Field Stories

Exploring gaming, eBooks and ‘interactive phone instruction’ in Africa



© Mukhobeh Moses Khaukha, eLA 2010 Photo Competition


Exciting opportunities for learning innovation are on the horizon in Africa, says Michael Trucano, the World Bank’s Senior ICT and Education Policy Specialist, who will deliver a keynote speech at eLearning Africa 2011. New submarine cables and backbone networks promise a new era of affordable, high speed broadband connectivity; eBooks offer a ‘huge potential’. New methods such as serious games for Africa or ‘interactive mobile phone instruction’ need to be explored. Here, Michael elaborates on how learning, skills development and innovation can be further unleashed with the support of ICTs.

eLA: eLearning Africa 2011 will focus on Youth, Skills & Employability. One of your programmes is titled ‘New Economy Skills for Africa’. Which skills are those, and how can they be developed?

Michael Trucano: Our ‘NESAP-ICT’ programme supports countries in Sub-Sahara Africa (SSA) in building skills for the knowledge economy. It focuses initially on globally benchmarked, employable skills for the Information Technology (IT) and IT Enabled Services (ITES) industry – sectors that can create thousands of new jobs and catalyze economic and social transformation.

Michael Trucano, World Bank

The IT/ITES industry offers young people the prospect of work in many areas. In IT the options include hardware and software maintenance, network administration, help desk services, applications development and maintenance and R&D; while in ITES, they include call center and back office operations, multimedia, and animation and cross-industry services such as Finance and Accounts and Human Resources.

NESAP-ICT supports employable skills that are aligned to international standards in the IT-ITES industry. The programme thus emphasises:

  • Globally-benchmarked, industry-rated skills assessment, training and certification
  • “Bridge” style training programmes that align what students are taught and what industry requires
  • Industry collaboration, for example, through “knowledge hubs” to develop curricula, learning content and testing and certification standards
  • Mainstreaming ICT in education to take advantage of IT-enabled learning and to prepare future generations of IT-savvy workers

The encouraging news is that the global “potential” for IT/ITES outsourcing is currently estimated at US$500 billion, only 15 percent of which seems to have been tapped; and is expected to treble to US$1.5 to 1.6 trillion by 2020.

The lack of skilled manpower is a binding constraint to realising the potential of the sector. The soon-to-be-completed submarine fiber optic cable networks around Africa and the terrestrial backbone networks that are now being laid promise a new era of affordable, high speed broadband connectivity throughout the Continent. Many African countries therefore hope to claim a slice of the global IT-ITES business.

[callout title=The World Bank and ICTs]

“The World Bank recognises the critical importance of effectively utilizing new Information and Communication Technologies to meet the growing need for a more sophisticated labour force, manage information systems, and contribute to poverty reduction in Africa. The vast majority of active World Bank education projects contain an ICT component.

Support for ICT in education includes assistance for equipment and facilities, teacher training and support, capacity building, educational content, distance learning, digital literacy, policy development, monitoring and evaluation and media outreach.

The World Bank works in partnership with governments and organisations worldwide to support innovative projects, timely research and knowledge sharing activities related to the effective and appropriate use of ICTs in education.”[/callout]

eLA: In your keynote speech at eLearning Africa  2011, you will be showcasing innovative uses of ICTs in education from around the world. Could you give us one or two examples of such uses which have potential relevance to Africa?

Michael Trucano: I see that a few of the examples I will cite will be presented at length by some of the other speakers. Prof  Sugata Mitra’s work with Hole-in-the-Wall, for example, is of course an inspiration to many working in this area. While the learning experience enabled through the installation of computer terminals in slum areas in India is meant to ‘minimally invasive’, this does not mean that you can just drop the computers into these communities and expect meaningful things to happen. ‘Community mobilization’ in support of the initiative has been cited as a key component in successful implementations for Hole-in-the-Wall over time.

The potential use of mobile phones to support a variety of education-related activities in Africa is quite promising, although we have precious few large-scale examples of how this potential can be realised in practice.

