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Surveying ICT use in education in Africa

Michael Trucano's picture
I have a better sense of where things stand today, but the more important question is: Where are things headed?
I have a better sense of where things are today,
but the more important question is:
Where are things headed?
I began my career exploring the uses of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in education in Ghana, Uganda and a number of other places in Africa in the late 1990s, and have continued to stay engaged with lots of passionate and innovative groups and people working with ICTs in various ways to help meet a variety of challenges related to education across the continent. Because of this history, and continued connections to lots of folks doing related cool stuff, I am from time to time asked:
 
"So, what's happening with technology use in education in Africa these days?"

 
Periodically one comes across press reports asking general questions of this sort, such as this one from Germany's Deutsche Welle news service: Can tech help solve some of Africa's education problems? Of course, 'Africa' is a rather large place. Related generalizations (while catnip for headline writers, especially those outside the continent) obviously can obscure as much as they illuminate, perpetuating certain stereotypes of Africa as a single, monolithic place with certain common characteristics.(Binyavanga Wainaina's satirical How To Write About Africa remains sadly spot on in too many instances.)

That said, while the impulse from some corners to refer to 'Africa' may be both unfortunate but nevertheless predictable, being asked this sort of question at least provides an opportunity to unpack this question in ways that are (hopefully) useful and interesting. The EduTech blog was conceived in part, and in a decidedly modest way, to help direct the gaze of some folks to some of the interesting questions and challenges being addressed in different ways in different communities in Africa related to ICT use in education by groups who are, along the way, coming up with some interesting answers and solutions.

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The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), the arm of the United Nations charged with collecting global data related to education (and some other sectors as well), recently came out with a report that provides some useful data that collectively can help outline the general shape of some of what is happening across the African continent when it comes to the availability and use of educational technologies. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Comparative Analysis of Basic e-Readiness in Schools is certainly not the first such report that has taken a continent-wide perspective, but it is notable in a number of regards -- not only because it is the most recent such effort, but also because it is intended as a precursor to more regular data, systematic data collection efforts going forward.
 
Written by Peter Wallet (with the assistance of Beatriz Valdes Melgar), the report presents data and related analysis from a survey co-sponsored by UIS, the Korea Education and Research Information Service (KERIS) and the Brazilian Regional Center for Studies on the Development of the Information Society (CETIC.br -- the group responsible for the annual Survey of ICT and Education in Brazil). The report notes that, unfortunately, "data on ICT in education in the region are sparse. Collecting more and better quality statistics will be a priority in the post-2015 development agenda given the growing role of ICT in education. In response, the UIS is working with countries to establish appropriate mechanisms to process and report data, and to better measure the impact of technology on the quality of education." With that caveat and announcement out of the way, the report then utilizes the UIS Guide to Measuring Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Education as a framework with which to examine what could be discovered about the existence of related national policies, data about learner-computer ratios, school electrification and connectivity, and ICT-related instruction and curricula in ways consistent with other regional reports that the UIS has published on Asia, Latin America and a number of Arab countries. (Here's a list of international surveys of this sort from UIS and others for anyone who might be interested, as well as some general information about efforts of this sort.)
 
Some selected highlights:

  • UIS finds that the "most significant obstacle in measuring ICT in education in sub-Saharan Africa is the lack of systematic data collections", noting that a number of countries (e.g. Somalia, Benin, the DRC) reported that there was no systematic related data collection *at all* in their countries. UIS states that the existence of a data collection effort related to this topic (not surprisingly) often correlates with whether or not ICT use in education is considered a priority area of policy and investment interest in a country and that, generally speaking, "ICT use in education is at a particularly embryonic stage in the majority of countries in sub-Saharan Africa."
     
