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African Educators Consider Potential of Online Learning

A sense of urgency about improving education in Africa dominated a recent eLearning Africa meeting that brought 1,200 educators and experts to Cairo.

“We are not going to wait until 2063,” said Yasser ElKady, minister of the Egyptian ministry of communications and information technology, which hosted the meeting. The African Union has declared 2063 as the year by which Africa will be “a transformed continent.”

Educators said that was far too long to wait and spent the conference examining ways to harness the potential of information technology and online learning to improve educational opportunities and outcomes on the continent.

“There is widespread awareness among educators, politicians and businessmen that we really have to move quickly now,” said Charles Senkondo, executive director of Tanzania’s Global Learning Agency. “We’re all aware that Africa is a young continent and that soon the majority of our population will be under the age of 24. We can’t afford to leave the future of 200 million young Africans to chance. Unless we invest heavily in education and training and ensure that our young people are fully equipped to compete in the digital age, we will store up some very serious social problems for ourselves and our neighbors.”

The role of MOOCs, or massive online open courses, was a major theme at the meeting, with presenters offering examples of how they have been effectively used in the region and abroad.

Andy Nobes of the online learning platform AuthorAID said a large proportion of those who participate in his organization’s online courses are from Africa, reflecting a growing interest among Africans in online learning. Nobes acknowledged the challenges–in a recent survey of participants in an AuthorAID writing course attended solely by Africans, including 42 Egyptians and one Tunisian, respondents said major obstacles included work commitments, slow or no Internet access, and power outages.

To help learners with limited Internet connections, the AuthorAID platform offers low-bandwidth content and downloadable materials that can be retrieved when Internet access is better. Nober said that despite the challenges, 888 out of the 1,683 individuals who registered for the writing course have already completed it, a 53 percent completion rate that he says is significant.

Majda Mazri, a professor of engineering at the Moroccan Ecole Supérieure Des Industries du Textile et de l’Habillement (ESITH), has used online learning modules to augment her in-person classes.  She said offering MOOCs alongside traditional offline methods gives uer students a chance to engage actively in the learning process.

In a question from Al-Fanar Media about how her students adapted to using the digital learning tools, Mazri said: “One important benefit of MOOCs is that students were able to evaluate their needs and choose the courses that best address those needs. I have seen how active and motivated they are, and the degree of activity, participation and presence gave me the impression that they were interested and easily accept going through the experience.”

In Tunisia, the Center of Information, Training, Documentation, and Studies in Communication Technologies (CIFODE’COM), under the supervision of the Tunisian Ministry of Communication Technologies, has offered MOOCs as a platform for developers to use in creating 1,000 mobile applications that youth can use to start new businesses.

A total of 8,000 Tunisian young people were given access to the technology. The Center’s Mourad Ben Romdhane said that although some participants faced financial constraints and slow Internet connections, the initial program was largely a success, and plans are underway to make the MOOCs available to 16,000 young Tunisian developers in a region where the Arabic Tunisian dialect is used.

A number of presentations at the conference showcased successful applications of online learning technologies to refugee education in Africa.

One major initiative is Borderless Higher Education for Refugees, which targets refugees in the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya, through a partnership between a group of Kenyan and Canadian universities spearheaded by York University. Using MOOCs, the program offers internationally recognized university programs at the certificate, diploma, and degree level in education, social sciences and natural sciences, said York University professor Don Dippo.

Dippo teaches a class on social, economic and environmental justice in which his Canadian students connect with refugee students in Kenya through a digital platform. “The refugee students at first feared they received a second-class education,” Dippo said, but connecting all of the students digitally has helped to bridge gaps, creating greater awareness of global social injustices on both sides.

Working with refugees posed several challenges, beginning with a lack of understanding of how online learning tools work, said Dippo. The refugee students also experienced unpredictable living conditions, among them early marriages, pregnancies and child birth.

Another effort, “One Mobile Projector per Trainer” (OMPT), works with local organizations in refugee camps to create simple educational videos on topics such as agriculture, economic development, education, civic engagement and health, delivered on cordless projectors. Learners use the initiative’s technology kit, which includes cameras, cordless projectors and rechargers and is specifically designed for low-resource areas.

“OMPT envisions a world where electricity, illiteracy, location, language, and materials are no longer barriers to positive social change,” said program manager Claire Pelley.

Some initiatives are also working to monitor the quality of education in Africa. REACH (“Results for Education and Child Health”) uses a data collection and reporting tool to evaluate school environments in refugee areas to better understand existing barriers to learning. REACH typically measures the actual time students spend learning in classrooms, school management, and whether students enjoy a healthy, nutritious and clean environment in which they can learn. The collection, consolidation and analysis of data collected by the tool from different schools is completed offline, overcoming the problem of poor Internet services in the refugee areas the project works.


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