'Head start from behind': Global tech companies scramble to get a piece of Africa's digital learning pie

"In many schools in Uganda, you could have the computers, but they are locked up in the head teacher’s office with clear instructions – 'Don’t touch'"

THIS week, more than 800 delegates, including government representatives from 30 ministries of education around Africa converged in Kampala for the annual Innovation Africa Summit.

In the wake of Africa’s tech boom, many African governments are looking to integrate technology into learning, through laptops or tablets in schools – and the global tech world is ready to do business with Africa, if the Summit is anything to go by.

It’s set up as a massive “speed dating” of sorts, where companies that either deal in the hardware, like tablets and laptops, or that create digital educational material, get make a 20-minute pitch to African government officials seeking to incorporate technology into classrooms. 

For a bigger sponsorship cheque, companies like HP, Intel and Microsoft get to have more time in closed-door sessions with ministry officials.

One such company that came to the conference to make a pitch is Dataflow International, an Irish-based education consultancy, which provides e-learning material to schools in Libya, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Ireland and the US.

“We have many years’ experience creating e-learning materials in the Middle East and North Africa,” said Dataflow’s chairman David Mulville. “Now we’re here to make an entry into sub-Saharan Africa.” 

Of the 2.4 billion to be added to the world’s current population into 2050, 1.3 billion, or more than half the growth, will be across Africa, latest projections by the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs shows. Catching even a piece of that massive student population is the big attraction for these tech companies.

“Africa will drive a large percentage of the workforce in the future,” said Anthony Salcito, Microsoft’s vice president of worldwide education, speaking at the summit. “I see an opportunity for the continent to get a head start from behind, in integrating tech into schools and learning.”

Lose advantage

Lutz Ziob, dean of Microsoft’s 4Afrika Academy – which doubles up as a virtual learning portal, and an incubator and accelerator of tech start-ups – is even more emphatic.

“What surprises me is the raw talent, energy and readiness for innovation on the continent,” says German-born Ziob. “Coming from Europe, I seriously fear that advanced economies can lose their competitive advantage in a blink.”

The need to prepare workforces for the economy of the future is one that governments are increasingly taking more seriously, especially as advances in industrial technology renders many jobs obsolete.

A recent groundbreaking study by scholars from Oxford University on the future of employment indicates that routine intensive occupations will soon be eliminated from the workplace, particularly tasks following well-defined procedures that can easily be performed by sophisticated algorithms, such as machine operators, construction workers, telemarketers, cashiers, credit analysts, loan officers and other clerical jobs.

Critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication – commonly dubbed the 4C’s – are identified by Unesco as vital skills of the 21st century, which are often at odds with the way learning is delivered in Africa today, with its emphasis on memorisation, following orders and exams.

It’s a gap that Milton Chebet, a biology and Physical Education (PE) teacher at Gayaza High School, Uganda, is all too aware of.

“In many schools in Uganda, you could have the computers, yes, but they are locked up in the head teacher’s office with clear instructions – ‘Don’t touch’,” says Chebet. “That defeats the whole purpose of having computers in schools, if teachers think they are so precious that they should be kept out of reach of the students.”

Chebet is a Microsoft Innovative Expert Educator, recognised for his passion for integrating ICT in learning; he has helped his school attain Microsoft Mentor school status in 2013.

Still, simply allowing students to explore their laptops and tablets  – even if teachers themselves are not fully competent in delivering digital material – is one way of future-proofing Africa’s workforce for the knowledge economy, as long as the devices are loaded with relevant, interesting material.

Even without a teacher’s instruction, students quickly figure their way around laptops and tablets; one study from Peru indicated that although laptops in schools did not improve students’ test scores per se, they did improve cognitive skills, such as reasoning, attention and perception – the very skills that are vital in the world of the future.

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