  • Based on information from the African countries who reported information back to UIS (which, it is worth noting, focused on sub-Saharan Africa, plus Djibouti), UIS reports that, in general, "computers are more frequently available for secondary education (i.e. based on enrolment), which might reflect the tendency to prioritise ICT in secondary education curricula compared to primary education". While generally speaking very high, learner-computer ratios (LCR) vary widely, both within a given education system (in The Gambia for example, the LCR for upper secondary is 37:1, compared with 277:1 in primary education) as well as across countries. Upper secondary LCR in Madagascar is 500:1, while in Rwanda it is 40:1 (at both secondary and primary levels, a legacy of the One Laptop Per Child project there). In addition to Rwanda, the lowest LCRs recorded are in Mauritius (23:1 in primary and 19:1 in upper secondary) and Botswana (55:1 in primary, 17:1 in upper secondary). School computer labs are quite common in many countries.
     
  • Internet connectivity for schools is also notably scarce, with a few very notable exceptions. Figures below 5% (and sometimes effectively 0%) in places like Niger and Liberia contrast with situations found in Botswana and Mauritius, where virtually all schools are connected. (An aside: It is worth noting that, everywhere schools are connected, sufficient bandwidth can be a big issue.)
     
  • One big constraint on the use of ICTs in education in many countries is basic access to sufficient electricity. Across many countries (e.g. Uganda, Cameroon, the DRC), fewer than one in twenty schools have electricity, although 75% of primary schools in countries such as Botswana and South Africa have electricity, as do all primary schools in places like the Seychelles and Mauritius (the clear outlier in most categories here).
The UIS paper concludes by noting that "Collecting more and better quality statistics from sub-Saharan Africa will be a priority in the post-2015 development agenda as ICT is expected to play an increasing role in future education goals.... Understanding that ICT resource inputs alone are inadequate for understanding the impacts of ICT on student outcomes, additional data on usage are required – more specifically data on how, when, how much and where teachers and pupils use ICT." (I might add why to this list of interrogatives as well.)
 
Congratulations to the team at UIS that is taking the lead on these activities, which will help set a baseline against which related future developments across Africa can be measured.
 
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The UIS survey data collection initiative was not the first survey of technology use in education across Africa, of course:
  • Back in 2007 when I was with the World Bank's infoDev program, we published two volumes of results from 53 country-level surveys of what was happening in each country in Africa and a more general synthesis of these findings. The information collected varied a great deal in comprehensiveness in quality, but at least it was a start. Indeed, we wrote at the time that, "This Survey of ICT and Education in Africa seeks to gather together in a single resource the most relevant and useful information on ICT in education activities in Africa. We hope that this publication is a first step in a larger, on-going, systematic, coordinated initiative to track developments in technology use in the education sector to help inform a wide variety of stakeholders interested in the topic as they seek solutions to larger, more fundamental educational and development challenges in the years ahead." (A subsequent World Bank report, eTransform Africa, extended this initial work.)
       
  • eLearning Africa, the annual conference which has for many years been an epicenter of information sharing on ICT use in education on a continent-wide basis (African Brains has been attempting to do something similar), publishes a very useful eLearning Africa Report, which is described as "a yearly snapshot of progress and perspectives in the field of technology-enabled learning across the continent. Combining news, features, interviews, literature, survey results and [...] an extensive reference section, it is the most comprehensive guide there is to the facts, experiences and opinions that lie behind ICT4E and ICT4D developments today." (Here are direct links to the reports in 2015; 2014; 2013; and 2012.)
       
  • There can be no denying the explosive growth of mobile phones across Africa over the past decade -- something which is not expected to slow down any time soon. To what extent might these sorts of devices be relevant to discussions related to education? UNESCO has produced two useful related publications, documenting programs and activities related to Mobile Learning for Teachers in Africa and the Middle East as well as a more general volume, Turning on Mobile Learning in Africa and the Middle East.
       
  • The database on educational technology programs maintained by R4D's Center for Education Innovations (recently profiled on the EduTech blog) contains information on 73 projects across the continent.
       
  • Some quick history, and some other useful sources of information: For what it's worth, around the dawn of the new millennium, a number of efforts -- including a series of papers on edtech in Africa supported by the World Bank and as part of Dfid's Imfundo research programme -- helped provide some of the earliest systematic documentation around ICT/education projects and issues not limited to a single country. Schoolnet Africa's Africa Education Knowledge Warehouse was for many years a go-to source of related information. The Commonwealth of Learning and SAIDE have also been notable groups documenting ICT/education efforts across the continent, especially related to distance learning, as have organizations like GeSCI and IICBA. The NEPAD e-Schools Initiative was one early attempt at a multi-country project across countries in Africa, as was the African Virtual University, which has emerged from a number of pivots and incarnations as an innovative actor exploring ICT use in education in various ways with partners across the continent.
 
