Development, Education and ICT in Africa– Interview with Shafika Isaacs

Increased availability of online educational resources and widespread interest and enthusiasm for Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) enhanced education are driving the search for ICT based approaches that can work in Africa. The use of ICT is dramatically changing the way in which formal and informal learning is taking place at every conceivable level of society. Yet there are fundamental differences in the way in which educational change is approached and implemented. This Digital Divide is synonymous with the lack of capacities in connectivity, bandwidth, computers in all sectors and also in the education system. SchoolNet Africa is an organisation which aims to build capacities, to develop structures, and to foster digital skills to close the divide and to see that Africa does not miss out on the Information and Communication revolution. SchoolNet Africa’s vision is for the development of all of Africa’s children and youth through access to quality education, information and knowledge on the basis of their effective use of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Their mission is to support national SchoolNets throughout Africa by mobilizing resources and building effective partnerships. Shafika Isaacs is the Executive Director of SchoolNet Africa. She will be a chairperson and will give a presentation at eLearning Africa. We wanted to know her opinion on some significant issues.


eLA: Ms Isaacs, you have an impressive background in education, training, and ICT in Africa. How do you assess the chances for the Continent to overcome the digital divide?

For me, such a question is also a question that asks what the chances are for Africa to be led out of poverty, illiteracy, hunger, war, and disease. These are all inter-related with the digital divide issues and perhaps highlight how digital divide issues have often been conceptualised outside the realm of the realities of general ‘development issues’. Part of the answer to this question also lies with the need for a systemic approach to ‘bridging the digital divide in Africa’, which is linked to strategies of poverty eradication and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

Many attempts have been made to bridge the digital divide in Africa at various levels across many sectors. However we remain hamstrung by structural factors inherent in the system. These include the dire lack of infrastructure, the exorbitant cost of bandwidth, the economic stranglehold of high levels of debt, and reduced government spending on public goods sectors like health and education. Another important issue is the general lack of competitiveness of African economies: structurally they are exporters of raw materials whose prices are in decline and importers of manufactured products, including ICTs. Africa is a consumer of ICT products and services largely produced elsewhere.

To bridge the digital divide effectively requires a dedicated strategy to shift this paradigm. The goal is to produce a highly skilled workforce that will enable our economies to be structured to produce ICTs in a way that makes us competitive in the global market.

How far are we in bridging the digital divide? Most of the analyses on this question suggest that on the whole, our continent is behind even on reaching the most basic Education for All goals of universal primary education with an estimated 43 million young people of school going age not having access to formal education. With reference to schooling systems, if access to basic ICTs can be used as a measure of inclusion in the digital age, then we have only reached about 27,000 out of an estimated total of 600 000 schools with the most basic access to computers – and this does not always include internet access. And of course, our schools do not reach the millions of young people out of schools. Evidently we are not only far from bridging the digital divide, but we require a radical paradigm shift to make this happen.

eLA: There are still a lot of inequalities between the genders. Girls especially are discriminated against in terms of education. Can you tell us about SchoolNet Africa’s efforts to advance the status of girls and women in African societies?

Since our inception we have placed great emphasis on the gendered nature of poverty, of education (or the lack thereof), and indeed on the digital divide. We have argued consistently for the mainstreaming of gender equality and women/girls empowerment strategies in our programs, our plans, and our policies. Whether we approach issues of connectivity, capacity building, education content development or issues of policy on ICT for education, we have consistently tried to highlight their gendered nature by demonstrating disparities between girls and boys, women and men, and importantly by developing dedicated programs to encourage and include girls and women.

One example of this is our Campaign for One Million PCs, where we have argued that we need to ensure that we have PCs reach teachers to use in their homes because the vast majority of African teachers are women, and providing them access to PCs for use in their homes allows women teachers who have been socialized to be technophobic to overcome their phobia for technologies. The Campaign also includes plans to set up Technical Service Centres in a number of African countries that will serve as centres for the provision and support of integrated educational technology solutions to schools. Where we have supported the set-up of these TSCs, we have encouraged technical training programs to include a sizeable proportion of women schoolnet practitioners.

Similarly, in our learner-centred programs like Mtandao Africa (www.mtandao-afrika.org) and the Global Teenager Project (www.globalteenager.org), our teacher-training programs like the African Teachers Network and Networking Africa’s Teacher Training Institutions, we have promoted an approach that raises gender awareness, mainstreams gender issues, and focuses on dedicated strategies targeted specifically and exclusively at women and girls. Of course at the national and local schoolnet level, there are also numerous initiatives in a number of countries where similar approaches have been adopted and have worked.

eLA: What do you think about the various initiatives that have received a lot of press coverage recently, such as Nicolas Negroponte’s $100 Computer / One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative or Microsoft’s idea to use cell phones as the basic device to bring computing to the masses in developing countries?

