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6 Educational Technology Trends in African Secondary Education Policy

By Mary Burns on January 29, 2020

secondary school ict education technology

We often think of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) as the place where educational technology goes to die. It is certainly true that many education technology initiatives in SSA have ended in failure. It’s also true that many parts of the continent (much of the Sahel and central Africa) lack even the most basic educational technology infrastructure.

But it is as equally true that in many parts of the sub-Saharan region—southern, eastern and western Africa—there is a lot going on in the Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) world. Though many African countries lag behind the rest of the globe in terms of technology, sub-Saharan Africa is one of the regions in the globe with the greatest growth in technology infrastructure and the largest amount of ICT in education initiatives.

I’m Mary Burns from the Education Development Center and in 2018, I was asked by the MasterCard Foundation via Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funding to study technology in the sub-Saharan Africa secondary education sector. I visited schools, businesses and Ministries of Education in South Africa, Botswana and Cape Verde, while a team from the University of Mauritius focused on educational technology initiatives in Mauritius.

I talked with 115 ICT in education stakeholders, and had discussions with donors in Lisbon and Washington, D.C. and researchers in London, and talked via distance to policymakers in Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Namibia, and Kenya. All of this information is compiled in the resulting study, Information and Communications Technologies in Secondary Education in Sub-Saharan Africa Policies, Practices, Trends, and Recommendations. This post enumerate six technology-related trends I consider most notable from my research, visits and conversations.

Caveat Lector

Two caveats about this post. First, I can’t possibly document all major findings, so I’ve divided this blog into two focus areas. The first centers on macro-level policy and infrastructure developments in sub-Saharan Africa. The second, next month, will center on ICT in education in schools.

Second, as with educational technology initiatives everywhere, the realities are complex. There are many exciting developments in educational technology in sub-Saharan Africa (mobile payments for teachers; technology incubators; the explosion of low-cost mobile phones and offline digital content). There is also a lot of recycling of bad practice (dumping technology in schools, lack of funding for recurrent technology expenditures, the failure to plan).

1.   Technology use is common and growing

It may not be part of a donor or private sector funded initiative. It may not be used for educational purposes. There may be no electrical or Internet grid, but personal ownership of technology—television and mainly radio and cell phones—is more prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa than imagined.

Even in countries that suffer from conflict and deprivation, like the DRC or Guinea-Bissau, for example, technology may be absent from government schools, but it exists in private schools, international schools and religious schools (especially Catholic schools).

More commonly, technology is being used across the continent in Internet cafés and via phones, for leisure and entertainment via SMS, Facebook, What’s App, and YouTube. Finally, though they may not be considered “educational technology” projects per se, many organizations, such as the Agence Française de Développement, the British Council, and Portugal’s Instituto Camões, use technology for pre-service teachers for online French and Portuguese language instruction in Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau, and São Tomé e Principé.

2.   Government officials are keen on edutech

Thus, many governments are investing in a range of technology investments, such as cloud-based services, digitizing textbooks, developing digital content, developing open education content policies, etc. These investments are both a cause and effect of a range of infrastructure investment in SSA, mainly by Chinese companies, like Huawei, which in Cabo Verde, for example, has built the entire telecommunications system of the country.

3.  ICT in Education policies are uneven

However,  this enthusiasm about educational technology is not always accompanied by effective ICT in education policy, which remains uneven across the continent. Our research found that 48 sub-Saharan African countries have national ICT policies in place and 39 have education sector ICT policies and implementation plans, in one form or another. Yet even where there are ICT in education policies, policies may contain no implementation strategies and lack linkages to other sectors.

There is often a lack of vision of how technology can enrich teaching and learning and an inability to integrate technologies into subject area teaching in meaningful ways, even in countries where educational technology investments have been made. Most critically, there is often a lack of regulatory policy. As will be discussed momentarily, sub-Saharan Africa has some of the most expensive Internet access in the world, and most countries do not currently have the necessary policy environments to make Internet access available and affordable to their citizens.

Similarly, implementation is often weak. Even where there is an ICT in education policy, implementation plans do not exist and schools are often not provided with the resources and funding for needed maintenance, refresh,  tech support, software licensing (this, resulting in software piracy), and training and support for teachers in how to use technology. To use a military analogy, there may be a strategy, but there’s no military doctrine,  no map, many poor tactical operations, outdated equipment, and lots of untrained troops.

4.  The mobile revolution – in electricity provision

Solar panels on Cabo Verdean high schools on São Vicente

Successful use of educational technology in Africa is compounded by the fact that only about 450 million sub-Saharan Africans have access to reliable electricity.  Clearly, electricity is indispensable if you want to use technology.

However, this lack of access to electricity has spawned numerous innovations across the sub-Saharan region that could directly benefit schools and households. Given high levels of solar insolation and the diminishing cost of solar-plus-battery systems, governments like Botswana and Cabo Verde have outfitted secondary schools with solar panels, thereby reducing the cost of providing electricity to schools and ensuring that schools have reliable access to electricity when the national grid goes down.

