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A few myths and misconceptions about digital teaching and learning materials in Africa

Michael Trucano's picture

attempting to see just over the horizonAcross Africa, a variety of devices are increasingly being used to disseminate and display teaching and learning materials in electronic and digital formats.  As costs for such devices continue to fall, and as the devices themselves become more widely available and used across communities, the small pilot, and largely NGO-led, projects that have characterized most efforts to introduce educational technologies in schools across Africa will inevitably be complemented, and in many cases superseded, by large-scale national initiatives of the sorts now taking place in Rwanda and Kenya, where hundreds of thousands of devices are being, or will soon be, distributed to schools.

Few would argue that the use of such devices do not offer great promise and potential to improve the access to and quality of education by providing access to more educational content than is currently available inside and outside of schools. Internet connectivity can provide access to millions of educational materials available on the Internet; low cost, handheld e-reading devices can hold more than a thousand books. Depending on the availability of connectivity, or local resourcefulness in transferring materials to devices manually, digital content used in schools can be updated more regularly than is possible with printed materials. Depending on the device utilized, this content can be presented as ‘rich media’, with audio, video and animations helping content be displayed in ways that are engaging and interactive. It is possible to track electronically how such content is used, and, depending on the technologies employed, to present content to teachers and learners in personalized ways. In some cases , this content can be delivered at lower costs than those incurred when providing traditional printed materials.

Given the increased availability and diffusion of consumer computing technologies across much of the continent in less than a decade, it is perhaps not surprising that a number of widespread misconceptions about the promise and potential of using digital technologies and devices across Africa to increase access to learning materials appear to have taken hold. On one level, this is consistent with the ‘hype cycle’ model  of technology diffusion in which, according to Gartner, a technology breakthrough is soon followed by a period of time of “inflated expectations” about what sort of changes might be possible as a result.

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Common myths and misconceptions may be formed and spread for a variety of reasons. They may in some cases seem entirely logical, and reflect general beliefs widely held. They may be widely disseminated – sometimes by groups with a vested interest in having them believed without too much related discussion or investigation. And, at some level, some of us may, deep down, simply want to believe them. In all of these cases, one important reason that they persist might be that they contain grains of truth, or that they may be quite accurate in certain circumstances – but not others.

Some of the common myths and misconceptions related to the (potential) use of digital teaching and learning materials across Africa include:

“Africa is simply not ready for digital teaching and learning materials”
The challenges facing many education systems in Africa, to say nothing of the needs of learners themselves, are often considerable. That said, let’s also note that sweeping generalizations of this sort about a continent of 54 countries (as well as a few territories and protectorates), while perhaps rhetorically convenient for some politicians and headline writers (and the occasional blogger as well!), aren’t terribly useful in informing policies and practices in any useful way, ignoring as they do the diversity of educational contexts across ‘Africa’ (from country to country – and inside countries as well). Even should we choose to adopt such a construct, there is no denying that there are lots of places where digital teaching and learning materials have been in use in various ways – in some cases for quite a while.  (In its own modest way, the EduTech blog itself exists in part to help document and explore some of these cases.) The use of low-cost e-reading devices, of computers and laptops and national educational portals – while these may not be the norm for most students, they are a reality for many. Whether certain places where such new technologies are in use at the school level (in some cases for over a dozen years or longer) are ‘ready’ or not, there can be no denying that this sort of thing is indeed happening – and there is no evidence that this particular genie can ever be returned to its bottle.

“We will cut costs by ‘going digital’ with our textbooks”
Many people cite the falling costs of devices such as e-book readers as a reason to be optimistic about the potential for the widespread adoption of e-readers in education systems in Africa. Such optimism is certainly not misplaced. While the costs of end user devices will no doubt continue to fall, however, such costs may in the end represent only a fraction of the overall costs to an education system of providing access to digital teaching and learning materials, which also include things like content distribution (including connectivity), digital content production, and ongoing support and maintenance.  Where a country is not already home to a vibrant ecosystem of diverse companies and actors which can enable and support the quick diffusion and use of a particular technology for education purposes – and, outside of perhaps South Africa, no African country has a ‘mature’ ecosystem of this sort already in place – this ecosystem may need to be developed.

“The content we need is already available – and free”
It is certainly true that there is a lot of educational content in digital formats available for potential use in African education systems without charge. As with the falling costs of end user devices, this is cause for legitimate optimism and excitement. However, even where such content is ‘free’, and of high quality (however defined), it is worth considering that there are potentially many costs that must still be incurred if this content is to be usefully made available to teachers and students. This content needs to be identified. It will need to be vetted for accuracy and appropriateness, and possibly contextualized for use within a given educational system. This content may need to be mapped against existing curricular objectives, and presented in such a way that the correspondence between individual content items and a given subject curriculum are clear to teachers and students. Where gaps exist, additional content may be required. It may need to be organized and presented in ways that are user-friendly. Teachers may need to be trained in the use of such content, and supported over time in ways that were not necessary (or apparent) when only printed textbooks were used. In addition, the content itself will need to be distributed to devices. Where this distribution cannot be done digitally – i.e. where no or insufficient connectivity exits – other means will need to be employed. Where digital distribution is technically possible because of the existence of adequate connectivity, there may still need to be investments in content management and distribution systems to enable this to occur.

