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Africa: Millenium Development Goals

I received an email recently that highlighted the millenium development goals – eight goals set by UN member states. The goals include reducing extreme poverty, universal primary education, reducing child mortality rates, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS/Malaria, and related goals. TEDxChange will be hosted in New York and will include events in cities around the world: TedxLondon, Brisbane, Accra, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Auckland, Dubai, and others.

Think what you will of TED as an exclusive event – this is an important conversation and I’m pleased it will be happening with global participation. I want to address the MDG briefly from the perspective of education and my experience in Africa.

Even a brief glance through MDG produces a common thread: knowledge and learning. The second goal – universal access to primary education – is important, but is understated. Learning & knowledge are a wrapper around all millenium goals. Health, poverty, and development have an urgent component and a long-term foundation component. Obviously, when someone needs penicillin, food, or medical attention, learning to read and write is secondary. In regions like Africa, policy makers, development workers, and leaders face difficult choices in balancing needed medical attention and nutrition with long term development in learning and knowledge to break the cycle of urgency.

I hardly consider myself to be an expert on Africa. I’ve been involved in several activities: as a keynote presenter at eLearning Africa in Ghana, workshop organizer at eLearning Africa in Senegal, recipient of an OSIWA grant (with Boubakar Barry and Kathleen Matheos. One of the outcomes of the grant was a dual language – French/English – open course I taught with Dave Cormier to a group of African university leaders), and I’m currently teaching a course on emerging technologies for learning to NISTCOL.

The question of how to build a learning and knowledge infrastructure is critical. Should Africa (or any region of the world) duplicate the educational system of Europe or North America? Should Africa adopt the curriculum of these regions? How should teaching and learning be delivered? How many schools should be built? What is the cost of building the physical support structures for learning and knowledge for a region like Africa? Is there a better way? What are the costs of building a technological infrastructure – internet connectivity and computers – in comparison to building schools and purchasing textbooks? (it’s not an either or question – effective learning with technology from my experience, involves a blend of online and face-to-face).

I’ll make a controversial assertion: we need to throw out most or our assumptions of learning systems, content, learning design and delivery in order to build the future of Africa’s learning and knowledge infrastructure.

Textbooks are too expensive. A simple ebook reader opens many new opportunities (yes, electricity is a concern, but I’ve seen very simple solar panels, the size of a piece of paper, that could be used to recharge the device). Mobile learning is another option, as creating a mobile technical infrastructure is far less expensive than physically wiring Africa. The content provision and technology structure for learning and knowledge-making in Africa is an expensive endeavor. Building the technical infrastructure, however, is the easy part – it will take investment, persistence, planning, and time, but the path forward is somewhat predictable. Government and development agency funding will eventually give way to private investment as the infrastructure is rolled out. Africa’s internet connectivity has been slowly improving. Now that both east and west coasts are better connected to the rest of the world, it’s reasonable to anticipate rapid connectivity improvements within the continent. Ingenuity and creativity from within Africa will address this challenge – it’s not something that development agencies should “do for Africans”. When I was at the eLearning Africa conferences, I was stunned at the “made in Africa” innovations.

The learning process is less uncertain. How will the next generation of Africans be educated? What is the learning model that will fulfill this urgent, foundational, task? This question is increasingly critical as open educational resources expand and access to content is being equated with progress in learning.

I’m a huge supporter of open content. For Africa’s future, as I stated in my keynote in Accra, the flow of educational content must change. Right now, educational content flows into Africa which creates an external cultural injection. African educators have an opportunity to create a content/cultural outflow from Africa by increasing collaboration with each other and producing open content for other educational systems in the world to utilize. Open content is not enough. We need to open up the learning system as a whole to the benefits of participation, socialization, networks, and peer interaction.

A simple model

Education in Africa, like many other systems in the world, would benefit enormously from a shift to social participative networked learning. (see this example of how participative technologies are helping farmers in Africa)

Two-critical questions need to be answered by anyone who wants to adjust the education system:

1. What does technology now do better than people can?
2. What can people do better than technology?

Content duplication, scaling, and reproduction are far better managed by technology. One recorded lecture can be seen a thousand times online without significant increase in expense. The content broadcast of any course can be opened and shared online fairly easily, using simple tools like Skype, ustream, or Elluminate. Duplicating content – where we are now with open educational resources is easy and cheap.

