[Column] Jens Ischebeck: Achieving blended learning in Africa
More and more learners are turning to online courses that enable them to participate in primary, secondary and tertiary education over the web and at a distance from campus. Debates rage over how best to implement e-learning, particularly in regions such as Sub-Sahara Africa which are ripe for educational reform.
In this article, I explain how blended learning works and why it is the ideal Mittel for the African continent. Finally, I formulate some effective strategies for rolling out these types of distance education schemes in Africa.
This article will be of interest to anyone who wishes to learn more about the latest developments in edtech, and it is relevant both to teachers and lecturers and to learners themselves, as well as being of value to anyone running or wishing to set up an edtech company in Africa.
The educational situation in Africa: where we stand now
I contend that the educational system in Africa is ripe for reform, both in terms of the physical infrastructure by means of which educational content is delivered and in terms of the ways in which education is theorised and spoken about.
The main reason for the urgent need for educational reform in Africa is that the continent is full of a huge amount of young and ambitious learners (and potential learners) who are nevertheless facing some powerful barriers to achieving a traditional education. The UN has estimated that Africa has a very 'youthful population', with over 200 million people currently living on the continent who are aged between 18 and 34.
As the UN highlights in this study, this immense youthful population could be a source of great opportunity: these young learners could become the doctors, scientists, writers, Kamera specialists and engineers of the future. However, the UN notes, the continent's youthful population is being allowed to stagnate as a lack of jobs and educational opportunities, as well as a pressure to give up educational goals in order to feed or care for family members, are forcing younger people to lose the opportunities that should rightfully be theirs.
The problem is particularly acute in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where huge swathes of youths are joining rebel groups as they lack the educational and career related opportunities that might motivate them to study or take up a trade.
Another huge problem is the lack of educational infrastructure available, and also the lack of high quality transport infrastructure that would enable learners to reach their school classroom in order to receive lessons in the first place. Though Africa is home to some of the world's top universities (for instance the University of Cape Town in South Africa and the University of Nairobi), however in some of the continent's nations (such as Niger) there is just a single university - or no tertiary education provided at all.
Even in the wealthier country of South Africa, schools have been deemed to be lacking the necessary infrastructure to implement the nation's admirable educational policies. The situation is worse in Sub-Sahara Africa, particularly in rural or desert areas where children and young people have practically no means of reaching a school in order to participate in conventional classroom teaching on a regular basis.
On the upside, however, Africa is a continent that is highly internet literate. It often surprises my readers when they learn that even in the poorest parts of Africa, 70% of citizens own a mobile phone and that in general, communities in Sub-Sahara Africa are more likely to have an internet connection than to have adequate supplies of food and water. In addition, young Africans are particularly engaged and entrepreneurial when it comes to developing and downloading smartphone apps. Though, when compared to statistics for app downloads in the rest of the world, the app market in Africa remains relatively untapped.
Currently, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya are the biggest app downloaders on the continent. The challenge is to stimulate and develop this trend so that it also takes root in Sub-Sahara Africa.
All of this data on the current situation in Africa indicates that online learning (embracing everything from MOOC to m-learning based around smartphone apps, and from e-learning conducted via videostreamed lectures to other types of online courses) is the way forward for Africa. If implemented correctly, e-learning strategies could surmount all of the infrastructure related difficulties described above and provide educational opportunities to Africa's large - and growing - youthful population, as well as to adult learners who missed out on primary and/ or secondary education in their youths. The crucial thing is to implement MOOC and other e-learning strategies correctly, and my research suggests that blended learning is the best way to do this. Accordingly, let us now turn to an evaluation of blended learning strategies: what they consist of and how they can help Africans to learn.
Blended learning: a working definition
Blended learning means a mixture of classical learning strategies and online education measures. As its name indicates, it is a 'blend' of online and offline learning techniques. One example of blended learning would be a university campus that allows students to stream some of their lectures online from any location that they please, but also requires them to attend weekly seminars on campus. Another blended learning strategy might combine online and offline distance education, whereby students are encouraged to access online resources in order to conduct their research but also allowed to submit essays and assessments and receive feedback by post. These are just two examples of the ways in which different educational methods can be blended with each other. When implementing a blended learning strategy, the important thing is to ensure that the blend is specifically tailored to suit the needs of the individual learners and their environments. Video streamed lectures are less necessary in a university where students all live on campus and transport infrastructure to and from the university is good - in fact, providing lectures that can be accessed online might have the effect of demotivating such students and depriving them of access to a readily available embodied classroom experience. However, this type of distance education tool is perfect for learners in very remote areas who would find it impossible to attend the lectures in person.
What are the current conditions like in educational institutions in African countries?
Conditions in schools and universities vary widely from country to country. In Nairobi University, for instance, students can partake of numerous offline and online facilities, including a good quality ICT architecture that is available 24/7, sports halls, dedicated examination centres and a health centre. Here, edtech would be expected to build on and develop (as well as to transform) an existing flourishing set of already blended learning facilities. By contrast, primary and secondary schools in the Eastern Cape lack even basic latrine facilities - let alone good quality learning materials (whether printed or digital). In these schools, which can typically have 90 pupils being taught by one single educator, distance education and the admixture of some digital learning facilities would ease the pressure on individual teachers and enable pupils to learn in peace, away from overcrowded classrooms that can actually impede learning.
Which conditions are necessary for blended learning to have the best effect?
The answer to this question follows intuitively from the discussion above. For blended learning to have a positive and useful effect on African communities as a bare minimum they will need a curriculum and trained educators to deliver it, as well as a digital learning strategy that is tailored to suit the needs of the individual class or even single learners. In particular, the digital aspects of a blended educational strategy ought to be geared towards meeting any deficiencies in the provision of offline learning at any given establishment (for instance, lack of infrastructure). Digital learning strategies ought to be ambitious, future proofed, forward thinking and designed to give learners the best quality education, no matter what their circumstances.
A summary: why is a blend of online courses and classical educational infrastructure beneficial in Sub Saharan Africa?
Sub Saharan Africa is one of the most important regions when it comes to the rollout of blended educational strategies. This is where the continent's poorest communities are concentrated, where educational infrastructure is often poor in quality or non existent, and thus where well developed MOOC, e-learning and m-learning strategies can be expected to provide the most dramatic benefits and positive changes. Just take a look at this infographic, which shows how the provision of m-learning can have a powerful effect on poor communities and can transform their lives well beyond the classroom.
In sum, a blended approach to education will vastly benefit this poorer region of Africa because it will:
• Make up for poor educational infrastructure
• Make up for poor transport infrastructure
• Relieve teachers who are often tasked with educating overcrowded classrooms
• Provide learners with innovative education from international universities and educators across the globe, that is thus not dependent on their region
• Empower poorer communities
• Motivate learners to focus on career and educational goals instead of joining rebel groups or engaging in similar activities
• Open up the possibility of new and exciting career opportunities for learners, on an international level
• Enable older citizens who initially missed out on primary, secondary or tertiary education, to gain an education from home
• Support African entrepreneurship
Achieving the right blend of digital and traditional, of online and offline learning, will provide a potent solution for learners and educators in Africa. As we have seen, apps are one of the most effective tools available for blended learning and they should be a vital part of any blended educational plan. You can find out more here.
Jens Ischebeck is an e-learning and online courses specialist.