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5 Trends in Educational Technology Across African Secondary Schools

By Mary Burns on February 12, 2020

computer lab high school africa

My recent post discussed contextual, macro-level policy changes in ICT4Education in secondary schools of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). This post examines some of the practices I saw last year visiting a number of secondary schools in sub-Saharan Africa as part of MasterCard Foundation research on educational technology in sub-Saharan African secondary schools (and from additional work I have been doing in SSA independent of the MasterCard study).

As readers know, secondary schools are few and far between in many sub-Saharan African countries, particularly in rural areas across the region. Most don’t have technology. But where technology is being used in the three of the four countries I visited (South Africa, Botswana and Cabo Verde), from what I could see, a number of patterns prevail.

1. Secondary schools often lack tech “readiness”

ICTs reside in an ecosystem and can only provide value when all parts of the ecosystem are established and functional. From what I’ve seen, enthusiasm aside, many national education systems, regional education systems, and secondary schools are simply not ready to use technology to support access to education, improve educational quality, or manage information.

Readiness comprises physical and human capacities, as well as technical and educational aspects. Discretely and together, these qualities adversely influence policy.

This lack of readiness (or maturity) is most obvious at the school level where it assumes numerous Hydra-like manifestations that undermine the hopes that technology can improve educational processes. This lack of readiness includes:

  • Physical readiness: A lack of secure, safe, clean, cool spaces for technology; not enough desks, paper, plugs, electricity, outlets).
  • Technical readiness: A lack of Internet beyond the principal’s office (South Africa is an exception here), no tech support, no support for maintenance, software, refresh, replacement or updates.
  • Human capacity readiness: Many teachers and principals do not know how to use technology (apart from their phones) or how to type, do basic file management tasks or use software applications. This lack of readiness extends to students, too, many of whom can use their phones and social media apps, but don’t have the skills to use technology for academic purposes.
  • Instructional readiness: While I found teachers to be quite open to using technology, for teaching and learning, many teachers lack an understanding of how to integrate technology into their subject areas, nor is formal support for helping with this.

2.  Technology use is non-differentiated.

Classroom observations suggest that there is little diversity in how technology is used in secondary schools. The computer lab, typically with fixed desktops, is still the predominant technology configuration I witnessed in secondary schools in South Africa, Cabo Verde, and Botswana.

Computers are used for IT classes (which in some places, like Botswana, are examined subjects); after-school remediation and test preparation (the South African National Qualifications Framework and the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in Botswana);  tutoring (there’s a flourishing online tutoring business in sub-Sahara);  and “show and tell” by teachers (more accurately described as “tell and show,” as teachers often use projectors or interactive whiteboards to support lectures).

In South Africa, in both the Western Cape and Gauteng provinces, classrooms did have Interactive WhiteBoards but, as is often the case with IWBs, they were used exclusively as expensive chalkboards.

While they may be far from representative, my classroom observations in schools across three countries revealed nothing approximating real-world uses of technology (for example, using word processing software to write a letter-to-the editor of a newspaper or news station about a local problem, using spreadsheets to develop a household budget).

Nor, generally, was technology used to support more innovative pedagogies like collaborative or project-based learning which prepare students for the types of professional situations they will invariable encounter in the formal employment sector.

There is some differentiation in technology use (writ large) in TVET schools in Cabo Verde—specialized uses of specialized technologies (like electrical circuit boards), though often there, too, even TVET schools lacked functioning technology and equipment.

So far, so gloomy. But there are exceptions to what I just wrote…

3. There are innovative technology in schools!

stem education africa

There are innovative uses of technology in schools, albeit not at scale. In private schools like Parklands College, in Cape Town, students are coding, developing models of a proposed campus redesign with Computer Aided Drawing software and 3-D Printers, and using technology to write music, make films, develop apps—with the kind of agency and creativity policymakers dream about when they provide technology to schools.

Cabo Verde’s WebLab program is an after-school program funded by Huawei and overseen by Cabo Verde’s  Nucleo de Operação de Sistema de Informação (NOSI) in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Sports.