Additionally, mobile mini electrical grids in the form of solar kits, like those provided by Orange to residents in the DRC, Madagascar, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mali, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire, mean residents can access electricity without relying on unstable electrical grids. Mobile subscriptions are available on a daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly subscriptions. In the DRC, for example, these start at US$15 and can be paid for via mobile money. Bboxx, a British company, has used a pay-as-you-go system to install cheap batteries and solar panels on buildings in areas that lack solar or electrical infrastructure.

All of these developments have led to predictions that, like mobile phones leapfrogging fixed-land lines, mobile electrical micro grids will soon bypass traditional fixed grids.

5. Internet access is proliferating

Internet access is booming across the continent through increased access to fixed and mobile broadband.  Forty percent of sub-Saharan Africans use the Internet, with the highest penetration rates in Kenya (no surprise) and Liberia (surprise) of 90% and 81%, respectively. The increase in Internet penetration rate in sub-Saharan Africa grew some 11,000 percent from 2000-2019.

Sub-Saharan Africa still has some of the most expensive Internet access in the world. In Equatorial Guinea and Zimbabwe, 1 GB of mobile data cost $65.00 and $75.20, respectively. However, sub-Saharan Africa also has some of the cheapest Internet access in the world. For instance, 1GB of data cost $0.56 and $0.68 in Rwanda and Sudan, respectively and of the top 50 globally cheapest countries for mobile data, nine are in sub-Saharan Africa. The global average for broadband access is $8.53. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is $9.75 and dropping.

In countries with robust policy environments and competition among Telcom providers, broadband costs have dropped. For example, in South Africa broadband costs have fallen on average from between $1250-2500 per month to $300-$600 per month (2014-2018). This is still expensive for many South Africans and risks further exacerbating the digital divide between wealthy and poor students. But small private schools and mixed public-private schools can wire their schools with home fiber connections that cost about $125-$250 USD per month. In Angola, Wikipedia and Facebook have “zero-rated” their services: those using the approved versions of their apps pay no network charges for data from them.

6. Access to mobile devices is exploding

Mobile phones are the technology of choice in sub-Saharan Africa with over 700 million mobile phone owners. In Botswana, there are one million more mobile phones than people and across the continent mobile phone subscriptions are more common than electrical grid connections. 4G LTE networks continue to expand rapidly (15% from 2018-2019), driven by lower prices for entry-level 4G phones and plan promotions. MTN promotes its new “smart feature” phone, available now in Nigeria and South Africa, as affordable as a feature phone and as multifunctional as a smartphone and it will retail at $20.00 in the 15 other African states where MTN operates.

The above developments – enthusiasm about technology, schools auto-fitting mobile electrical grids, and especially decreasing costs and increasing access to mobile devices and mobile broadband – hold huge potential benefits for educational content design and delivery, data collection, distance learning and support and coaching for teachers and students in secondary schools. How governments are doing this is the subject of my next post.

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Written by
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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3 Comments to “6 Educational Technology Trends in African Secondary Education Policy”

  1. Cavin Mugarura says:

    Edu Tech promises much and delivers little, it’s easy to go wax lyrical on the amazing projects, the harsh reality more than 90% of them will fail. Am surprised you didn’t include SMS as some people believe it can help improve learning outcomes, obviouslly the truth couldn’t be starker.

    Without raining on the parade, most of the equipment is rotting, dysfunctional and is just simply an eyesore. Schools need to adopt open source platforms which are more stable, obviously this will not happen when Microsoft is one of the donors.

    Solar Energy is obviously a good choice, if you ignore theft. Fortunately this problem is not limited to Africa, as evidenced by the high availabity on sites like ebay and craigslist, which am sure have no stranglehood in these neck of the woods.

    Digital Textbooks are welcome, since they can reduce costs.Reducing costs is not usually on top of the agenda for most goverments.

    No one should get excited about the $20 phones. They simply need to use them for only 7 days. I have seen parents throw away cheap edu tablets from China which have a million problems. They have resorted to buying proper phones.

    The EduTech solutions that will provide value beyond being glorified white elephants are the ones with data. Without big data, analytics we are simply writing on water.

    Internet costs are lower, and what governments need to do is to open the market for new entrants. The current status quo will not yield much progress. Most countries have 2 major telecoms, the rest are insignificant, and simply fighting for bread crumbs.

    There is progress, even a giant sloth makes progress, but I wont be popping any champagne bottles, at least not in the near future.

  2. Sam Lanfranco says:

    Probably the most important phrase in this report is “To use a military analogy….and lots of untrained troops”. Think of education as part of the science ecosystem, the part devoted to producing persons with both skills and critical thinking, and where the frontline stakeholders are teachers and students. As was demonstrated repeatedly in the misguided One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) those stakeholders were seldom consulted in the design of programs (or equipment). Teachers were seldom consulted to learn what they needed in training (and frequently just proximate housing). ICT is a component in an educational strategy, it is not the replacement for an educational strategy. Engage the teachers, and the students, in planning, and maybe, just maybe, those solar panels on the school can also provide evening power to the sorely needed teacher housing proximate to the school.

    I have seen minimally equipped schools in Sub Saharan Africa where the teacher had to live in the next village, students walked several kilometers to catch a school bus, and returned late at night to study by candlelight. An educational strategy that put a small solar study space in the village would have made a major difference in educational achievement for those dedicated students. Engage the teachers and their students in the planning process.