Getting the right blend: the use of the digital in African education

Jens Ischebeck

In many ways, education is about finding the right blend. This is why 'blended learning' – or the mixed use of digital and traditional learning methods - holds such promise for many of education’s toughest challenges, particularly those present in a variety of contexts throughout Africa. For those of you who have not heard of blended learning before, this article will provide a handy guide. Read on to learn about what this innovative educational strategy consists of and how it can best be implemented in sub-Sahara Africa and beyond.

The educational situation in Africa: where we stand now

The educational system in Africa is ripe for reform, both in terms of the physical infrastructure, and the ways in which education is theorized and spoken about.

Africa is full of huge amounts of young and ambitious learners (and potential learners) who are nevertheless facing some powerful barriers to achieving a quality education. The UN estimates that Africa’s 'youthful population', has over 200 million people currently living on the continent who are aged between 18 and 34. But too many of these young people face a lack of jobs and educational opportunities, plus powerful social, economic, and familial pressures that shut out youths from opportunities that should rightfully be theirs.

Another huge problem is the lack of educational infrastructure available, and also the lack of high quality transport infrastructure that would enable learners to reach their school classroom in order to receive lessons in the first place. Africa is home to some of the world's top universities (for instance the University of Cape Town in South Africa and the University of Nairobi), but their excellence is not widespread. Even in wealthier countries like South Africa, schools have been deemed to be lacking the necessary infrastructure to implement the nation's admirable educational policies. The situation is often critical throughout sub-Sahara Africa, particularly in rural or desert areas where children and young people have practically no means of reaching a school in order to participate in conventional classroom teaching on a regular basis.

On the upside, however, Africa is a continent that is highly internet literate. It often surprises my readers when they learn that even in the poorest parts of Africa, 70% of citizens own a mobile phone and that in general, communities in Sub-Sahara Africa are more likely to have an internet connection than to have adequate supplies of food and water. In addition, young Africans are particularly engaged and entrepreneurial when it comes to developing and downloading smartphone apps. Though, when compared to statistics for app downloads in the rest of the world, the app market in Africa remains relatively untapped, as the below infographic illustrates, the future of Africa may lie in apps.

Currently, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya are the biggest app downloaders on the continent. The challenge is to stimulate and develop this trend so that it takes root throughout sub-Sahara Africa.

Blended learning offers the potential to harness Africa’s growing digital literacy in order to overcome the continent’s stubborn education constraints. If implemented correctly, e-learning strategies will help surmount the infrastructure related difficulties described above and provide educational opportunities to Africa's large - and growing - youthful population. Benefits can also allow progress to adult learners who missed out on primary and/ or secondary education in their youths. The crucial thing is to implement massive open online courses (MOOC) and other e-learning strategies correctly, and my experience suggests that blended learning is the best way to do this. Accordingly, let us now turn to an evaluation of blended learning strategies: what they consist of and how they can help Africans to learn.

Blended learning: a working definition

Blended learning means a mixture of classical learning strategies and online education measures. As its name indicates, it is a 'blend' of online and offline learning techniques. One example of blended learning would be a university campus that allows students to stream some of their lectures online from any location that they please, but also requires them to attend weekly seminars on campus. Another blended learning strategy might combine online and offline distance education, whereby students are encouraged to access online resources in order to conduct their research but also allowed to submit essays and assessments and receive feedback by post.

When implementing a blended learning strategy, the important thing is to ensure that the blend is specifically tailored to suit the needs of the individual learners and their environments. Video streamed lectures are less necessary in a university where students all live on campus and transport infrastructure to and from the university is good. However, this type of distance education tool is perfect for learners in very remote areas who would find it impossible to attend the lectures in person.
For example, many primary and secondary schools in the Eastern Cape lack even basic latrine facilities - let alone good quality learning materials (whether printed or digital). In these schools, which can typically have 90 pupils being taught by one single educator, distance education and the admixture of some digital learning facilities could ease the pressure on individual teachers and enable pupils to learn in peace, away from overcrowded classrooms that can actually impede learning.

But which conditions are necessary for blended learning to have the best effect?

For blended learning to have a positive and useful effect on African communities as a bare minimum they will need a curriculum and trained educators to deliver it, as well as a digital learning strategy that is tailored to suit the needs of the individual class, or even single learners. In particular, the digital aspects of a blended educational strategy ought to be geared towards meeting deficiencies in the provision of offline learning at any given establishment (for instance, lack of infrastructure). Digital learning strategies ought to be ambitious, future proofed, forward thinking and designed to give learners the best quality education, no matter what their circumstances.

Why is a blend of online courses and classical educational infrastructure beneficial in Sub Saharan Africa?

Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most important regions when it comes to the rollout of blended educational strategies. This is where the continent's poorest communities are concentrated, where educational infrastructure is often poor or non-existent, and thus where well developed MOOC, e-learning and m-learning strategies can provide the most dramatic benefits and positive changes. Just take a look at this infographic, which shows how the provision of m-learning can have a powerful effect on poor communities and can transform their lives well beyond the classroom:
 

In sum, a blended approach to education is particularly promising for Africa’s most challenging contexts because it can:

  • Make up for poor educational infrastructure
  • Make up for poor transport infrastructure
  • Relieve teachers who are often tasked with educating overcrowded classrooms
  • Provide learners with innovative education from international universities and educators across the globe, that is thus not dependent on their region
  • Empower poorer communities
  • Motivate learners to focus on career and educational goals instead of joining rebel groups or engaging in similar activities
  • Open up the possibility of new and exciting career opportunities for learners, on an international level
  • Enable older citizens who initially missed out on primary, secondary or tertiary education, to gain an education from home
  • Support African entrepreneurship

Find out more today!

Achieving the right blend of digital and traditional, of online and offline learning, will provide a potent solution for learners and educators in Africa. As we have seen, apps are one of the most effective tools available for blended learning and they should be a vital part of any blended educational plan. I look forward to continuing to learn from others leveraging apps and other digital tools for education, and invite CEI’s community of innovators to visit http://www.apps-for-learning.com/ now to find out more about the courses and tools my team is offering!

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Jens Ischebeck is an African edtech specialist and website publisher for www.apps-for-learning.com, a website which presents and compares e-learning and mobile learning providers with a special focus on the African market. Tags are e-learning, m-learning, online courses (MOOC), medical exam preparations (MCAT & USMLE). Follow him on social media accounts: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google and Medium

 

Photo Credits: STARS/Kristian Buus ; Ventures Africa ; Eneza Education ; One

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