Earlier this year, over 1700 participants from over 90 countries attended eLearning Africa (previous blog post here) to share lessons and make contacts at what has evolved into perhaps the continent's premier annual knowledge sharing event related to the use of ICTs in education. Not surprisingly, given that the event took place in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania led the way in terms of attendance by its nationals, followed by its East African neighbors, with South Africa and Nigeria not too far behind.
One nationality was largely noticeable through its absence: the Chinese. Why do I mention this? Outside the conference, signs of growing cooperation between Tanzania and China (and India, whose Prime Minister was in Dar the same week on a state visit) were hard to miss, and indeed, the increasing 'presence' of China across Africa is undeniable, and the topic of much reporting, scholarly interest and discussion, including at the World Bank. Looking around the conference itself, this cooperation wasn't immediately in evidence related to international cooperation around the use of educational technologies. Participating in and listening to many conversations at the event, however, one got a bit of a different story related to potential cooperation going forward between China and a number of African countries on ICT/education issues.
While comparatively few representatives from Chinese firms and organizations participated at eLA, after engaging in a few dozen informal discussions with many MOE staff, vendors and consultants, it is clear that Chinese support for the purchase of ICT infrastructure for schools will most likely increase greatly in the coming years. Scattered existing examples of small cooperation were cited by many people as a harbinger of things to come. Almost every ministry of education official with whom I spoke mentioned that they had contact of some sort with Chinese officials or partners around the use of computers in schools, and expected this to increase in the near term (many remarked on how this contrasted with their dialogue, or lack thereof, with most 'traditional' donors on this topic).
Why is this potentially important? The potential for 'South-South' knowledge exchange, something increasingly championed at the World Bank, is pretty clear. At a speech last year in China talking about China's achievements with Special Economic Zones and infrastructure development, the World Bank president noted that "African countries want to learn from such success, and China is ready to help." He continued: "China’s experience can be instructive for African countries. It also suffered from infrastructure deficits at the beginning of its development process but succeeded in putting in place world-class infrastructure -- covering both urban and rural areas. Africa may also draw from China’s attention to rural infrastructure as a way to improving productivity and overcoming poverty."
Discussions about 'Africa' often founder, given the (obviously) tremendous diversity in situations and circumstances across the continent. The same can be said for discussions about 'China', given its large size and great diversity. While the results from Shanghai in the latest PISA round are the envy of much of the rest of the world, the relevance of mass school computerization efforts in rural Western China may well offer insights to some African policymakers that they might not get when talking with consultants drawing on the experience of ICT use in schools in, say, Toronto or Lyon or Manchester.
Despite what appears to be growing interest in cooperation between a number of African countries and Chinese partners on issues related to putting ICT infrastructure in schools, my anecdotal impression is that lessons from Chinese experiences in using technology in education are not well known outside of China. When I mention to ministries of education around the world that I spent a few years working on an ICT/education project in China near the start of the last decade, I am almost immediately bombarded with lots of questions.
One can postulate a number of reasons for this lack of knowledge about Chinese experiences with educational technologies, including the fact that things in China are simply happening so quickly, and as a result people have been too busy 'doing' to take the time to reflect and study this experience at great length. Of course, the same could be true of most other areas of development in China, but in some ways the educational technology field seems a bit anomalous in this regard, given the intense interest of academics and policymakers in learning from Chinese experience in so many other areas. Language is also no doubt an issue here, as recent Chinese experience with educational technologies is not well documented in English and other major international languages (and if anything, seems to me to have become comparatively less so in recent years).
Through outreach activities of groups like KERIS, and in part due to a variety of cooperation efforts between the Republic of Korea and the World Bank exploring a variety of ICT/education issues, the Korean experience is slowly becoming better known to policymakers throughout East Asia, and further afield in places like Colombia, Costa Rica and Uruguay as well.
Here's hoping that the Chinese experience will become better known as well.
Note: The (provocative?) image used at the top of this blog post of two young girls ("sisters in development?") comes from Wikipedian Harald Kreutzer via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.