The program, launched in September 2018, operates in 43 of Cabo Verde’s 44 secondary schools. WebLab activities are held in a secure solar-paneled shipping container on the school grounds. Containers have high-speed Internet activity and are outfitted with a smartboard, laptops, tablets, technology repair kits, technology components (e.g., motherboards), and other materials. Each container accommodates twelve students and one facilitator, a teacher trained by NOSI).

WebLab consists of fifteen problem- or challenge-based modules within which students learn how to use the programming language Makeblock to create robots, learn about mobile and web application programming, White Hat hacking, web page and graphic design, networking, and building and repairing laptops and mobile phones. WebLab is designed for 12–16 year-olds and aims to target an equal number of girls and boys.

4. Schools are not using common technologies

edutech south africa

The most commonly available technologies and technologies that teachers and students own and know how to use in sub-Saharan Africa are mobile phones and radios. Yet neither is being used in schools.

Policymakers and donors told me that radio is “too old” despite the fact that most countries have the infrastructure for Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) or its narrowcast version, Interactive Audio Instruction (IAI), and despite extensive proven research to support investment and use.

Similarly, mobile phones, which most students own (both feature and low-cost smart phones), are most conspicuous by their absence. Every policymaker with whom I spoke immediately dismissed the use of student cell phones in schools, labelling them as “distracting” or “disruptive.” Yet, outside of school, students are using phones to do homework, get extra tutoring, and do research.

Many secondary education systems appear to have settled on tablets as the technology of choice, thanks in part to increased affordability of tablets and (or because of) close government relationships with Huawei and Samsung. In Cabo Verde, every teacher has been provided a tablet and WorldReader has a strong presence across the continent.

5. Increasing focus on “Last Mile” solutions

What constitutes a “last mile” varies based on country, location within a country (urban/rural) and types of schools. But it generally involves connecting the school to the Internet.

The scarcity of access to connectivity and resources has spawned a great deal of innovation, such as offline Internet solutions, the Internet in a box, more mobile-phone based digital content, and the reallocation of unused TV and radio white space to increase Internet and mobile spectrum to underserved schools.

For example, Instant Schools is a free digital learning platform with no data charges for anyone on the Vodafone/Vodacom network. Instant Schools is available in the DRC, Tanzania, Ghana, and South Africa (where it is known as “eSchool”). It hosts quality digital educational content in local languages and reaches over 750,000 learners (2018 data). The goal is to support five million learners through Instant Schools in countries where Vodafone operates by 2025.

Learning Equality, a US-based nonprofit organization, has developed Kolibri, an open-source platform designed for use in low-resource and low-connectivity contexts to provide offline access to a curated library of open-licensed educational content with tools for pedagogical support.

In Kenya, the BRCK Education project provides students with a rugged tablet devices (KioKits) as well as hardware, software and connectivity.  e-Limu, another educational technology initiative from Kenya, offers offline educational resources, such as examination preparation and lessons based on the Kenyan curriculum as colorful easy-to-digest exercises without the need to incur expensive data costs.

eKitabu, an e-book provider, has built a digital library which can be accessed online or offline. The library contains thousands of free books and an application (also accessible offline) that reads ebooks aloud to students with visual impairments.

Plus ça change…

I know it’s not possible to extrapolate to an entire region based on work in four countries. Nonetheless, as one who has been involved in educational technology since the 1990s, I saw the same replay of unhelpful technology adoption habits despite abundant evidence of what works—and what doesn’t.

Successfully integrating technology into an educational system is an evolutionary process and a holistic endeavor. It demands that the system be ready for technology adoption. It demands:

  • sound policies and regulations;
  • national and school-based technical infrastructure;
  • highly trained and receptive teachers;
  • alignment between curriculum, instruction and assessment;
  • leadership;
  • an understanding of change
  • a national and local culture that supports experimentation and making mistakes.

Above all, it demands vision, planning, and determination to get it right. Industrialized-country schools and education systems have learned this lesson through much trial and error. It’s critical that we all learn from, versus repeat, these mistakes.

