Up until now, the conversation around education in Africa has revolved around improving the standard of education. But as digital transformation continues to sweep across the globe, there's a unique window of opportunity to fast-forward to a completely revolutionised era of education.
Granted, most countries across the region are making significant strides when it comes to the number of students enrolled in schools. Nevertheless, there is work to be done to elevate the general level of education. Studies show the average student in emerging countries, many of which are found across Africa, performs worse than 95 percent of the students in first-world countries.
There's huge opportunity, however, for technology to help alleviate many of these challenges. With affordable and easy to manage technology that transforms classroom time, educators can focus on delivering student-centered learning experiences that help enable better learning outcomes.
Therefore, a significant part of Microsoft's mission is to make education technology as accessible as possible. In fact, research shows that in many cases, curriculums favour an approach to education based on rote learning, which means students are not always exposed to 21st century skills, such as working in teams, problem solving and innovation.
Skill sets such as these are only going to become more important as automation begins to replace lower-skill jobs. A recent Microsoft study conducted in collaboration with McKinsey & Company's Education Practice shows that by 2030, the fastest growing occupations will require higher-level cognitive skills in areas such as collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. Already as many as 30 to 40 percent of jobs in growth industries require soft skills.
Though the need for social-emotional skills is clear, teachers don't always feel adequately equipped to teach these skills. And to build crucial cognitive, social and emotional skills, educators need training, technologies and time.
Yet for many educators across Africa, these resources are often in short supply and barriers to progress, including outdated technology and lack of time and basic resources, still need to be overcome.
Technology can play a critical role in helping to overcome these challenges. In particular, AI, has significant potential to increase the efficiency of education, whether by freeing up educators' time or helping them develop a more student-centred approach to learning.
Another recent study by Microsoft indicated that technology can free up as much as 30 percent of teachers' time, making it easier for them to respond to individual and group needs. The same study shows students who receive personalised instruction perform better than 98 percent of traditionally taught students.
Luckily and unknown to many, AI-enabled tools are far more easily accessible than educators might realise. Those found in Microsoft Office 365, for example, are available in programmes such as Word, OneNote and PowerPoint, meaning they are free and easy to use.
In addition to lack of time and resources, educators in Africa are also faced with the challenge of teaching very diverse groups of students. AI, however, can help educators empower students with different backgrounds and abilities. In fact, many of the tools and features offered in Microsoft Office 365 harness the power of AI to improve reading and writing for learners regardless of their age or ability.
Immersive Reader, for example, helps students with learning differences such as Dyslexia build reading confidence. Students can use features like Line Focus, which reduces visual crowding and highlights text to improve readability.
On the more sophisticated end of the spectrum, AI can provide educators with greater insight as to how students are progressing so they can adjust their approach, supporting students' individual needs. Using tools such as Azure's Machine Learning software, they can analyse student data and predict their probability of passing. This then allows educators to proactively address learning challenges before they become a problem.
Beyond schooling, AI has a valuable role to play throughout the education process as is evidenced by its ability to streamline higher learning functions such as complex research. Together with predictive models, AI can analyse incredible volumes of real-time information, identify patterns and make recommendations accordingly.
The technology is also being used to streamline and alleviate administrative functions in Universities. Taibah University in Saudi Arabia, for example, has developed a ChatBot problem-solver to help students design their curriculums. The ChatBot is sophisticated enough to respond to a variety of students' questions intelligently, alleviating the University Admin Team's workload.
Even simple AI-enabled features like those found in Office 365 can help tertiary-level students with their academic pursuits. PowerPoint Editor, for example, draws on machine learning and natural language processing, enabling students to proof-read their content more effectively. The tool even provides helpful suggestions as to how students should refine their style of writing.
Though most countries in the Middle East and Africa are still in the early phase of education technology adoption, governments across the region are turning their attention towards technology to help close education gaps.
This is a promising sign the region is moving in the right direction as incorporating technology in today's classrooms can help catapult the region's education sector into the digital era. And ultimately, empowering young people to become successful, capable, and active contributors to the digital economy will create prosperity for the entire region.
By Michael Rasugu