Earlier this week I got to take part in a fantastic roundtable session that looked at the future of education in Africa and how technology, particularly mobile could help to drive educational development in the region.
Taking place at the House of Lords, and chaired by the excellent and vastly knowledgeable Lord Paul Boateng, the panel consisted of a range of highly experienced and influential people from organisations such as UNESCO and the CTO.
The event was aimed at exploring the barriers and debating the key topics that surround the development of education in Africa and provide us all with the motivation and encouragement to do our bit and increase participation in helping Africa to ramp up their educational activities.
When asked the question, ‘is mobile the future of education in Africa?’, the room was pretty much split down the middle which really led me to ask two questions that I don’t think have been answered yet; 1) define ‘future ‘, for some, the future isn’t one, five or 10 years it’s next week or even tomorrow and 2) what is education? I had gone into the room with the assumption that we weren’t debating a formal educational structure but life-long learning. I still don’t know if we came to a conclusion on that but we did agree that mobile could help people at all stages of life if we used it correctly. There is no one size fits all approach that will work, that was clear.
The debate as to what mobile actually means was interesting as well. The conclusion was that increasing connectivity was the most important goal. Anat Bar-Gera from YooMee Africa gave us the stat that only 2% of Africans currently have access to broadband. The need for the infrastructure to be put in place to increase access is obvious but the single biggest problem identified was, how do we pay for it? It’s not just as simple as putting in the infrastructure of course. You have to maintain it, upgrade it and ensure it’s secure, not to mention the fact that we then have to find a way to put a device in the hands of every person on the continent. For the MNOs, telcos etc there has to be a commercial driver for going into a market and the same applies for the handset manufacturers to not only make it affordable for the consumer, but commercially attractive to the business.
It’s perhaps a naivety of the academic and public sector worlds that these corporations should and will do these things because we want them to. Somebody somewhere will always have to pay for it. How long it will take to lobby the main parties (and in the end it will take government intervention and money) into action is an unknown and so what we really took away from the event was we can do things right now within existing market conditions.
The vast majority of Africans have a feature phone (Nokia have the largest market share of all players in the region) and there are some great examples out there of work being done by organisations to utilise the technology that is in use within African society right now, such as the SmartWoman project.
Content can be sent to these handsets as SMS or USSD (or dare I even suggest that a mobile phone be used for actually calling someone!) and while I agree that content on a tablet is far more digestible than content on a four inch screen, if we put education at the centre of the communication rather than the technology, we can help people learn vital life skills. And if we shift some of the focus on what we can do now as well as what we can do moving forward, the future of education can start immediately.
Professor Tim Unwin from the CTO concluded the discussion with the notion that it will take commitment for mobile to truly be a driver of change. The message I think he was really trying to tell (sell?) us was; if we really want to do it then let’s do it. Walk the walk, don’t talk the talk.
The round-table was organised by The Planet Earth Institute. You can view their website here.