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New Technologies: An Opportunity For Africa

New Technologies: An Opportunity For Africa
  • PublishedDecember 2, 2011

Until just a few years ago the world thought that computers, the internet and new information and communication technologies in general were only for amusement; nothing to do with conventional learning. Mankind has progressed since then and has learnt to tame the machine and to use it wisely as a tool for sharing and spreading knowledge. The question of providing quality education to all children by using, among other things, new technologies, was one of the critical issues under discussion at the WISE summit in Doha last month. New African’s  Dounia Ben Mohamed was there and reports on how new technologies represent an opportunity for Africa.

In Africa one child in two does not finish their schooling. The figures are even worse for girls: one in four. How do we ensure the continent’s future without its future elite having access to quality education? This is the major challenge for African leaders in view of the fact that the majority of the continent’s population is young.

And it is not enough to simply build schools. Teachers have to be trained, education has to be relevant and accessible, the infrastructure needed to enable children to attend school needs to be put in place: roads, school buses, and much more. But alas! Most of this is cruelly lacking in Africa today.

Some ideas have emerged over the past few years to help address such situations; for example, if the child cannot go to school, then the school must go to the child. This is possible thanks to new technologies, among other things. In 2005, for example, Bruktawit Tigabu, a teacher by training, set up the first educational television programme for pre school age children in Ethiopia – Tsehai. “In Ethiopia there are no nursery schools. There is no pre school age education, so the children come to primary school completely unprepared,” explains Tigabu, who was invited to WISE 2011. Broadcast on national television, Tsehai very quickly became a huge success. More than 5 million young television viewers watch the programme, a success that has allowed Bruktawit Tigabu to develop other educational television programmes for other age groups, including Tsehai Fidel School, which helps to improve the methodology for teaching reading and writing in a phonetic, fun and interactive way, based on teaching materials. Her NGO, Whiz Kids Workshop, has received a number of prizes for its work, including the 2010 WISE award. Her programmes are shown beyond Ethiopia’s borders in Somalia and in Sudan. Even in countries where schools are hard to find there is always a television set somewhere nearby.

There are many other such innovations in Africa and the arrival of ICTs, albeit at a slower pace, is revolutionising the lives of many people across the continent. For example, in rural areas of Togo farmers can instantly find out about prices on the market in Lomé by using their mobile phones. In Accra, manufacturers who previously couldn’t manage to get a dialling tone on their landline can now make a telephone call immediately by using internet telephone services. In Niger, the Bankilare community information centre downloads audio programmes from the African educational channel and broadcasts them on local radio, according to an article published by the UN’s Africa Renewal report.

But such successes are hampered due to a number of drawbacks including a lack of availability of information and ICTs, prohibitive costs of and access to computers, and connectivity problems due to Africa’s underdeveloped telecommunication infrastructures. And good intentions by African governments every now and again, do not always yield the intended results and actions. Even where there is political will, many countries have no long-term strategies for the development and usage of ICTs.

In addition, even where an ICT has taken positive root, and in spite of the progress being made to reduce the “digital divide”, not many people may have access to the technology. Apart from the cost issues, here again, it’s all about political willingness on both the part of governments and the private sector, which is well represented in Africa, both in local and international form.

“Five or ten years ago technology was considered to be a distraction that interfered with traditional learning. But today we tend to think of technology more as an opportunity. Pupils need to stop memorising things and start to learn how to find things out for themselves”, was the recommendation made by Martin F. De Angelis, Chairman of Voices of the Americas, during the 2011 World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE).

Over the past ten years resolutions have been adopted with the intention of speeding up the development of ICTs on the continent. For example, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) puts ICTs in the top eight priority sectors. An e-Africa commission has been set up by African leaders to achieve the objectives set by NEPAD in terms of ICTs. It is a commission chaired by Alpha Oumar Konaré, former president of Mali, who has proposed a “debt for connectivity” approach, whereby rich countries would commit every year to granting a rebate of at least 1% of the total debt of each African country and to placing the sums involved in a shared fund to finance ICTs.

Indeed, interesting initiatives already exist in Africa. A good example is that of the “Virtual Universities” which are popping up in some countries. In South Africa a group of academics has created the first Sotho to English online dictionary in order to contribute to the development and preservation of the country’s 11th official language, which many believe is being neglected and dying out.

Finding a sensible way of combining new technologies with the challenge of universal literacy is also an objective of Cheikh Modibo Diarra, Chairman of Microsoft for the Africa and Middle East Region (see interview opposite), who says:

“We know that computers are an extraordinary educational tool and we want our children to learn, but many schools do not have the means to afford sophisticated laboratories. So simulated laboratories need to be created. If we manage to produce a computer model for something then a child can view it, experiment with it, touch it and learn, but also understand, concepts.

“We have to use these technologies so that they have a multiplying effect, so that all of this knowledge becomes interconnected. We are no longer Renaissance men, who learned a little about everything. New technologies today are tools that can connect us, and help us to find out more about things…In many fields, and particularly the sciences, information technology needs to be exploited to the full by using educational concepts. We need to find the connections between several disciplines and I believe that it is technology that will enable us to gain deeper understanding of those concepts. So, we must exploit technology to link together all the knowledge that we have in different disciplines. Learning will then become a pleasure, because it will take less effort,” he adds.

To do this Dr Cheick Diarra advocates that African governments should establish public–private partnerships: “Africa still faces a certain number of major challenges, particularly with education, infrastructure and access to technology. These challenges can be met over time thanks to the participation of the private sector and major companies such as Microsoft, so that a vision can be established that would strengthen the continent by means of education and finding the means to bridge the digital divide.”

Microsoft, under his leadership, has signed an agreement with at least 15 African governments under the Partners in Learning (PiL) programme, which aims to reach more than 500,000 learners over the next two years. Its role will consist of promoting relationships between governments and key players across the continent for the purpose of understanding the potential and the current state of development of the new information technologies.

Written By
New African

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