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Education & Technology in Africa: Creating Takers ... or Makers?

Michael Trucano's picture

moving forward with innovation and ingenuityI was honored to be asked to deliver one of the keynote addresses at this year's eLearning Africa event at the end of May. (If you'll be in Dar for the event, I look forward to seeing you there!)  The organizers asked me to submit an abstract for my presentation by last week.  In the belief that sunshine is the best disinfectant, and in the spirit of what I take to be the increasing appetite of the World Bank to be more 'open' about what information it makes available publicly, I thought I would (mix metaphors and) send up a trial balloon of sorts here on this blog, sharing one of the themes I am hoping to explore in my short talk, in the hope that doing so will make my presentation stronger and more relevant to the audience. If past experience is any guide, there will be no shortage of people who comment (below, on their own blogs, via email and Twitter) about where and how I've got things wrong.

Before I get to that, though, some background:

I first was involved with ICT use in education in Africa about a dozen years ago when I was working with the World Links project in Ghana to help introduce teacher professional development programs related to first use of computers and the Internet in a number of pilot schools in Accra, Cape Coast and Kumasi.  If you'd told us back then that, only a decade later, over 1500 people would descend on Accra to participate in the third 'eLearning Africa' conference, we'd have thought you were crazy (and mind you, we were often criticized for being 'true believers' back then, viewed rather suspiciously and even negatively by many others in the development community as 'techno-evangelists' of sorts)!  About five years ago, when I was with infoDev, we attempted to provide a crude 'map' of what was happening in the field across the continent.  The resulting Survey of ICT and Education in Africa, published back in 2007 in two volumes, rather immodestly sought to "gather together in a single resource the most relevant and useful information on ICT in education activities in Africa" in the "hope that this publication [would be] 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."

Four years on, the holes in this work are even more glaringly apparent than they were back then, when we said that

"ICT use in education is at a particularly dynamic stage in Africa, which means that there are new developments and announcements happening on a daily basis somewhere on the continent. Therefore, these reports need to be seen as 'snapshots' that were current at the time they were taken; it is expected that certain facts and figures presented in the [53] Country Reports may become dated very quickly."

eLearning Africa is, in some ways, an annual 'snapshot' -- face-to-face and up-to-date -- of many of the things that the infoDev Survey tried to highlight. (For other ways of staying up to date on progress in this area, you may be interested in an earlier blog post on Tracking ICT use in education across Africa).

With that said, ...

In Dar this May, I will present a version of a talk I often give on 'Innovations in ICT use in education around the world'.  The short abstract I provided to the eLA organizers looks like this:

Innovative uses of ICTs in education from around the world: Many of the uses of educational technology regularly described as 'innovative' have actually been around for quite some time. This rapid-fire presentation will highlight some of the 'new' innovative uses of ICTs in a variety of contexts from around the world, with a special attention to those of potential relevance to educators in Africa. In doing so, it will propose some promising approaches and issues for policymakers in Africa to consider along five general themes: content; community; personal; mobile; and measuring."

I'll provide a quick tour through many of the initiatives that have been featured on this blog over the past two years.  (One thing I'll strike from my presentation is a discussion of the pioneering work of Sugata Mitra, as he will be speaking about it himself at the event!)  Among many examples, I'll highlight the EVOKE project, along the way referring to a fascinating new study just published by the World Bank's infoDev program that asks, "Making Money from the Virtual Economy: Science Fiction or Development Opportunity?"

Converting the Virtual Economy into Development Potential: Knowledge Map of the Virtual Economy [infoDev, 2011]
The Bank's infoDev program released a fascinating study last week by Vili Lehdonvirta and Mirko Ernkvist, which is being featured in lots of places, like The Economist, the BBC, and The Washington Post ... plus, in what is probably a first for a World Bank study, in places like Ars Technica and Kotaku! (Perhaps some day we'll even get /.'ed!).  If you are interested in a quick overview of some of the 'non-traditional' ways that ICTs are offering work opportunities to people in developing countries, this paper is a good introduction.  This study pegs the market for gaming-for-hire services -- where, for example, you hire someone in China to play a videogame on your behalf, advancing you through the early levels so that you can concentrate your time on the more challenging stuff later on -- at $3 billion in 2009. Significantly, the authors state that most of this money went directly to developing countries, 'as opposed to being eaten up by Western intermediaries'. The report contrasts this figure with the market for coffee, which was $70 billion globally in 2009, but only $5.5 billion of which went to countries that produce the coffee beans.  Gaming-for-hire services are not the only example of this kind of thing -- it notes that you can, for example, hire people to click en masse on the 'like' button on your Facebook page, or to record lots of hits to your web site. Other types of such 'microtasks' are possible -- people just have to be 'connected' in some way. Like, for example, having Internet access -- or sometimes even only a mobile phone.  Fascinating stuff!

I expect that enterprising policy makers development professionals will seize on this infoDev publication to explore the potential for 'virtual microwork' of various sorts in Africa, especially given the increasingly ubiquitous availability of mobile phones and the great advances in connectivity that are occurring because of the various submarine fiber cables that are landing (or soon to land) on the shores of the continent. There is indeed great promise and potential here that merits serious exploration. (If you are interested in a pioneering example of this sort of thing that is already happening, have a look at the fascinating talk that Nathan Eagle gave at ETech 2009 on Crowd-Sourcing on Mobile Phones in the Developing World.)

