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How COVID-19 is Testing Digital Resilience in Senegal’s Education Sector

By Guest Writer on May 13, 2020

cybersmart africa senegal

I’ve been working to innovate education in Senegal for over ten years as the founder of CyberSmart Africa. These days, I see that COVID-19 offers a real-time digital resilience test, dramatically exposing both successes and weaknesses.

Here are five ways I see Senegal’s COVID-19 Digital Response playing out right now, with an emphasis on the education sector.

1) Organized Chaos with Progress 

Senegal achieved a milestone in digital resilience when on April 1st, President Macky Sall presided over what was likely the first video conference of the Senegal Council of Ministers, the nation’s high-level governing body.

The meeting focused on actions related to the COVID-19 crisis, and the video conference was facilitated by the government’s IT agency, the Agence De L’Informatique de L’Etat. They deployed technical teams to participant sites, and the video conference went exceptionally well.

Apart from this nicely executed and heavily supported ministerial digital video conference, Senegal is operating in a state of organized chaos – with enough order to achieve progress. Through a patchwork of traditional and digital media the important messages are quickly reaching the Senegalese pubic. This is especially impressive when one considers that this is a developing country with very few future-ready remote workers.

The dominant social media, Facebook and its WhatsApp messenger, are  particularly responsive to COVID-19 in West Africa with supporting fact-checking sites, assuring network availability and helping governments track the movement of the pandemic.

2)  Learning Has Stopped for Millions

Schools are closed and learning has stopped for millions of students in Senegal, exposing weak digital resilience, and the necessity of improved coordination within the education sector. The Senegalese Ministry of Education is understandably consumed with figuring out how students will catch-up in a nation that is extremely challenged to deliver quality public education even under the best of circumstances.

Public school teachers and school administrators remain uninformed on how to make professional use of their downtime while schools are closed, unsure about what they should do to help their students learn in isolation.

Always hopeful of remaining on-track for the Senegalese baccalaureate (the high school passing exam), ad hoc groups of dedicated students and teachers communicate by phone and social networks if they can afford the cost.

Local TV stations have started to broadcast lecture-based lessons, while the Ministry of Education is creating a variety of digital content. The process of organizing, distributing and using all of it remains unclear.

3) Significant Operational Roadblocks

Achieving technology resilience in the education sector is somewhat eased by the fact that new Senegalese teachers are overwhelmingly future-ready. CyberSmart Africa conducted the first “Digital Life of Teachers” survey in 2019, revealing that an impressive 89 percent of the 300 participating teachers own a smartphone – a far greater percentage than the general public – and that these teachers willingly pay a monthly fee to connect to the Internet.

Regardless of teachers’ ability to access to the Internet, they face a number of infrastructure roadblocks including network availability, and the ability to pay for connectivity and devices.

More than 30 percent of public schools lack electricity, and many others can’t pay their electric bill. Just 25% have an Internet connection.  Overcoming these operational roadblocks requires significant advances in strategy, financial management, and organizational capacity.

4)  Digital Divide Exposed

The pandemic clearly exposes how the digital divide is playing out now in Senegal. Online learning platforms such as Google Classroom are actively used by students attending high-end private schools, while the vast majority of students attending public schools lack the books, family support, financial means, and technology to help them learn remotely.

A new, well intentioned update to the Senegalese National Ministry of Education website encourages students to learn from home, while it is widely acknowledged that most students do not have an Internet connection, a computer, or a smartphone. The site links to a variety of learning content that has yet to be correlated to the national curriculum; and it is likely that most teachers are unaware that the site even exists.

5) Required Leadership and Organization

The Senegalese Ministry of Education is a complicated bureaucracy – a rigid hierarchy where change is slow, often driven by competing political interests and the demands of the international donor community. To increase its capacity for digital resilience in the education sector, leaders must have the political will to make change happen.

This requires aggressive negotiation with telecoms and tech providers, innovative curriculum development, new methods of low-cost teacher training, skillful management of a variety of domestic and international partners, and an unprecedented level of coordination both within, and among ministries.

After decades of international summits, workshops, proclamations, pilots, and projects – and after numerous game-changing telecom advances – there remains a huge implementation disconnect. A seemingly endless parade of multi-million-dollar educational technology initiatives have come and gone, and none were proven to be scalable and sustainable.

Now is the time for renewed commitment. Twenty years has gone by since the historic United Nations World Education Forum (26-28 April 2000) set forth the Dakar Framework for Action, a global commitment to education for all (Education for All) children and adults.

Although the world has fallen short of its goal, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as both a timely benchmark of our progress, and a call for renewed commitment to unlock the promise of ICTs to transform learning.

By Jim Teicher, Founder, CyberSmart Africa

Filed Under: Education
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3 Comments to “How COVID-19 is Testing Digital Resilience in Senegal’s Education Sector”

  1. Cavin Mugarura says:

    Am sure a video conference is a first and something to celebrate. The obession with the word ‘first’ is a pandemic on its own, obviously when you have nothing to report i can see how adding the word first provides value

    • Jim Teicher says:

      Thank you for your comment. To clarify, in Senegal it is important news to report that government leadership is setting a positive public example via its “first” videoconference of the Council of Ministers; and others have followed. Still, I often observe people crowded together without masks. President Macky Sall has just announced the reopening of mosques, and I am concerned that religious and social customs might be problematic vis a vis social distancing. Bravo for a pandemic of new “firsts” that provide positive social messaging to promote the health of millions.

      • Cavin Mugarura says:

        Hi Jim, I think i was a bit harsh, in a first for me, I will admit i was wrong, I have thought long and hard about this video conference for ministers , while the technology has existed for at least 30 years I think it can open some eyes, and maybe the technology can be used in schools.

        Actually what seems to have seeped through the cracks, is a concept termed as direct teaching or direct instruction, where teachers have pre prepared materials. Some low budget schools like Bridge and a couple of others are using with fascinating results.

        In the United States, this mode of teaching has faced lots of criticism[ wrongly if you ask me]. The claim out there is that, it will remove creativity and will lead to creation of robots. Obviously this holds no water, as learning and creativity don’t take place only in the classroom.

        It’s like teaching a kid chess or ping pong, the creativity will come out one way or the way, the mode of teaching accounts for less than 1%.

        I usually laugh when I look donor agencies wasting funds on useless technologies, and debating open source. The only way to improve learning is through quality learning materials. In my neck of the woods, the Uganda Ministry of Education produced world class learning materials for primary and secondary students for home study.

        But you will not believe what they did next, they doled out millions of dollars to print them. UNICEF on the other hand will waste funds on one bad tool after another. The obession with tools is mind bggling. After Kolibri they will splash more millions on another side kick.

        For over 6 years we have been working on a platform for kids at primary level, if you want to learn more ~ you can find a few details on this link.