[Column] Jens Ischebeck: ELearning in Africa - what you need to know about it
As e-learning becomes more widely adopted in Africa through the increasing availability of MOOC (massive open online course education technology) and the latest educational apps, self-improvement and distance education courses which once seemed infeasible are now becoming increasingly available. A number of regional e-learning providers use education technology to deliver online courses throughout the region, with a wide offering of course titles to students, teaching staff and anyone who has an interest in learning.
In this article, we review the main six regional e-learning providers in the area, along with their relative strengths and weaknesses. We also present an overview of how the various online learning platforms function and how established each provider is.
E-learning is one of the relatively new applications which use the new internet and mobile phone based technologies to improve the access to some basic needs or skills.
Socio-demographic trends and e-learning
In an expanding education and e-learning market that looks set to become a key baseline for future development and prosperity throughout the African continent, students of all ages and throughout the region are noticing that education is a route to increased personal and professional success.
African demographics mean that the majority of the continent’s population is relatively young. Coupled with this, the KINGs countries (this term refers to Kenya, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Ghana) are recognised as the most tech-savvy African countries in this part of the world. Smartphone market penetration is considerable, made possible by good regional 3G network coverage.
Acting in combination, these factors have led to the development of bespoke online courses and the increase in massive open online course popularity, especially when delivered through an online college using educational apps or Web-based distance education.
Additionally, recent years have seen youth education become a high priority. Current Rwandan president Paul Kagame has apportioned approximately 17 percent of the country’s national annual budget to the educational sector, for instance. Free state education has improved considerably, while the tertiary education sector has also expanded. The growth figures are quite startling; there were twenty-nine universities in 2010, compared to only one university just sixteen years earlier.
Tertiary gross enrolment ratio (the percentage of youngsters starting a university education) almost doubled between 2008 and 2011 to some 7 percent, although it has to be remembered that this level is still relatively low. From 2009, English has been the preferred language of instruction in state schools (from primary grade 4 upwards), thus making MOOC and educational apps written in that language much more easily accessible to a wider proportion of the younger population.
In summary, together with South Africa as the continent’s leading economy, educational and MOOC prospects are significant throughout the region. As more and more companies are founded locally, online university and college distance education courses offer the best way to meet local worker and professional training requirements.
Located in Nairobi, Kenya, Eneza was founded in 2011 as a group e-learning venture set up by business partners Toni Maraviglia, Chris Asego and Kago Kagichiri. At the time of its initial launch, the online university type service was known as M-Prep and used simple SMS messaging. Now available in English and also as a smartphone app or via a Web interface, Eneza has become the most widely used mobile education platform in Africa to provide local elearning content.
Eneza Education aims to educate fifty million students in rural Africa by leveraging low-cost mobile technology to deliver online courses. Promotional literature describes the company as a virtual tutor and teaching assistant that delivers high-quality educational content to students, along with relevant data, tips and resources for teachers. Market penetration also includes over 800,000 offline users in more than 8,000 schools in Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana.
Students and teachers access interactive distance education courses and assessments via basic phones; they also have the option to interact directly, in real time. Products available include Shupavu (an SMS message text based service), Mwalimoo (the Web-based interface) and an Android elearning application.
Shupavu is available in Kenya on the Safaricom network. Students can view lessons, see a list of the top ten e-learning students, search Wikipedia and even chat with a live teacher, if they wish. For teachers, refresher e-learning courses are available in addition to helpful tips and suggestions on effective classroom management.
Mwalimoo is similar to Shupavu but also offers an editable profile as well as richer content. Additional features include a teacher question facility, group discussions and performance tracking. Any device with an Internet connection can be used to access the Mwalimoo e-learning system.
Eneza Education has partnerships with multinational and regional companies such as Tigo, Wings for Life Ghana and Unilever. Students receive a certificate of completion at the end of their online courses.
Founded in May 2015, Chalkboard is based in Ghana and a relative newcomer to the distance education and elearning market. The online college was founded by Adrien Bouillot and Miora Randriambeloma who, according to published information, have now recruited a young international team including members who have grown up in Madagascar, Togo and France. Company literature mentions that the Chalkboard team cares about education – some or all of the team members’ parents are, apparently, teachers or professors in African universities.
This provider’s online learning motto is better access to training and education for communities everywhere. Online courses use educational technology to make distance learning simpler, thereby breaking down physical and financial barriers to knowledge and education.