As with anything that is new, I expect there will be an opposite reaction as well from some quarters, who will see a danger that this sort of thing offers yet another opportunity for 'rich companies in the North to off-load low-paid drudgework to workers in virtual sweat shops of sorts in the global South'. Related discussions of the promise and peril of outsourcing microwork to developing countries are well worth having, and the infoDev study will no doubt be required reading to inform such discussions (pro and con).  While leaving such discussions for people smarter than I am to have in other venues, I do note that, in the explosion of ICT hardware and software I see appearing in schools across Africa, I see very little of it designed or assembled on the continent itself, which leads me to ask:

As African communities become increasingly digital, to what extent will they be home to makers, and to what extent will they be populated by takers?"

In other words: To what extent will people in Africa rely on ICT tools created by others ('take'), and to what extent will they create (and evolve and innovate) ICT tools themselves ('make')?

Many people who work in international development will be familiar with factoids and observations that say something to the effect of "in the early 1960s, per capita GDP in Ghana was about the same as South Korea's -- and look what's happened since".

For what it's worth: The actual citation often refers to GDP per capita at the time of Ghana's independence in 1957, although you can make the same comparison between South Korea and a number of other countries around the same time too.  If you have a look at the excellent online Gapminder tool, for example, you'll quickly see that income per person (GDP/capita, PPP$ inflation adjusted) in South Korea in 1960 was actually lower than in North Korea(!), Somalia, Chad and the Solomon Islands, just to pick a few countries at random. (Those who know their history will also note that the figure for South Korea may be anomalously low, given that it was just emerging from war, but of course the beauty of making statistical comparisons is that one is often able to cherry-pick to prove a point.)

In 1960, there can be little doubt that both South Korea and Ghana fell into the 'taker' camp.  Given the dynamism of Korean firms like Samsung and LG in the global marketplace, and the innovative developments in the Korean videogaming industry, few would argue today that Korea hasn't transitioned fully into the 'maker' category. Indeed, for many, Korea is the epitome of this type of transformation! 

Lessons from the Korean experience have been detailed in a number of influential publications, including the World Bank-OECD study (2000) Korea and the Knowledge-based Economy: Making the Transition (unfortunately I can't provide a direct link to this publication, which is behind a World Bank paywall, but I can provide links to a follow-up World Bank Institute publication in 2006 and a number of related knowledge activities). A desire to explore the relevance of the Korean experience to other countries lies at the heart of the close cooperation between the World Bank and Korea on ICT/education topics as well.

In addition to eLA, there is another continental gathering that those in the ICT and education fields would do well to pay attention to (and support!): Maker Faire Africa.  For those unfamiliar with the concept:

First held in the Silicon Valley are in 2006, a Maker Faire is an event created by MAKE Magazine to "celebrate arts, crafts, engineering, science projects and the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) mindset." Transplanted to Ghana in 2009, fueled in part by the momentum and enthusiasm that surrounded the TED Global event in Arusha, Tanzania, Maker Faire Africa bills itself as a 'celebration of African ingenuity, innovation and invention'. 

One of the under-reported developments of the past few years (at least in much of the global press, in my opinion, which tends only to consider Africa when considering things like war, famine and corruption -- although last year you could add football/soccer to the list!) has been the emergence in various spots across Africa of clusters of innovative small IT-related firms and groups.  In Kenya, for example (the site of eLearning Africa 2007) one can quickly point to initiatives like Ushahidi and iHub to find examples of the dynamism of IT entrepreneurs of various sorts who are real 'makers', not just 'takers' of innovative products and services from other parts of the world. While not strictly IT-focused, blogs like Afrigadget, the Timbuktu Chronicles and Nubian Cheetah showcase countless examples of, for lack of a better term, really cool stuff that entrepreneurs, tinkerers and inventors across the continent are doing, putting an African face on traits and activities that too many people in the rest of the world (and, regrettably, perhaps even in some policy circles in Africa) wrongly consider to be the domain of folks in 'advanced economies'.

One worry expressed by some groups involved in ICT use in education in Africa is that many of the ICT literacy curricula that accompany the roll outs of computers in African schools are largely about 'taking'. How to operate in a Windows computing environment, how to use basic office applications like word processors, spreadsheets and presentation software ... one criticism that I often hear of such activities is that they are geared to help develop low level clerical skills, and not to provoke the curiosity and help develop the skills of the types of people who are celebrated by outlets like Afrigadget.  This is not to say that the development of very basic computer literacy skills is not important -- of course it is.  That said, perhaps we should also be asking,

How can ICT use inside and outside schools can also help to support the development of a generation of 'makers' who can help ensure that African schools not only graduate future workers and consumers who will represent a source of profits for IT firms in the rest of the world (Africa's importance in this regard will only continue to grow) but, more importantly, do their part to educate future generations of innovators and  entrepreneurs who will export their products, services and ideas across the continent, and across the world?

Some people may look at today's development data figures and scoff that this blog post is yet another example of the type of thinking characteristic of a starry-eyed 'Western aid worker'.  Such folks are certainly entitled to their opinion.  At eLearning Africa this year I hope to run into and learn from many folks who think differently.

Note: The image at the top of this blog post ("moving forward with innovation and ingenuity") comes courtesy of Maker Faire Africa via the Maker Faire Africa photostream on Flickr. It is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.