Wednesday, June 12, 2013

E-learning Africa – 7 new narratives

Amazing event - 1500 people from all over Africa, to
discuss, debate, dance, sing and celebrate. I’ve never been to a conference
like it, and believe me I’ve been to a few. I was there to give a keynote,
workshop and take part in the final event of the conference – the Big Debate
but to be honest I gained much more than I gave. To give you some idea of the
humour on hand, during a meal at which I was eating crocodile, zebra, kudu and
springbok, a lad from Uganda asked of Channa (who’s vegetarian), “If you like
animals so much, why are you eating all their food”.

1. New African narrative

(whatever that is) wants to do things its own way. The people at this event
wanted to change the old pessimistic narrative of poverty, starvation, AIDS,
malaria and dependency, to a new narrative of optimism and self-sufficiency. I
met nothing but friendly, enthusiastic, committed people, who want to do things
the African way.

So what is this African ‘way’? What I think lay at the heart
of the sentiment was the idea that Africa had been subjected to foreign
influences for too long. I constantly heard calls for approaches and contents
to be more relevant, contextualised and in local languages. I gave my own view
in The Big Debate, a wonderfully, raucous event held at the end of the
conference, where I presented evidence that Mitra’s Hole-in-the-Wall projects
ad Negroponte’s Ethiopian adventure were dangerous, unsustainable and at times
downright lies. "Don't let
educational colonialism sneak in... with bucket loads of hardware and content
that is inappropriate for your children.
" My formidable opponent Adele
said something similar when she urged approaches “By the Africans for the Africans - and we will share best practice with
you when it's done.
" This debate, on ‘sustainability v innovation’ was
a hoot. Massive audience participation, loads of laughs and although we clearly
won, there was a messy recount and the decision was reversed. When I asked why,
the reply was telling, “Remember Donald,
this is Africa!

2. Mobiles as lifelines

My keynote talk
was on mobile learning, small beer elsewhere but BIG in Africa. The Nokia 3310
has legendary status in Africa, but Samsung’s the new kid on the block. Africa
loves mobile tech. Calls, text, health, finance – they’ve found a myriad of
ways to use mobiles to enhance their lives. Tariffs are still high but
youngsters would go without food for more airtime. As was explained to me in
the Katatura Township, a mobile for someone in real poverty is far more
important than for someone in a developed country. If you rely on piece-work,
you need to be available to take a call at any time. It’s a way of managing and
transferring what little money you have and receiving remittances from that
relative abroad. It’s a way of switching on your electricity and getting
medical help. It’s a lifeline.

My keynote was all about mobile learning. The very first
piece of technology was invented here in Africa – the stone axe. And for 1.7
million years this was the dominant technology – the first handheld device. But
there’s something odd about stone axes, as many are found in pristine
condition, unused, or as large axes, far too big to be practical. As pieces of
useful technology, they had ‘status’ value. In that sense we have to be careful
about m-learning as they may be seen by youngsters as ‘too cool for school’. My
second piece of advice was to forget ‘courses’. Mobiles are the GPS for
learning, rather than delivering learning itself. Think search, performance
support, informal learning – not courses. Think of contextual learning,
vocational elearning out in the field, reinforcement through spaced practice.
Think different. Also, be careful with video, as few watch video on mobiles,
think audio and text. Media rich is not necessarily mind rich. What I saw in
Africa was the clever use of mobile technology to enhance literacy and
practical learning.

3. Mobiles as motivators for literacy

In my
workshop on ‘Mobiles and literacy’ I was pushing the idea that mobiles had
produced a ‘renaissance of reading and writing’ among the young. It will, I
think, be the single most important factor in increasing literacy on the
planet. Why? Every child is massively motivated to learn to text, post and
message on mobiles. The evidence shows that they become obsessive readers and
writers through mobile devices.

I saw ample
evidence of learning how to read and write through mobiles in what can only be
described as ‘challenging’ conditions. Cornelia Koku Muganda showed us real
evidence for positive results with girls and women in Tanzania, who not only
had to learn to read and write (txt) but who couldn’t afford to make expensive
mistakes such as wrong numbers, wrong codes for electricity switch-on and so
on. Mignon Hardie had a wonderful scheme for young people in the Townships of
South Africa, gaining not only literacy skills but valuable insights into their
own lives through specially written narratives. Ian Mutarami and Mikko Pitkanen
showed how games technology could deliver mobile phonics apps in local

My own
session focussed on the fact that Africa showed the fastest growth &
massive use of txting. Txting is a significant form of literacy, introduced by youngsters, on their own,
spontaneously, rapidly & without tuition. Oddly, some complain about
poor literacy, but when a technology arrives that provides opportunities to
read and write (constantly) some complain about that! So why the moral panic? Is it a linguistic disaster? No.
Almost all popular beliefs about TXTING are wrong. It’s not new, not for
young only, helps rather than hinders literacy and adds a new dimension to
language use. Language is about being understood and txting has adapted to this
need. Good txters understand that ‘Cnsnnts crry mr infrmtn thn vwls’ and play
with language. Interestingly, women more enthusiastic txters, write longer
txts, more complex txts, use more emoticons, more His & BYEs and more
emotional content (Richard Ling  The Sociolinguistics of SMS)

More importantly, txting
benefits literacy as it is a motivating factor in writing (Katz & Aakhus),
requires phonetic knowledge, has links with success in attainment (Wood & Bell), helps one be concise (Fox)
and helps develop social skills (Fox).

