19 July 2013

Africa: Learning On the Go - the Future of African Education?


A farmer learns about udder infections on an MP3 player. A teacher revises facts on her mobile phone. A jobseeker trains online. Is this the future of African education?

The Millennium Development Goals have set brave targets for universal schooling - which most of Africa's education systems are failing to meet. Some pace-setter nations heading for middle-income status (such as Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda and Ethiopia) will reach full school attendance thanks to a ruthless focus on Primary enrolment.

But at the same time, half of Africa's children will not receive full formal schooling. Building, training, equipping, and adequately running the necessary number of schools requires a capacity that most governments do not have.

And so, when most of the continents' young people reach the age to work, they will be in need of training. That's bad news for both employers seeking skilled workers, and for young Africans looking to get jobs. But before we get too gloomy, are there any solutions?

Vocation, vocation, vocation

Formal vocational training in low income economies, where it has been rigorously evaluated, seems to have a small benefit at best, and often none. A large study in China carried out by Stanford University, for example, failed to show that teaching vocational subjects delivered better outcomes than general education.

A study in Colombia meanwhile found that work-training benefited women in terms of better access to jobs, but had no discernible effect on employment or earnings for men.

There aren't any robust data for African settings at the moment, but a longitudinal study in Kenya examining how young people consume training is underway.

Aside from uncertainty about its usefulness, formal vocational training is costly. I am proud to be sponsoring an IT course fee for one young man in The Gambia, but his year's training is three times a Gambian's average income. Who in The Gambia can afford to train themselves with costs like that?

However, when it comes to up-skilling workers in African economies, there are other contenders to formal vocational training which are quicker and cheaper: mobile phones, and 'just-in-time' training at the point of need.

Mobile devices are hotly debated as a possible transformation engine on the African learning scene. Eneza Education, based in Nairobi, is a start-up that gives quizzes to school children on their parents' phones. The benefits of mixing the phone platform with learning are so clear that the high demand allows Eneza to operate at a profit.

But according to John Traxler, Professor of Mobile Learning at the University of Wolverhampton, there's a degree of over-optimism about the power of mobile technology to transform education in Africa.

Traxler warns that commercial suppliers will not deliver education to the bottom billion. "There will still be parts of the curriculum or parts of the population left uncovered", he says. It might in theory be government's responsibility to plug those gaps, but the more realistic place to look for solutions is "at the spot where market and education might just overlap".

Traxler foresees that formal school systems funded by government will have diminishing power to raise educational standards.

However, there is an alternative: "working with social entrepreneurs, those individuals embedded within their own communities, prepared to blend making a profit and delivering a social service, perhaps analogous to community teachers in rural schools in Kenya or bare-foot doctors in China".

In most of Africa, this is going to be what I call a 'Just in Time' model of learning. This means: work-related information at the point of need, assuming you didn't get the basics at school. The vector for delivering it is often going to be ICT, but it could be a training session of any kind.

Informal learning across the continent

Here are some stories culled from work in African training settings, which give a flavour of what is emerging. These are all projects in action on African soil today:

A Zimbabwean farmer in a remote village spots udder infections in her cattle. The agricultural extension workers can't visit as it's the rainy season. But a village leader holds a set of recordings on an MP3 player describing veterinary treatments in her local language. Headphones on: learning underway.

A jobseeker in Lagos visits the top Nigerian jobsite www.jobberman.com, looking for one of its 2,500 new weekly postings. Its "Insider" section offers "advice your momma didn't give you" including workplace conduct and effectiveness tips. The testing and practicing area trains him or her in working skills.

A Primary School teacher in Madagascar (where almost half of teachers have had no formal training) gets quizzes and facts on her mobile phone that sharpen up her classroom skills. And for every right score, she gains a little bit of precious phone credit for her mobile.

Burkina Faso's civil engineering and public service college launches a "bush taxi" training service, offering sanitation workers, for example, a low cost option to top-up on skills as they need them, one course at a time. It complements a full year-long course option.

All these just-in-time training examples represent a useful injection of learning to people who are well placed to improve their performance as a result of it. No-one is enrolled in any programme or visits a college or school. These projects may have backers from the NGO and global communities, but people themselves are also spontaneously investing their own resources in this kind of learning.

The best option going

Purists may abhor an approach which sees some of the world's least schooled people offered a short term stop-gap kind of education in a drip-feed approach. But these are also trends we see around the world.

UNESCO observed in a white paper on the change in demand for education and skills after 2015, that formal classroom learning in early life, would increasingly be replaced by informal learning throughout our lives. According to UNESCO, the division between work and learning and just living is going to blur. That is what's happening in many of the more effective African implementations of informal learning.

One final alternative way to side-step the shortcomings of formal schooling worthy of a quick note here emerged this year from Jamaican researchers who followed a cohort of extremely disadvantaged children over 20 years. Half of these Jamaican children had received extra boosts of support, stimulation and play from their mothers up to the age of two.

The other half got no interventions. These children are now adults, and those who had quality maternal support up to age two now have 42% higher earnings than those who got no interventions. Astonishingly, the most disadvantaged kids, when fully supported as toddlers, outperformed even a group of youngsters from well-off settings.

An early years upbringing of rich psycho-social stimulation from mothers, with toys, games, playtime, and conversation could be a potentially wonderful alternative to relying on formal schooling.

But if such interventions are not feasible for most, and if formal schooling continues to remain elusive for millions of African children, we can expect that when they reach the age to work, many of them will simply get out their phones to get the advice they need. For the moment, it seems to be the best option going.

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