New technologies: threat or opportunity for Africa?

The possibilities and challenges of using information and communication technologies (ICT) in education in Africa

Will emerging cutting-edge technologies increase the divide or provide an unprecedented opportunity in Africa? During the African Forum on Youth Skills and Enterprises in the Digital Age in Tunis last month, young entrepreneurs made it clear that they are comfortable and excited about the opportunities of this new era.

African Forum on Youth Skills and Enterprises in the Digital Age held in Tunis. Photo Credit: ADEA

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” Socrates

This blog post is the 4th for 2018 in a collaboration between the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), which began in 2017.

What role African countries will play when emerging cutting-edge technologies will be mainstreamed? Will the technologies increase the divide or provide an unprecedented opportunity? These were two of the main key questions asked during the opening panel at the African Forum on Youth Skills and Enterprises in the Digital Age, which took place in Tunis last month.

On one hand, robotics, virtual realities (VRs), artificial intelligence (AI) can be seen as a threat to existing jobs in a continent already struggling to create sufficient employment opportunities.  Indeed, it is said that 80% of current jobs will disappear in the next 25 years. On the other hand, these new technologies shape a world with new services and solutions that did not exist before and through that they create new jobs and roles.

Nowadays, young entrepreneurs are already fearlessly harnessing the power of emerging technologies to create solutions to existing problems. Even if the formal education system is unable to provide them with trainings in all the latest trends, they manage to find and acquire the knowledge and the skills they need to realize their visions. 

Various support programs, such as the Kamilimu mentorship program in Kenya have been designed to support students and fill some gaps that the formal system cannot fill with the same quickness. I was thrilled to learn about the work of Kamilimu thanks to Chao Mbogo and then meeting Ruth Waiganjo, a young woman tech entrepreneur who went through the mentoring program and received the “Ms. Geek Africa 2017”, a title awarded to her during the Transform Africa Summit 2017 held in Kigali, Rwanda. It is wonderful to see the new generation taking advantage of the possibilities given to them to create meaningful ventures.

Traditional education faces new technologies

The role of the education system has been subject to change for years and pressure to find new solutions for filling the role of traditional education is increasing. 

Once schools were the place to get the current and needed information for life, but the rapid pace in which technologies develop make it harder and harder for schools to stay up-to-date with the latest information.

Traditional education responds poorly to the dynamism of today’s world. The big ideals of providing education and knowledge get lost in the implementation phase. Schools as building with classrooms and teachers is only one way of implementing the idea of kindling a flame for learning and getting students skilled for life. We should push ourselves to create our solutions from the bigger ideal instead of the existing models. 

New technologies are not a mean to implement traditional education in a faster and more efficient way. In most cases, they fail in doing so, especially in environments where teachers have not been trained in re-imagining their role as educators. Sadly, in most cases teachers mainly receive technical training on the use of the tools whereas training in the pedagogies that allow them to shape their work to fit the 21stcentury skills remain close to zero. 

Defining processes of how technologies are applied in teaching and learning is far more important that the tool itself. 

Technologies are often seen as a tool to put education to scale and a solution to provide education to masses. The challenge however is not in the number and novelty of devices any school has. The key is what is being done with the devices and what purpose they are serving. 

As long as education is a process that happens within each and every human being, it cannot be standardized and put in a box or device. Human interaction during learning processes remains crucial. What technology does is to affect those processes, but it does not replace them. When this crucial thinking is lacking, instead of “kindling a flame” in each student, schools are merely factories “filling vessels”.

Enabling ICT teaching and learning is the key

The need to create enabling conditions that support adopting new technologies was another topic raised during the forum. When technologies develop at a fast rate, it is very hard to change the education systems and curricula to adapt to all the new solutions.

Instead, conditions that enable students to find and try new technologies in a flexible way, combined with research initiatives and entrepreneurship support programs, should yield wanted results. Such programs already exist outside the formal education system.

Currently, there are 314 active tech hubs in Africa, in 93 cities and 42 countries. These hubs graduate entrepreneurs seeing a world of opportunities, offered by emerging technologies. 

A future trend will certainly be bringing these hubs closer to tertiary education institutes and to combine research with new ventures. Creating conditions that enable learning and help students find out their strengths and passions in order to build their lives should be the most important task of all education systems.

There are real challenges to integrate ICT in the African education systems. There are not enough teachers to provide students even with the basic skills and also a serious lack of sufficient resources for education. 

Still, at the conclusion of the forum the general feeling was positive. The main outcome is the need to train teachers and students on digital skills, 21st & century skills as well as integrating Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in the African education and training systems, with a special focus on girls and women.

The young entrepreneurs attending the forum made it evident: the new generation is comfortable and excited about the opportunities of this new era. They are the best reminders of why any educator wakes up every morning to go to work: to see kids striving and becoming successful by creating conditions where they flourish because “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel,” as Socrates said.