What should be the key motivator behind education policy and projects in Africa and around the globe? Should it be innovation and the pursuit of the newest, most revolutionary ideas and technologies to support new modes of teaching and learning? Or should it be sustainability: a focus on the practical, contextual needs of individual learning environments with the aim of delivering stable, long-lasting solutions? Questions like these are often divisive and rarely lead to conclusive answers, but by analysing the arguments on both sides we have, perhaps, the opportunity to benefit from the best of both worlds.
By Alicia Mitchell
In a recent report on mLearning projects and policy in Africa and the Middle East, UNESCO identified a 'predictable trajectory' for initiatives backed by private corporations or donor agencies: 'an initial injection of funds and resources enables the project to be launched in a pilot phase; partnerships are established with additional stakeholders; monitoring and evaluation is occasionally included; project reports are produced, sometimes with recommendations for scaling up; promotional materials are distributed that suggest the pilot was successful; and after the pilot phase ends, resources are usually not available to sustain the project.'
This is a story familiar to many working in the ICT and education sectors, and one that often leaves behind it a nagging doubt: who are the real beneficiaries of projects like these? Are they the students, teachers and local populations that these projects are designed to support, or is it, possibly, the stakeholders, sponsors and donors who benefit from further funding and publicity? A project may well claim to have discovered a game-changing new method of increasing access, encouraging independent learning or redefining learning itself, but without peer-reviewed research and a sensible plan to continue development, how much are these revelations actually worth?
Similar questions recently hit the eLearning headlines as entrepreneur and blogger Donald Clark wrote a scathingly dissenting piece about Sugata Mitra's prize-winning 'Hole in the Wall' project and his theories on self-organised learning, to which Sugata and many of his supporters promptly replied. "There are people with vision, and there are critics juxtaposed with abstract intelligence", said one Mitra-proponent, whilst a rather more sceptical commenter retorted that "a 'solution' for a few isolated spots is not an answer to the needs of millions".
Doubts about the true worth of innovation are also frequently provoked by suspicions that the latest 'new thing' is actually just an old idea in new clothes. Writing in the eLearning Africa 2013 Report, to be launched at eLearning Africa this May, Neil Butcher expresses his concern over the hype generated by MOOCs and OER, suggesting that they have so far been used to merely "reproduce content-heavy, top-down models of education that were developed hundreds of years ago to meet the needs of societies in the aftermath of the industrial revolution". Are such dressed-up concepts truly worth the amount of time, money and words spent on them?
On the other side of the discussion, there are equally valid questions that undermine the strong arguments in favour of prioritising sustainability over innovation. With 38 per cent of African adults unable to read and write, the traditional education systems that were in place when these people were of school age clearly did not work, either as a result of poor quality, lack of equitable access, or both. Without innovation, how can we hope to reach the millions that are being let down by current education structures?
Denigrating innovation because it does not always deliver perfect results might well be risky behaviour that misses the point. Innovation is inherently experimental. So perhaps periodic failure is necessary and inevitable and it should not be avoided in favour of tried and tested methods, especially when those methods consistently fail to make the grade.
Dr Harold Elletson, who will co-chair this year's eLearning Africa Debate on sustainability alongside the Namibian Deputy Minister of Education, Silvia Makgone, sets out the conflicting stances on the matter clearly: "Some people think that the focus on innovation and technology has just persuaded governments and consumers to invest in equipment that soon becomes redundant. They say that the priority should be to support projects that are sustainable. Other people argue that innovation is vital to Africa's competitiveness and future economic growth. They say that it should be at the heart of the education system."
Talking to the eLearning Africa news team, Dr Elletson told us to expect a "bare knuckle fight" when Donald Clark takes to the stage with ICT and eLearning expert Maggy Beukes-Amiss at this year's Debate, to go head to head with the Senior Researcher of the Meraka Institute, Adele Botha, and Angelo Gitonga of the ICT for Education Unit of Kenya's Ministry for Education.
To find out more about the persuasive arguments on both sides, don't miss the eLearning Africa Debate. The motion debate will be "This house believes that sustainability is more important than innovation for education in Africa" and will take place at 17:45 on Friday 31st May as the closing session of eLearning Africa 2013.