30 May 2013

Africa: Learning Works Better When It's Done Together


Windhoek — Making a video is a learning experience, and it doesn't have to end up online. If you leave a group of children alone with a device that's connected to the Internet, they can teach themselves anything.

After my first day at the eLearning Africa in Windhoek, Namibia, this is what is spinning around in my head.

The first thought may seem obvious to some of you who aren't addicted to Youtube, and don't spend about 16 hours a day trawling the Internet.

Youtube is where I hear/see new music for the first time, watch TV shows we don't get on free South African TV, catch up on news from across Africa and learn how to twist and handle my natural hair.

So an eLearning conference clearly meant that all learning takes place online, right?

Eric Hamilton and Ateng' Ogwel burst that online-only bubble. Hamilton and Ogwel presented one of the most popular pre-conference activities - a hands-on workshop on creating digital video, with which they hoped to spark "a new path in creativity in education".

Hamilton, a faculty member and mathematics professor at Pepperdine University in the U.S., and Ogwel, a maths lecturer at the Centre for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education in Africa,  are funded by the U.S. Science Foundation to do research into how the creation of media affects teachers and students. They've been testing their particular model of offering teachers and students different ways to express what they know about science and mathematics. One of those ways is making videos.

"Look at the rise of Youtube. People are using video as an instructional tool all the time. There's something very alluring about what you can do with video as opposed to a live setting. And it's not only from watching the video that students learning, but also from the process of making it," Hamilton said.

Ogwel and Hamilton see the videos remaining local, and to support this they are not ruling out the use of unconnected mobile devices, which "can be passed around the classroom or community".

And it's also about the feedback that you get when your video is presented to your peers, says Ogwel: "Whatever you make as an individual is not about you as an individual, but the critique you get as a group, so then ultimately you have some coherent understanding of the subject. There's another component to it, and that is ownership, which is very critical - we are not as much encouraging people just to get content from Youtube or from other media, we want them to have ownership so they can also be creators.

"If you are in Namibia or in South Africa, will video made in Zulu be more appealing? context, ownership and community is also an essential of this work we're doing."

One of Hamilton's statements is the perfect segue to the opening plenary, where Namibian Prime Minister Hein Geingob charmed the audience with his sense of humour.

"Self-explanation is one of the most powerful dynamics there is in learning."

It's clearly why the children in Professor Sugata Mitra's famous hole-in-the-wall experiment were so successful in their learning - they were showing one another how to use the computer Mitra decided to place a computer with an Internet connection in a wall on a street in India.

Mitra's vision has grown from the hole-in-the-wall to Mitra is the winner of the 2013 TED Prize (TED is a non-profit devoted to ideas worth spreading and started out as a conference bringing people working in Technology, Entertainment and Design) for his wish to Build a School in the Cloud, where children can explore and learn from one another on their own - and teach one another - using resources from the worldwide cloud.

"In nine months, a group of children left alone with a computer in any language will reach the same standard as an office secretary in the UK," Mitra said during his address, which also explained how he advertised for UK grannies to watch over classrooms thousands of kilometres away.They are only expected to offer encouragement to the children, who are sometimes on the other side of the world and read to them via Skype.

The idea of group work and collaboration to move the continent forward was further highlighted when Mac-Jordan Degadjor, award-winning blogger with Ghana Blogging, stepped up during the plenary. He was replacing Mark Kaigwa from Afrinnovator in Kenya, but felt that there were "synergies" between the two of them. His talk quoting World Bank statistics on growth in Africa, the spread of innovation hubs on the continent and how "Africans must write their own stories".

"Why should we allow journalists from other countries to come stay in fancy hotels and write our stories?" he asked to much laughter. Degadjor also emphasised working together, particularly in developing apps for countries on the continent.

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