The remote learning app is available in English and notably, Chalkboard education technology permits the company's online courses to be studied on a wide range of handsets - including dated mobile telephones, as well as the latest type of smartphones. This will probably widen the possible appeal of this provider, supporting growth in the cost-conscious student base.
The application functions using a combination of SMS (Short Messaging Service) and USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) messaging protocols. USSD is a system that is available globally for communication between mobile phones and application programs. Although it transfers data in a similar way to SMS messages, USSD transactions differ in that they are valid only for a limited period during the communication session - in other words, they are not sent and stored for days on the recipient handset. This type of implementation offers the advantage that once the app has been downloaded, it works without an Internet connection. Additionally, costs for online students are significantly reduced.
On another positive note, Chalkboard provides successful students with a certified degree from a real university.
After its earliest beginnings over a decade ago, the modern version of eCampus was brought online more recently in December 2015. The service operates in Ghana under the eye of its founder, Cecil S. Nutakor. Available as an app in English or French, eCampus focuses its online learning education technology on delivering on-demand preparation for examinations and tests, via a simple user-friendly interface where the student can progress at his or her own pace.
Not confining itself to standard online teaching, this progressive elearning and distance education system also provides free access to interactive examinable academic content including past examination questions, instructive podcasts, videos, e-books, learning games and publications from various examination councils across Africa. Interestingly, eCampus also comes with social networking options that allow teachers and students who are registered on its online courses to interact and compare test scores.
With this comprehensive offering in mind, eCampus sees itself as well positioned to address the problems of falling examination pass rates and inadequate test preparation, perhaps partially a consequence of previously limited student access to educational materials.
Additionally, conventional educational systems and traditional classroom environments are thought to have suffered high dropout rates due to lack of motivation, too many students for too few teachers, or in many cases a mixture of these or other negative factors. In an effort to address these issues directly, eCampus aims to bring about increased student retention and improved test scores.
A relatively new service, Kotivu is based in Lagos, Nigeria. It launched in May 2016 and aims to provide an innovative, interactive and cost-effective educational experience. Courses are available online; there is currently no app-based service. Students include private individuals, business people, public organisations, universities and government agencies throughout Nigeria and West Africa.
The company reports a balanced portfolio of clients from a variety of industry sectors. As well as making training affordable, the service is intended to be easily accessible to employees at their place of work, thereby minimising person-hour loss.
Under its founder Stephen Ojji, Kotivu describes itself as a social impact educational software firm with three business areas: Kotivu Assess, Kotivu Recruit and Kotivu Learn.
Rethink Education's digital platform uses the communication medium preferred by many students - mobile chat - to deliver short, interactive lessons that are fun and effective. Located in Cape Town, South Africa and founded by Douglas Hoernle, the service is delivered in English via mobile phones.
The application boasts the equivalent content of up to ten science and mathematics (grade 8 to 12 level) textbooks. Much or all of the course content is in upper case, though the company states that its e-learning content is expanding and improving all the time.
Teachers’ licenses and corporate customised training apps are also available within the Rethink offering. Additionally, several companies have sponsored differing numbers of user licenses; the student is asked to pay for the application and course only when there are no more sponsored licenses remaining.
In the details published about its online courses and elearning services, Rethink Education mentions that it uses technology to enhance the teaching and learning experience and so fulfil modern high school educational expectations. The company focuses on interactive and chat-based community platforms such as Mxit, WhatsApp, I3BM, Facebook and Twitter instead of traditional software or electronic textbooks or computer applications such as MS Excel or Word. Educational content is presented in smaller bite-size bits, as the company phrases it.
Elearning in this way can be aligned to support and coincide with the South African school curriculum to cover and support important core curriculum subjects, whether inside or outside the classroom.
The Via Afrika Digital Education Academy is located in South Africa, where it works in partnership with the Department of Basic Education and, to its credit, is associated with the South African Council of Educators (SACE).
The target group is teachers, for whom thirty-six training sessions are available in four online courses at levels ranging from beginner to advanced.
Successful completion of each of the distance education courses leads to the award of an elearning qualification certificate that is endorsed by SACE, in addition to five Professional Development (PD) points per two-hour session. Apart from the certificate issued by the online college, successful students also receive a prestigious digital badge for inclusion in their personal online profile to show development in digital knowledge and skills.
Teachers are required to engage in three types of SACE-endorsed PD activities or programmes in order to achieve a minimum of 150 PD points during a three-year period.