in India).

However, WorldBreaker has a number of other lessons that it has learned from this project, some of which are in fact recurring themes in many ICT projects in developing countries:

  • lack of cheap content: not enough African-originated material; traditional book publishers are not willing to make texts available for free; need for a rights business model that allows for low cost use ($1 a book?) – to date only 250 African books are available for this project
  • need for support from local education officials
  • need for  support from teachers
  • a need to give reading a higher social currency in many  local cultures, especially those that have very strong oral traditions
  • dedicated ‘face time’ in schools
  • buy in from local support structures at the community level
  • funding to scale up from a pilot to a mid-sized project that can transferred eventually on a larger scale across countries.

Despite these difficulties, there are signs that the project is encouraging greater reading, especially in Grades 4-5.

This project also reminds me of Professor Fred Litto’s project, ‘Escola do Futuro‘ in Brazil in the late 1990s, where he created one of the first open source models for books in Portuguese for Brazilian schools. This project is still running successfully almost 20 years later.

Thanks to Stephen Downes for directing me to this. See also:

Sorrel, C. (2010) Kindle comes to classroom in Ghana Wired Gadget Lab, March 16

Bertelsmann Stiftung (2011) Worldreader brings e-readers to Ghanaian classrooms Future Challenges, July 11

Sniderman, Z. (2011) E-Readers in Africa: Non-Profit Brings Thousands of Books to Ghanaian Children Mashable Social Media, January 26