While  initial efforts related to technology use in education in many African countries were supported (and indeed instigated) by outside donors, NGOs and funders, it is notable that today there are increasing numbers of programs conceived locally and led by local groups. While in many cases still small and facing many challenges (related to access to capital, for example, and sometimes cultural perceptions around entrepreneurship), there are dynamic start-up scenes emerging in many spots in Africa (SmartMonkeyTV is one place to find interviews with participants in some of them), with innovative, passionate and talented people exploring edtech-related business ideas that are closely attuned to local market needs and realities. Informed by local know-how and experience, many of these projects have benefitted from learning from lessons from good (and bad) practices in other parts of the world, and I would not at all be surprised if many of the approaches and 'solutions' that emerge as a result of innovations from such groups and things like MakerFaire Africa help to suggest ways forward for their counterparts in other parts of the world while, more importantly, improving things in noteworthy and measurable ways much closer to home.
 
 
You may also be interested in the following EduTech blog posts:

 
Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of a Verner compass ("I have a better sense of where things are today, but the more important question is: Where are things headed?") comes from Ted Brink via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Comments

Submitted by Michael Onobote on

Thanks for the breakdown Mike. Although, it would have been nice to see data from other countries in SSA such as Nigeria. I believe there should be a medium of collating already existing sources as a supplement.

The second paragraph was also apt and it is interesting to see how the complexities within the continent itself is one to also be aware of to really implement meaning 'ICT initiatives' in education. That term 'ICT initiatives' in itself is also problematic when you consider education policies such as in Nigeria as these are always centered around implementation of tools to 'fix' education. Teacher training is a huge huge issue and it would be nice to see how these implementations pan out in the next few years.

Hopefully we don't have another bubble just like the TV and radio edutainment era of the 70s.

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your note and comments. UIS typically utilizes data provided to them from the relevant national statistical authority. My guess here (and it is only a guess) is that UIS didn't receive these data from counterparts in Nigeria (or didn't receive it in time). No doubt collecting these data from Nigeria will be a priority going forward, especially given Nigeria's size and importance. (That said, UIS is clear that it aims to collect globally comparable data from *all* countries, regardless of size or preceived 'importance', but I think you get my point.) I would expect that, given that state governments play such a large role in education in Nigeria, coordination in data collection there may present difficulties not found in some other countries with a greater level of national centralization when it comes to education, but I am just speculating out loud here.

Looking at the tables included as appendices to the UIS report, one is struck by the number of entries that read "..." (i.e. no data reported for a given indicator in a country), in addition to where countries aren't listed at all in a table (presumably because no data were reported across any of the listed categories). I know that the folks at UIS are frustrated by this, but this is a very useful start. Hopefully policymakers in some countries may look at the absence of data about ICT use in education in their countries (especially policymakers in places that are already doing big things in this area, or have plans to do so) and be spurred to action here. Not everything that is easy to measure is important to measure, of course, but not being able to report data against some very basic indicators does suggest that there are perhaps more fundamental issues at play related to data collection and reporting in a number of places. We clearly have our collective work cut out for us in this regard!



 

A quick note: Colleagues from UIS wrote in to remind me that 500:1 was used as a reporting limit. If, for example, the LCR (learner-computer ratio) was 500:1, or 680:1, or 909:1 it was reported simply as > 500:1 -- something I should have made clear in my characterization above when I noted the LCR in upper secondary schools in Madagascar. (As a practical matter, of course, whether the ratio is 500:1 or 1000:1, the practical implications are pretty much the same, but this reporting convention should have been made clear.) Another erratum has been flagged (electrification at a number of levels of schooling in Cameroon is higher than 5%) by using strikethrough. Apologies about this.

Submitted by andy brookes on

Hi, I just got back from Ghana couple of months ago.

