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Are tablets the best way to increase digital literacy in African countries?

Edward Amartey-Tagoe's picture
Credit: Arne Hoel


A good number of African governments have shown how technologically-forward thinking they are by announcing one-tablet-per-child initiatives in their countries. President John recently announced that tablets for Ghana’s schoolchildren were at the center of his campaign to improve academic standards. Last year, President Kenyatta of Kenya abandoned a laptop project for tablets.

I applaud governments which put in efforts to integrate technology in their planning; relying on such resources could improve the overall health of developing countries. However, when tablets are distributed to school kids to increase digital literacy, is that the best use of the taxpayer’s shilling? Is a tablet the best way to expose school kids to technology?

I don’t think so. First of all, the tablet computer was not introduced to the market to replace the personal computer, but to augment the use of desktops and laptops. The tablet was created for those who already had access to a PC, and had already gone past basic literacy skills such as typing, using the mouse, clicking etc. The computer companies of the world quickly realized that although people owned PCs, there were times in their working or academic schedules when they needed to read an article quickly, brush up on a presentation, catch up on emails, or other quick and respond require filtering through dozens of macros or excel spreadsheets. The tablet market grew quickly because the adopters already had access to a PC. Among your pals who own tablets, how many don’t already have a PC or have access to same at work, home or school?

Therefore introducing tablets to schools kids in underprivileged environments (which are mostly the areas to benefit from such projects) might not be the best way to expose these kids to digital literacy. Since most of these campaigns are launched in areas where there already is low digital literacy, chances are these kids will be coming into contact with such devices for the first time in their lives. Imagine being taught how to drive for the first time with a fork-lift! Would that help you understand how gears, shifts and clutches work? These kids might end up skipping the basics of computer literacy.

Besides that, tablets were built with a consumption mind-set in mind. Very few of the output you see daily around you were created on a tablet. Tablets were created mostly for the consumption of data. Thus you’d hardly see a computer engineer coding on a tablet, or an accountant analyzing dozens of financial statements on 13-inch, screen-only devices. By leaning more towards tablets, we may end up creating a generation primarily of data consumers. Exposing them to PCs could help them become producers.

The economics of such campaigns is also questionable. To make it cost effective, most initiatives supply cheaper tablets (about $180), which either do not present the school kids with the best value for their time, or such devices do not last long enough to achieve the project goal. The average lifespan of a tablet is estimated to be less than three years, while desktops and laptops are projected to last longer than 4.5 years. This means, tablets for grade 5 kids may have to be replaced before they get to grade 8. Imagine the costs involved!

Desktops/laptops could serve the digital needs of more than just one child and last longer than the tablet. Therefore spending $300 on a laptop or desktop, though it may sound more expensive initially, presents a higher return on our investments in the long term. And, with the support of World Bank for projects such as the Senegal Tertiary Education Governance and Financing for Results Project, costs for PCs could be offset, making them an even better investment for governments.

Sure, tablets are a cool gadgets to have. But unless our objective is only to create a generation of cool kids who will learn how to swipe and tap tap on screens, our investments will likely yield higher return if we invested in modern desktops/laptops to be stationed in their school labs or a central place (assuming such facilities exist) for them to use during school time and during free period after their class schedules. With this strategy, would increasing the number of kids we can offer digital literacy to, per unit time, since the classes can take turns to use the same set of computers.

Furthermore the desktop exposes them to the very basics of computing, i.e. CPU, monitor, keyboard (input devices) etc., which will enable them better understand how computers work. With this, they stand a better chance of learning very basic digital skills such as typing, creating folders, right clicks vs. left clicks etc. These are skills which will be harder to acquire on a tablet computer. If African leaders really want to increase digital literacy and computer skills of its young people, they should take a second look at the benefits of PCs and the long-term impact of one-tablet-per child initiatives.