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LINE: Out in Africa

This blog first appeared on the LINE website on June 17th 2011

Steve Ash, Sales and Marketing Director at LINE travelled to Tanzania to attend e-Learning Africa.

LINE has attended the annual Online Educa event in Berlin for many years sending both visitors and conference speakers to what is billed as the ‘largest global e-learning conference for the corporate, education and public service sectors’. This year, for the first time, we attended the sister event, e-Learning Africa. 2011 will see the 17th Online Educa event in Berlin, whereas e-Learning Africa is comparatively new, this year being only the 6th year that the event has been held.

The venue for e-Learning Africa changes every year and the 2011 event was hosted in Tanzania at the Mlimani City Conference Centre in Dar es Salaam. Although comparatively new, the conference attracted 1700 participants from over 90 countries. During the event, over 320 speakers from 57 countries discussed and demonstrated best practices in 65 parallel sessions. The sessions aimed to present new ways of learning on the Continent and in other parts of the world. At the top of the agenda were sessions on Youth, Skills and Employability – this year’s core conference theme. The conference was complemented with an exhibition featuring 52 exhibitors from 16 countries showcasing innovative technologies and educational resources.

So in every respect a truly international event and a very well organised one. There was a lot of ‘African pride’ on display – many of the African delegates chose to attend wearing full national costume which added a dazzling display of colour, and the conference was also used to present four TIGA awards (Technology in Government in Africa). Almost 90 entrants from 54 African countries took part in the awards and the four winners in the education category collected their accolades at the event.

I had a number of core reasons for attending. The first was to gain a better understanding of the challenges facing countries in Africa – specifically around learning and development. I also hoped to gain an understanding of the difficulties that organisations deploying technology enabled learning might face and how they were confronting these. I was also interested in seeing some examples of good e-learning content and instances of learning innovation in a specific African context. I had arranged a series of client meetings in South Africa for the week after the conference and hoped to be able to use some of what I learned at these meetings.

In the main, I wasn’t disappointed in terms of what I gained from attending the conference. The first day opened with two very political speeches which were heavy on promises but contained little real evidence on what was actually being done. But the conference came alight with the final two speakers in the opening plenary session.

Jenerali Ulimwengu, a journalist and publisher, gave a simple and very powerful presentation which focussed on his vision of the ‘5 R’s of education’: – the normal three, plus Reason and finally Rhythm… “teaching African children the colours and cadences of their world which go back to the beginning of time”. This latter point drew the first standing ovation at the event. He talked about the ‘banking system’ of education – teaching children things that they would probably never use. As a reference point he stated that 100% of Tanzanians live on food. 80% of them are habitually engaged in agriculture. Nothing on this subject is taught in schools.

As a template for the future he suggested a focus on five key areas:

  • developing cognitive faculties
  • emphasis on critical thinking
  • teaching in the mother tongue
  • providing access to technology teaching at all levels – basic and advanced
  • learning from other parts of the world (Japan, Korea and China were cited) where clear paths towards educational and economic success can be seen

He talked about ‘ambush examinations’… and how utterly ineffective they were. And most powerfully, he highlighted the legacy of 200 years of colonial rule and what passed for education during that time i.e.: the creation of a compliant and unquestioning workforce toiling for the benefit of a foreign power. This contrasted sharply with his vision of what Africa needs today – not a generation of job seekers, but a generation of job creators – and he poured scorn on the efforts of various African governments for failing to address key, basic educational challenges. His call to the previous two political speakers to deliver on their promises was poignantly made.

All of these points were taken up by the next speaker, MacDaniel A. Powell, a civil servant from Liberia. He is a Consultant with the Ministry of Youth and Sport – a fact he said he was very proud of. By his own admission he is a small man (just over 5 feet tall) and although he is nearly 30, he looks like he’s still in his mid-teens. He said that when he attends meetings the reaction is always the same. Someone mentions the ‘Consultant’ and everyone in the room starts looking for the big man with a grey beard.

For MacDaniel to get where he is, has required a huge amount of commitment, self-belief and self-reliance. His call to the parents and grandparents of African youth was to stop waiting for their children to be spoon fed – to encourage and push their children to look after their own work, to be self-dependent and to be informed, i.e. to get the information they need to make informed decisions for themselves.

Over the two days of the conference, these core themes were evident in almost every presentation that I attended. And when I met with my clients in South Africa, the problems caused by this situation were magnified: massive skills shortages in key disciplines such as IT skills, project management, engineering, general literacy and numeracy, lack of access to ICT both in and outside of the workplace, bandwidth and connectivity issues – on a continental basis – problems almost too difficult to tackle.

In the presentations I attended however there were some excellent examples of innovative approaches to learning in a specific African context. In the absence of any presentations showcasing content from the corporate space, I focussed on the work being done in the Health sector – another key challenge for the continent.