“Digital learning materials will engage and motivate our children”
A common rationale advocating for the use of digital teaching and learning materials is that such materials are, in and of themselves, naturally motivating for students, and so will increase natural motivation for learning. Beyond an initial stage of excitement that typically characterizes the deployments of new technologies in schools, the research literature is decidedly mixed on the extent to which digital materials motivate students to learn, and the extent to which this motivation results in better learning outcomes. The devil is in the details here.  Some content may motivate learners, some approaches to the use of this content by teachers may motivate learners – and others may not. Such rationales are often linked, explicitly or implicitly, to the concept of young people as ‘digital natives’, i.e. that youth are increasingly living in a world where technology use is the norm, and they naturally take to and understand how to integrate the use of technology as part of their learning. This concept, while perhaps attractive on its face, has occasionally much scholarly debate and, to the extent that it is a useful construct, is much more nuanced than many of its proponents may suggest.

“E-books can simply replace our textbooks”
As Nicholas Negroponte has famously opined in Being Digital, “the change from atoms to bits is irrevocable and unstoppable.” That said, while it might eventually be true that digital textbooks will eventually largely replace printed textbooks, this transition will take many years. In education systems in OECD countries where digital learning materials are already in widespread use, traditional printed textbooks are still used extensively . This suggests that, for an indeterminate period of time, even in the education systems best-equipped for the transition to the use of digital teaching and learning materials at a wide-scale (a category to which few education systems in Africa, with the possible exception of South Africa, would belong), a simple substitution of digital for printed materials will not be viable in the near term. Even where and as this ‘replacement’ becomes possible, 100% substitution is unlikely. Even the most devoted digital enthusiasts concede that there are certain affordances of the technology of the printed book (its portability, longevity, ability to be physically altered, ability to function without electricity) that may not be at hand when using e-books and other digital teaching and learning resources. Replacing the printed with the digital is not a simple ‘apples to apples’ comparison. When utilizing digital learning materials, you are often doing something -- in fact many things -- that are quite different than is the case when utilizing only traditional printed materials. Plans and policies meant to facilitate the simple replacement of printed with digital educational materials may not fully allow education systems, and the students and teachers who are at the heart of such systems, to take full advantage of the potentially transformational affordances that are available when  materials are presented in digital formats. The inadequacies of this comparison go both ways, however; some currently proposed policies and plans meant to do away with printed materials completely may be missing part of the larger picture as well.

“If we don’t act now, we will fall behind”
One common theme that animates many decisions to explore the use of digital teaching and learning materials is that education systems which do not embrace the use of technology will ‘suffer’ in comparison to those in other countries, and the competitiveness of the country itself may be eroded over time as a result. Rhetoric of this sort is often invoked by politicians to garner support for related initiatives – aided in some instances by vendors eager to provide ‘solutions’ to ‘problems’ that policymakers have not always clearly defined, or perhaps even in some cases understood. While there may be some truth to such worries, there is often a danger that such concerns can lead to hasty, ill-conceived or inadequately considered plans to quickly introduce new technologies into schools. Decisions about the introduction of, or transition to, the use of digital teaching and learning materials are not ones to be taken lightly, or quickly. Recommending caution and deliberateness, however, should not be confused with advocating for inaction. Even where such things may be beyond the practical reality or pocketbook of a country’s education system today, the use of digital teaching and learning materials are worth considering as part of scenarios for medium or long term planning in all education systems across the continent. This is especially the case when ‘business as usual’ is not working – and isn’t expected to work going forward either. New technologies offer exciting new opportunities to provide access to teaching and learning resources that were not previously available, sometimes at costs lower than those absorbed when doing things the ‘traditional way’. However attractive is may be to consider how a country may ‘leapfrog’ ahead as the result of its adoption and integration of new technologies, it is worth remembering that it is also possible to ‘leapfrog in the wrong direction’.
 
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Myths are powerful – and important. What is believed can be a more powerful animator of policy decisions than what can be demonstrably proven, let alone what is ‘true’. Taking some time to reflect on some of the common myths and misconceptions that, wittingly or not, inform decisions about the use, and potential use, of digital teaching and learning resources in schools and education systems across Africa might help to create an environment where there is more space for considered deliberation amidst lots of related (and often understandably exciting) hype on the one hand, and unproductive, reflexive skepticism on the other.

A previous post on worst practice in ICT use in education noted that, while most if not all of such practices may seem so obvious that they need not even be mentioned, this 'obviousness' hasn't stopped them from occurring (and re-occurring) around the world with depressing regularity. Attempts to separate the hope from the hype around the potential use of digital teaching and learning materials often end up confronting sets of myths and misconceptions that may in some cases be commonly disseminated, and in other cases left unspoken but widely believed. Please feel free to use the comments section below to note some of the common myths and myths conceptions in this area that you see which you feel might be worth sharing and commenting on.

You may also be interested in: Note: The image used at the top of this of one perspective on the skyline in downtown Nairobi ("attempting to see just over the horizon") comes from the Wikipedian Stephenwanjau via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
 

Comments

Hi Michael:
Enjoyed reading this and glad you highlighted the digital natives myth. The Bennett et al article, while excellent, is behind a paywall. There are many other articles on this issue available in open access publications. Our research website http://digitallearners.ca has a comprehensive and up to date list. My netgenskeptic blog at http://netgenskeptic.org is also a good source of research on this topic.

Mark

Hi Mark,
Thanks for your comment.
And: Oh no! As a matter of practice I try not to link to articles behind paywalls. I obviously goofed here. My apologies about that.
For those not familiar with them, the sites Mark highlights are very good sources of information and perspective on the 'digital natives' (take your pick) hypothesis/narrative/myth/discourse.
-Mike

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