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Mary Burns works in the areas of teacher professional development, online learning, instruction, curriculum development, and educational technology at both Education Development Center and as an advisor to the Millennium Challenge Corporation
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7 Comments to “5 Trends in Educational Technology Across African Secondary Schools”

  1. Cavin Mugarura says:

    Its good to see donors spending money on white elephants. Thankfully parents are steering clear of these break through technologies. They are voting with their wallets, by not drinking the cool aid. Okay some parents have bought EduTabs and quickly learned they belong in the bin [their home], they have since bought smart phones. The tabs malfunction before the wrapping paper is in the bin, a tale of knockoffs from the mailman. No one will ever conduct a useful study on these white elephants, to see if they improve learning outcomes, of course they do improve learning outcomes such as like the piano and acting in plays improves algebra.

  2. Hi Mary,
    How do you suggest change might happen? There are lots of us who have been through this process in the UK and elsewhere. Is there anything we can do to help prevent the same mistakes being made in Africa?

    • Mary Burns says:

      Hi Mark, I do think there’s change. It’s just painfully slow and non-linear. Essentially, what we have learned from ed tech programs throughout the world, and over time, as you know, is that educational technology is a complex intervention and we are attempting to integrate it into education systems which are themselves highly complex. So what do we need? We need everything!
      Tier 1–policies (education, technology, telcom), vision, planning, prioritization, buy in, plans aligned with student learning outcomes, conceptual clarity (what is “ed tech?” what is “integration”? etc.
      Tier 2–money (lots of it for capital and recurrent costs), infrastructure (mobile and fixed broadband), basic infrastructure (space in schools, security, reliable electricity, etc.), equipment that teachers and kids have chosen with very strong agreements with vendors about maintenance, refresh etc) tech support, relevant government agencies (Curriculum Dept; Assessment Dept; PD Department, technology, etc) working together on this
      Tier 3: Educational supports–curriculum and assessment systems aligned with ed tech; local language, open, low cost but high quality digital learning content; but also ongoing PD and coaching for teachers so they can successfully design and integrate technology-based learning activities
      Tier 4: Teachers, students, principals and families that understand how to use technology, its affordances and drawbacks but more important helping teachers design and teach in ways that capitalize on the benefits of technology
      Tier 5: Leadership–Ministerial, regional, organizational and at the teacher level
      Tier 6: Organizational culture (at every level) that supports change, risk taking, failure, experimentation –and that understands the change process so they are not berating teachers who struggle to implement an innovation after a week-long workshop)
      The technology is relatively straightforward; the most vexing components in the ed tech landscape are the people in the system and the institutions that comprise the system. Of course all of this is expensive and time consuming and requires long-term thinking and planning which neither the public or private sector seems quite disposed to embrace.

  3. Moses says:

    I agree there is an acute disconnection between the hype and
    the actual practice. I have seen this in Uganda and I kind of seem to track the problem. Most Technology adventure from within and without have targeted the students and ignored the drivers of education-the educators! My take on this is to embark on empowering the educators. In small workshops with educators, I mention this and they’re are positive to take up the role if prepared. More advocacy needs to highlight the need for training educators. I am also drafting a training course related to Technology Enhanced Learning & Teaching targeting educators. If we empower the educators, much should fall in place.

    • Mary Burns says:

      Hi Moses, It’s dispiriting to see the degree to which teachers and students are marginalized (everywhere) in educational technology decisions. I’ve designed national educational technology strategies where the document had to be vetted by technology vendors–but we had no teacher input. As you suggest, this is the cause of some of the biggest problems we have around educational technology. We need the user/client voice–teachers and students–all the way through the envisioning, design, procurement and implementation processes around ed tech.

  4. Neil says:

    Dear Mary,

    Thank you for an incredibly thoughtful, balanced, well-researched, and insightful article! Nothing much to add beyond my gratitutde 🙂

    I’ve been working in ICTD for over a decade but found this framing of anti-technocentricism fresh and crisp:
    ICTs reside in an ecosystem and can only provide value when all parts of the ecosystem are established and functional.

    Thank you once again!

  5. Mary Burns says:

    Thank you, Neil. I appreciate the read and the kind comment.