The exciting and fascinating potential available to educators around the world today is to engage in social, participative, and networked learning with students and colleagues. Technology can facilitate this, but the social dimensions of learning are still best managed by humans. This is the exact model Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier and I are utilizing in open courses (we are hosting an upcoming open course on personal learning environments and networks …if you’re interested, you can sign up here). Open courses offer a model of learning that enables educators to utilize existing learning activities and distribute them across a network. Sugata Mitra has demonstrated the value of peer and self-directed learning in India. In online learning, I think my work with Cormier and Downes has similarly demonstrated how people in networks can help each other to learn, even when more that 2300 learners are involved (our CCK08 course).

In Africa, the foundational learning and knowledge development that must take place to break the cycle of crisis and urgency can best be met through social participative networked learning. In this model, educators can take advantage of the scalability of open content, the broadcast potential of lectures and recordings, and the social interactive potential of large-scale peer-based learning. I can see no other model that provides the effectiveness of learning on a large enough scale to meet the current challenges in many of the worlds emerging economies. Traditional educational models simply cannot scale rapidly enough. But, when we turn the world and its educators into a global networked classroom, fascinating and innovative learning can occur. It will take no additional effort and time for us (Rita Kop, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier) if 500 or 5000 learners from Africa join our open course in September. Each node that joins the network amplifies the network’s potential for peer learning and participation.

(Quick shout out to the IRRODL special issue of distance education in Africa from 2009 addressing some of the African learning challenges)


  1. Andre Malan wrote:

    I’ve been thinking about these issues for a long time, not only the tension between “providing education” and “providing “high quality, low cost education”, but also the worry of how the West’s open content may drown Africa’s cultural content.

    One of the greatest models that I’ve seen is Siyavula, which uses to try and host open content for the entire South African curriculum.

    However, curriculum is still the biggest tension in change. It is often government defined. Siyavula only works because it is done within the existing (recently reformed) education system. Networked learning requires a move away from traditional curriculum and assessment models. While setting up the model may be easier and cheaper than setting up a traditional model, how does one go about convincing the various departments of education that this may indeed be a better way of educating their people? Many of these systems have been in place for decades and I can see the resistance to change being incredibly high.

    Friday, August 27, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink
  2. Janet Rangou wrote:

    Scaling up of education in developing countries is a real challenge. In Papua New Guinea ( PNG), the African problems are similar and I believe a paradignm shift in thinking around the critical questions posed in the article above is essential. In PNG context,where effort for dual mode university exists in the University of PNG- the full potential of Open & disatnce is yet to be realised and made into reality. Thanks for sahring the article as it makes one, think as to how best can social particicpated networked learning work best in PNG. Culturallly, the ideals of communal learning, communal ownership etc are already deeply rooted in PNG societies.

    Thursday, September 2, 2010 at 4:56 pm | Permalink
  3. Michael Rowe wrote:

    Hi George. Thanks for highlighting the issue of education in Africa. As a South African educator, I agree with the notion that for us to address many of our critical issues (poverty, healthcare, etc.), we need to move to a system of open, networked and social learning. However, while you mention the fact that our infrastructure is improving, leading to an increase in physical access and a decrease in costs, one of our biggest problems is actually epistemological access.

    All of my students have access to a computer and the internet either at home or at work, but few of them really know what to do with it. Entering a few keywords into Google is pretty much the extent of the use cases, and without the time and resources to train students and faculty, they’re going to struggle to participate in the system you describe :(

    In my department (I teach physiotherapy) we’re trying to address the issue of epistemological access by scaffolding learning activities that use emerging tools. One of the biggest challenges is the associated mindshift that needs to occur before we can embrace networked, social learning. It’s “easier” for students to memorise content, a strategy that’s worked for them for 12 years, than to change. I think we’re moving in the right direction, but it’s going to take time.

    Thanks again for the post.

    Wednesday, September 15, 2010 at 12:16 am | Permalink