4. Hardware

A huge
debate erupted over what devices should be used in learning in Africa. For my
money, the good projects used mobile or notebooks/laptops. Tablets were being
hyped but when I spoke to people they were wary of their lack of flexibility,
low level learning potential, maintenance problems and costs. While they may be
appropriate in some contexts, such as Merryl Ford’s work in rural S Africa and
in early years or primary school, I have serious doubts about their efficacy in
most other contexts. They are impossible to repair, difficult to network and
can severely limit skills development in writing, coding and the use of more
sophisticated software tools.

I was much more impressed 
with the laptop projects. Nkubito Manzi Bakuramutsa was an impressive
project manager from Rwanda. He stressed the need for proper infrastructure-
it’s all about wifi, electricity, cabling and sockets. But where he was smart
was in his capacity building of teachers. This is, “fundamental – they are your
front line troops”. It starts with 5 days training for heads of schools, each
with one champion teacher,  to
familiarise themselves with tech, then teaching with the laptop. Education must
come before technology. Then the bombshell – he pleaded for a proper academic
study on their effectiveness.

5. Vocational v academic

The Namibian
Prime Minister spoke on the first day of the conference. He was witty but also
wily. I liked him, as he warned us against the ‘spectacle of hallucination’ where technology was used to create
illusory progress. Shiny objects that dazzle but don’t deliver long-term
solutions. He urged us to focus on vocational, not academic, context and
content. Health, farming, tourism, entrepreneurship – employability was the
watchword for Africa.

Big problems need big and innovative solutions. Time and
time again I heard requests for approaches and content that are more sensitive
to context and culture. Too many projects parachuted technology and English
content that had little relevance for learners. The western idea of ’academic’
schooling was being pushed but was unsustainable. Schooling in itself is not
the answer in itself, as almost everyone in Africa leaves school – then what?
Millennium goals around schooling will not deliver unless that schooling is

6. Health, agriculture, public sector,

I saw a myriad of useful projects around agriculture (look
out for the conference in
Kigali, Rwanda, later this year. Giacomo Rambaldi is passionate about the use
of technology in farming, especially around the use of m-banking (Robert Okine
in Ghana), messaging on livestock (Darlington Kahilu in Zambia), iCow in Kenya,
optimising the use of pesticides (John Gushit in Nigeria), vetinary projects –
the list goes on and on. Then the healthcare projects, nurse licence renewal,
HIV counselling (Fabrice Laurentine in Namibia), drug prescription (Lesek
Wojnowski in S Africa). I saw innovative thinking around capacity building in
the public sector. Then there’s the innovation hubs and entrepreneurship
projects. Bloggers, like Mac-Jordan Degadjor, show that the new narrative must
be created from within.

7. Sustainability

My contribution to The Big Debate focused on
‘sustainability’. You can keep on ‘taking the expensive tablets’, buy into the
myth that is Sugata Mitra’s ‘holes in walls’ or believe Negroponte’s Ethiopian
hype’ OR you can start with real problems and real, sustainable solutions.
Tech-led projects can work but only if the risks are understood and assessed
from the start. Innovation without sustainability is not innovation at all. If
you want to avoid massive failure, then watch out for tech that lies at
Gartner’s ‘Peak of inflated expectations’ as it will more than likely end up in
the ‘Trough of disillusionment’.

Africa has had a swarm of mosquito projects, what it needs
are more steady, long-lived tortoise projects. Sustainability comes in several
forms; sustainable in technical infrastructure, stakeholders, teacher training,
learner take-up, maintenance, context, relevance, languages and culture. Above
all, Africa needs sustainability in terms of costs. 20% of the poor  exist on 
$1 a day  20% 40% on  $2 a
day. Now if the global average of ICT spend 3% of income, they can only afford
$10-$20, and it would have to be relevant. In fact they tend to spend this on
cheap mobiles. Think, then, on this. Tablets $200-$300but total costs - solar
power, maintenance & support add much, much more. These expensive tablets
have serious side-effects.


Weber-Fahr gave a potent presentation with a focus on social mobility. The key
point is urbanisation. This is what lifts people out of poverty. But she had a
stark warning. Social mobility is not guaranteed and by no means certain.
Africa has huge resources, huge challenges but also a huge reservoir of hope. I
came away with a different mindset about Africa. Throwing hardware at the
problems is not the solution. True solutions must be home-grown. African
projects, run by Africans for Africans, using African content relevant to
African contents and languages.

Even at the airport I was engaged in conversation with
people from Nigeria and Ghana, all eager to talk and get on with things. On the
plane I sat next to a young girl from Uganda who had been at the conference.
She was from Uganda and was brimming with hope for the future and I look
forward to seeing her next year in Kampala, where the next brilliant e-learning
Africa will take place.


Well done to
Rebecca and her ICWE team for organising the conference. They were magnificent.
From the warm welcome at the airport to the final sundown party at River
Crossing, the whole experience was a joy.

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