On using computers & electricity: I would agree and in fact its not just the lack of power but the affect of a variable current & intermittent supply on computers; the usual response from MS based OS is "didn't shutdown properly...". The Raspberry Pi has now come into the equation & does allow a setup with a small screen & solar panel. Then there is the use of Android devices & education based apps; the use of Android apps with their icons to tap on mirrors to a degree the OLPC XO laptop with its match-stick man user interface.

There seems to be something wrong with those of some authority working within the Ghana education system. I enhanced the digital encyclopedia from SOS schools by making it searchable on a Linux PC . I met a school inspector mentioned this & got not a flicker of interest. So I think that there is an issue that maybe people such as yourself know and understand some of the problems but that the people that should be tackling the issues perhaps attach less importance to ICT.

With the rise of cheaper Android phones I identified a small niche at least for some parents to have a fun App that helps teach the alphabet. I tweeted to a few Ghana based NGOs that are involved with ICT saying, give me your email & I will send you the FREE version; they all seemed to misunderstand since none have volunteered their email address & just re-tweeted me!

The other issue is that there is no joined up thinking on ICT in schools because the bulk of schools are probably private. For instance in the area of Kokrobite to the old barrier on the Kasoa Rd, Weija, Accra there are several private schools at various levels but only one state funded school.

Submitted by Jerome Terpase Dooga on

I am worried about the absence of data from Nigeria. It is especially sad because some of us have spent the last decade working to improve teaching and learning through the use of technology. Whenever things need to be done and the responsibility is said to rest in the hands of state governments or "policymakers," I see it as a recipe for failure. Perhaps, in future, UIS or other organisation wishing to collect such data may partner with an institution, such as a University in the country, and it might be possible to have better results. It is convenient to say 'no data' or other comments like that. But such comments are defeatist, because in the final analysis, such dearth of data means that the picture presented is not a true reflection of existing conditions in the region.

Hi Jerome,

Thanks a lot for your comments.

You are absolutely correct to note that, in many instances, the "dearth of data means that the picture presented is not a true reflection of existing conditions".

Given its size and dynamism, not having data from Nigeria in a survey like this means there is a HUGE gap in our collective understanding of what is happening in Africa when it comes to the availability of ICTs in education.

The great work of many organizations and individuals in Nigeria who have been passionately working to introduce and utilize new technologies in education in schools across the country is not reflected at all in a survey of this sort. This is a shame.

Some may argue that Nigeria presents may complex challenges related to data collection in this area, given its size, federal nature and numerous actors and stakeholders. This is undoubtededly true ... but Nigeria is not totally atypical in this regard.

UIS's mandate is, in part  -- at least I understand it -- explicitly to work with national statistical agencies, and to help develop the capacity of those institutions, and the people who work there, to do the sort of rigorous, standardized data collection required as part of regular UIS survey processes so that relevant data can be made available to policymakers and decisionmakers (and, beyond that, hopefully made available more broadly as a public good as well). There are many potential pathways by which this goal can be achieved. While it is perhaps not in UIS's remit (or even its capacity, given its focus and size) to partner with e.g. a university as the primary data gathering organization, there is of course nothing to stop another group from doing so. Given how large the ICT/education sector is in Nigeria (or at least presumably is -- it's tough to know, as we don't have reliable consolidated data!), and the fact that it is growing quite quickly, one would expect that there might be other groups willing to undertake such an activity, even if only for purely commercial reasons (as might be the case for trade associations or consulting firms). And of course there is nothing to stop a national statistical body from having local universities as implementing partners. However the data ends up being made available, it will be great once we have it -- and it will be especially great when it is routinely publicly reported in ways that are consistent and transparent. For better or for worse, the goal in most countries is for government to take on this role.

In some cases with other UIS surveys, the dashes which denote that no data were available from a country related to a specific indicator have served as a spur for governments to prioritize investments in their own data gathering and analysis capacities. I have seen firsthand how embarassed ministers can get when they e.g. go to regional conferences and no data are presented from their countries but their neighbors' data are available. Personally, I am not a big fan of 'avoiding embarassment' as an incentive for action, but it can be effective in some instances.

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