I think these issues have usefully highlighted the importance of attaining universal access to ICTs in African education, for this is really the crux of the matter. What the $100 Laptop issue demonstrates is that indeed in Africa price matters, and $100 is still too high if we are genuinely talking about universal access to ICTs. It has also allowed us to highlight the fact that for us, too, volume matters. One laptop per child in Africa is an extremely ambitious target when we are dealing with ratios of 1:630 in the 80 out of 7,000 schools in Mozambique which have access to PCs… and Mozambique is a more typical example of schools in Africa. An ambition like 1 laptop per child would also have to address access to the millions of youth outside of the formal school system in Africa. Universal access to ICTs for education also demands free or low cost access to the Internet. Having access to a laptop does not address the issue of prohibitive bandwidth costs, which will block our learners from having access to the world of the Internet even if they have computers. Universal access to ICTs in schools also demands an integrated system of skills training both technically and pedagogically for practitioners, learners and teachers and of course, universal access to ICTs demand access to digitised, re-usable learning objects or education resources.

For us the issue of access to ICTs is also an environmental issue, as it highlights the need for strategies to manage e-waste. Assuming we are to purchase 43 million PCs from Mr Negroponte, we would want to send them back after five years to be recycled, as surely this would be an issue Mr Negroponte would have considered.

On the issue of cell phone use for learning, this is not really a Microsoft idea as it has been practiced in our schools already. Many learners who do not have access to PCs and the Internet at least have access to cell phones or televisions and radios. We believe that a genuine strategy for universal access would also consider the use of a multimodal approach to ICTs in which we integrate the use of traditional technologies such as print media with high-end technologies such as the Internet. Evidently the issue of access is far more multi-faceted and complex.

eLA: SchoolNet Africa was established in November 2001. What would you consider its main achievements so far and what are your targets for the rest of the decade?

Our first and foremost objective has been to demonstrate and represent African leadership on the issue of ICTs and education. I think we have been relatively successful in demonstrating to the world that as Africans we, too, have innovative examples of the use of ICTs for learning that the rest of the world can learn from. Over the past four-and-a-half years, we have produced a number of made-in-Africa research reports on experience on the Continent. We have also embarked on teacher-training programs that have reached an estimated 5,000 teachers. Furthermore, we have reached an estimated 14,000 learners and have consolidated a network of about 200 dedicated schoolnet practitioners operating in about 33 African countries. This excludes the numerous networks we have built with like-minded institutions globally that have allowed us to promote access to collaborative learning prospects for African youth as they engage with youth from the rest of the world. We have also done substantial lobbying and advocacy on pertinent issues relating to technology-enhanced learning from an African perspective, often in ways that challenge prevailing paradigms. Our achievements however, are extremely modest in comparison with the mammoth challenges we face. There remains a very long and hard road ahead.

eLA: Africa is very diverse and varied. What does this mean with regard to the creation and sharing of educational content within your network?

We have always supported and promoted the local production of digitised education resources in local languages that take account of contexts that are locally appropriate. This type of approach deals effectively with the linguistic and cultural diversity of African learning communities. However we also recognize the value of existing global and regional initiatives to create and share open education resources, and we have collaborated with various agencies in this endeavour. We have learner-centred programs in which learners themselves are involved in the development of educational websites, and they are encouraged to do so in their local African languages. In this way, the entire experience of web development and education resource development in a collaborative way is a learning experience. We note the growth of the open education resources movement which is welcoming. We do however believe that it is not just about the availability of content as it is about the sense of ownership in the production of the content and – more importantly – in the use of the education resources in ways that foster learning.

Biographical notes:

Shafika Isaacs is founding Executive Director of SchoolNet Africa. Based in Johannesburg, South Africa, she was previously Senior Program Officer with the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) Acacia Program where she promoted the SchoolNet Africa initiative and supported youth, gender and schoolnet projects in Africa. She is formerly Director of the Trade Union Research Project (TURP) a labour research service organization in South Africa. She is a founding member of the Cape Town-based Primary and High Schools Tuition Program and the Skills Training and Education Centre. A finalist for the World Technology Network Award in 2003 and recipient of the Mandela Scholarship to the University of Sussex where she pursued her Masters in Science and Technology Policy, she serves on the Boards of Directors of Ungana Afrika and SchoolNet South Africa, on the Steering Group of the UN ICT Task Force Global eSchools Initiative (GESCI) and on the Council of the Free and Open Source Software Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA). She also serves on the Advisory Committee of the WSIS Youth Caucus, the Global Teenager Project and the Southern African Network and acts as advisor to the Open Education Resources project of the Global Development Gateway
She also served as Interim Co-ordinator of the WSIS Gender Caucus in 2003 and was chairperson of the United Nations Division for Advancement of Women-led (UNDAW) Expert Group Meeting on ICTs as an Instrument for the Advancement of Women.

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