The first of these was a pilot project aimed at reducing infant mortality rates. In Tanzania, infant mortality is high (67 deaths per 1,000 births compared to 5 deaths per 1,000 in the UK). The main reason for this is the lack of quick access to health professionals. The i-Call-Accessible mobile learning project uses basic, voice activated telephony software to provide access to two types of resource. The first is audio information about specific subjects which are accessed via the voice controls – somewhat like a podcast. The second taps into the paradigm of learning by storytelling and uses the software to present ‘soap operas’ (scenarios) to the caller. They are structured so that the caller can make decisions about which direction the story goes, and hear the consequences of the decisions that they have made.

The project serves three core groups:

  • communities – mothers (before and after birth)
  • educators – midwifes and health workers
  • specialists – doctors and clinincs

The scenarios are aimed at the first of these groups. The free phone number allows callers to access the scenarios, which are designed in the communities based on real stories and recorded in Swahili. They are simple, branching storylines seeking to raise awareness of pre and anti natal health issues, and also to change behaviours.

Another excellent example – this time aimed at state intervention level, was showcased by the ICATT (IMCI Computerised Adaptation and Training Tool) project. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has a suite of guidelines aimed at reducing child (under five) mortality rates. These are branded as Integrated Management of Child Illnesses (IMCI). The top four causes of child under five deaths in Tanzania (most of which are preventable) are:

  • neonatal 27%
  • malaria 23%
  • pneumonia 21%
  • diahorhea 17%

The WHO in partnership with Novartis has developed a sophisticated tool which contains a full suite of learning resources using the IMCI guidelines. These include reading resources, videos, interactive exercises which provide immediate feedback and testing which provides the results to a tutor who in turn provides feedback to the student. The core target audiences for this tool are pre-service (for example university medical schools) and in service (for example, zone health resource centres).

The IMCI guidelines are made available in English and are loaded into the tool. A state body can then use the tool to translate and localise the content into a language of their choosing. The tool then configures all of the learning resources in the chosen language or languages. Nations using the tool have reduced the training time for IMCI from 8 days to 5 days and further improvements are planned to reduce this still further. Additionally, the typical per capita training cost for IMCI has been reduced from $746 to $351 – a key consideration for African countries.

These were only two examples from a range that were showcased and there is more information on the conference website

I only have two disappointments from e-learning Africa. The first is that there were no presentations from corporate organisations showing what they were doing with technology enabled learning and the impact this was having. This is a major omission as there are good examples of what can be done in Africa and these should be given a voice at a conference such as this.

The second was that the vast majority of the presentations I went to which showed content were pilots – tiny pilots, with broadly the same objectives/methodologies/outputs etc – and none of which appeared to be learning from the others, or indeed from what has gone before in other parts of the world. One of the session leaders described Africa as having a ‘plague of pilot-itess’ – and I have to agree on the strength of what I saw.

The conference ended with a Westminster Parliament style debate where the motion posed was that the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement is fundamentally flawed because it is based on the false assumption that education institutions are willing to share resources freely and openly. One of the speakers against the motion was Bakary Diallo representing the African Virtual University. The AVU has trained more than 40,000 students since inception in 1997 and is an alliance of universities from 11 African nations. He stated that the AVU had proven the case that universities were willing to share – indeed they were already doing so – and that in countries where up to 80% of university applicants are unable to gain placements because of a lack of capacity at physical universities, the AVU and the OER movement generally had a vital role to play in tackling the skills gaps that are faced across Africa.

Delegates were very vocal in their challenges towards the motion. One young professor in particular, citing the power of technology enabled communications to effect significant change that is driven by youth (in Egypt, Libya, Syria etc) – and the power of African youth as a catalyst for change. Her points resonated with the comments of Jenerali Ulimwengu in the opening plenary – and yes… she received another standing ovation.

On reflection, the conference achieved all of the core objectives I’d set, particularly in relation to the challenges faced on the continent. One of the presentations I attended covered a pilot project to deliver e-learning to remote communities using vehicles containing solar powered laptops. These could access up to 100 students per day. Another realisation was how difficult it is to access a computer at all during the whole education process for most Africans – and the problems this poses in a workplace context. The e-learning content that was shown was simple by western standards – but effective nevertheless – often beginning with instruction on how to navigate around a computer screen and an e-learning interface. Much was made of the proliferation of mobile technologies across Africa but the rich media, app-based learning modules are often not an option – partly because of data charges but mainly because of the simplicity of the phones used on the continent. That said, good examples of simple and effective learning interventions using mobile devices were evident.

With Africa being widely tipped as the next booming economic growth area, there are clear opportunities for both education and workplace learning. But even in the more developed parts of the continent such as South Africa, the skills shortages, lack of infrastructure and apparent disconnect between the needs of the workplace and educational provision present significant challenges. Harnessing the power of technology to effectively educate and train seems key to the future success of the region given the sheer numbers involved, the geographical challenges posed to traditional methods of face to face training and the speed with which organisations need to deploy competent talent, at scale in core disciplines across their organisation. The ability of Governments and public or private sector entities to embrace this power on a strategic, rather than a pilot-by-pilot basis seems to be another core challenge in the mix.