Strengthening education in Africa: The essential role of ICT in building resilient learning systems

By Chinedu Anarado, Albert Nsengiyumva, Shem Bodo, and Oswald Rutayisire, ADEA

On the 5th of May 2023, the World Health Organization declared an end to the COVID-19 Emergency. Nevertheless, global economic levers are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic. African economies are dealing with multiple shocks worsened by the war in Ukraine. These include weaker external demand, a sharp uptick in global inflation, higher borrowing costs and adverse weather events. Real output losses compared to pre-pandemic projections remain large, particularly in Africa. To address these issues, this blog describes the importance of building a resilient education system, within which technology can play a vital role.

In the education sector, schools have since reopened but the learning loss and school years lost to the pandemic may never be recovered. About 1.57 billion learners globally were unable to access education. In Africa, the situation worsened an already bad situation, with 140 million children unable to access learning. A recent study on the impact of COVID-19 on education showed that Grade II students in South Africa lost between 57% – 70% of a year of learning comparative to pre-pandemic levels. Uganda closed schools for two years, which made it difficult to address worsening reading and comprehension competency among pupils.  

These challenges underscored the need to evolve a resilient, forward looking education system that can withstand crises. Technology is one solution that can help. At the ADEA 2022 Triennale, Ministers of Education and ministerial delegations made a commitment to ‘embrace digitalization to improve the sustainable delivery of education and training in Africa.’ These include using technology to drive digital up-skilling of teachers and pursuing aggressive investment in digital transformation and infrastructure. Similarly, the premier Spotlight Report on Basic Education Completion and Foundational Learning in Africa written by the UNESCO GEM Report, ADEA and the African Union recognized efforts by partners to leverage technology to produce reading materials in national languages.   

But technology is expensive and has left a digital divide that may worsen access to quality teaching and learning, especially for rural and high poverty households. Countries need to prioritize their expenditure, deepen investment in critical infrastructure and find a model that will ensure that every child, regardless of economic status or location, benefits from quality education mediated by technology.  

In recognition of this, and to support member countries to expand their capacity in the use of technology in education, ADEA conducted a study on the use of ICT in education and remote learning during crisis in 34 countries in Africa, commissioned by the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) and the African Development Bank (AfDB) and supported by the Mastercard Foundation and the government of Japan. The study reviewed the state of preparation of the study countries in support of ICT use in education and how technology solutions were deployed to mitigate learning losses during COVID-19. It covers basic and secondary education, technical and vocational education, and training (TVET) and higher education and provides an empirical basis to support country-level ambitions embodied in the Ministerial Triennale Declaration.

Inadequate electricity and ICT infrastructure

While findings varied from across countries, a key denominator was the lack of infrastructure to mainstream digital technologies in learning institutions. For instance, many countries lacked electricity or reliable energy sources. Apart from Mauritius, most countries on the continent require investments in electricity provision to schools, especially in rural and peri-urban locations.

Similarly, despite various government-led and private sector initiatives, outdated or non-existent infrastructure is hampering ICT use in teaching and learning. As a result, ICT use in teaching and learning remains poor across schools while internet connectivity remains a challenge for schools.

At the policy level, most countries have established policies on education while most have policies on ICT. However, few have specific policies on the use of ICT in education. It is also commonplace to find “ICT in Education” as a component of either the education or ICT policy or both. Regardless of the situation in the study countries, the COVID-19 pandemic showed that a smooth transition to inclusive digital learning for all was a key challenge for all study countries because of policy gaps. This is resulting in weak or slow adaptability of education systems in times of emergencies, an important feature of a resilient education system.

Weak digital competence among the education workforce was evident. While countries have invested extensively in infrastructure to support their vision for digital learning, digital teaching and learning during the pandemic was impeded by a lack of ICT-readiness among teachers. Skills gap manifested in teacher inability to connect and access digital facilities and content, lack of readiness for the rapid transition to remote learning, poor skills in digital course content creation, and poor capacity to manage digital classrooms remain key challenges.

Recommended priority investments

The study report urged countries to build appropriate supporting infrastructure, prioritize sound pedagogy, and train educators to effectively use ICT to support instruction, in addition to building the overall systemic ICT capacity. Critical recommendations include improving electricity supply especially in schools and households in rural areas, and expanding investment in internet infrastructure, broadband connectivity and increasing penetration of television and radio especially in schools located in rural and peri-urban centres. 

Building educator capacity and those of policy makers in ICT use is critical. The study proposes a revision of the teacher training curricula and strengthening the capacity of pre-service and in-service teachers. Equally, it recommends the development of a high quality professional Digital Leadership Development program for the heads of educational institutions to create an enabling environment for visioning, coherent policy making and driving educational transformation at school level. It recognized the value of leadership and management capacity in school administrators, critical for mainstreaming digital technology in teaching and learning.  

Countries also need to find a model to fast-track mainstreaming of the use of ICT in teaching and learning. This can be achieved by developing mass digital literacy programs for citizens, putting in place strategies to ensure the use of high-tech tools and devices both in schools and in households, and providing e-materials and curriculum-adapted learning resources for other media like radio and television. 

Curriculum updates may be necessary to embrace 21st century digital teaching and learning and assessment modes for student evaluation, by replacing knowledge-based tests with alternative modes of assessments that focus on achievement of learning outcomes. 

Conclusion 

Technology is no silver bullet. But its appropriate application can address many of the teething issues in teaching and learning, if leveraged properly. It brings transformative potential and should be considered an investment with benefits that go beyond education. Harnessing the power of ICT can result in a resilient and inclusive education system and an innovative work force, while empowering the next generation of learners in Africa. 

At a broader level, countries must recognize the need to build partnership and commit themselves to solving issues of poverty and hunger especially, as enshrined in the second of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 2) and the Continental Education Strategy for Africa 2016-2025 (CESA 16-25). The ICT-in-Education study has demonstrated that, while ICT provides solutions to myriad challenges, especially in poverty eradication and education, it can be ineffective without the right investment. Furthermore, deploying ICT without the right backbone could result in resource waste. 

 

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