That said, there are emerging lessons that deserve wider dissemination – including those from the MILLEE project in India and BBC Janala in Bangladesh. Two to three years ago, I had very little traction when trying to initiative discussions around the potential use of mobile phones in education with many counterparts in Africa. This is now changing very quickly – perhaps due in part to the strong interest by private sector vendors to participate in what they feel will be very large markets related to ‘mLearning’ in the coming years. Of course, there is a real danger where vendors dominate the discussions in this regard – academics can have a very important role to play here and it was great to see that the eLA  workshop on “Publishing a Mobile Learning Research Paper” was one of the first to be oversubscribed!)

I will also talk about URGENT EVOKE, the online ‘serious game’ sponsored by the World Bank that attempted to help connect young people all over the world, and especially in Africa, to start solving urgent social problems like hunger, poverty, disease, conflict, climate change, sustainable energy, health care, education, and human rights, to collaborate with others globally and to develop real world ideas to address these challenges. This sort of thing, and approach, may be new for many at the conference, and I will share some of the lessons from this ‘game’, in which over 20,000 young people participated.

eLA: In your blog you quote the sentence “technology can play a key role (…) if we consider educational opportunities beyond those offered through conventional formal schooling”. What opportunities could those be in Africa?

Michael Trucano: People like Jan Chipchase like to note that, for many people in developing countries, the mobile phone is the last thing they touch before they go to sleep, and the first thing they reach for when they wake up in the morning. As a tool to help enable opportunities to ‘learn’ whenever someone wants, wherever she is, a device that is always in someone’s hand (or pocket or pocketbook) has clear potential.

Many formal education systems in Africa are not well organised to support non-formal learning in a major way. This is understandable, given that, for much of the Continent, the focus since 1990 has been on getting kids into school as part of moves towards ‘Education For All’.

Let’s be clear: Most folks in Africa still use very low end phones – but this is projected to change quite a bit over the next decade, as smartphones drop in price (hopefully precipitously). As that happens, the potential for things like informal education gaming on one’s phone to provide basic instruction on (for example) language or mathematic topics is something worth exploring.

For me, the most exciting opportunities may lie in how these devices can help support basic literacy training. Some of the research from the World Bank documenting low levels of basic literacy, especially in many rural communities in Africa, highlights just how far we have to go to ensure not only that all children can go to school, but that all students are able to read.

Conventional school-based methods and practices have been insufficient to address the challenges related to this in many places so far – perhaps we should be paying more attention to exploring unconventional methods and practices, both inside and outside of schools, to help us support learners as they improve their ability to read. Interactive radio instruction (IRI) has been used successfully in this regard in some places – perhaps ‘interactive phone instruction’ is worth exploring as well? I don’t know what this might mean, exactly – but I look forward to talking with many folks at eLearning Africa this year who are seeking to explore answers to this question.

eLA: What are – in your opinion – the most promising ways of avoiding high cost and improving connectivity in Africa?

Michael Trucano: One thing that the World Bank has been trying to do – in fact has been doing – for the past decade is to support deregulation and competition to help open telecommunications markets across Africa. The landing of the various submarine cables, and the complementary roll-out of terrestrial broadband networks, should help tremendously in this regard. The ‘last mile problem’ will be more difficult to solve – wireless solutions are presumably the most cost-effective to help in this regard.

I should also note that, even where fast, reliable connectivity is not coming quickly enough, there are innovative approaches that are worth considering (the eGranary is one example), especially in rural areas, because we simply don’t have ‘time to wait’. While things are improving, they aren’t improving quickly enough for *everyone*. I also note that, in many places in Africa, the so-called digital divide these days is as much about access to reliable electricity as it is about access to computing resources.

eLA: The World Bank runs an eBook pilot project in several countries, including Tanzania, eLearning Africa’s host 2011. What are the results so far, and what potential do you see for eBooks in Africa?

Michael Trucano: The potential for eBooks in Africa is huge. Costs will come down – significantly – in the coming years. A recent World Bank report on textbook provision in Africa found that only 1 of the 19 countries studied (Botswana) had adequate textbook provision at close to a 1:1 ratio for all subjects and all grades. In other words: There aren’t enough textbooks for most students in Africa, and what is available is too expensive.

We are still too early in our eBook pilots in Africa to draw any responsible conclusions, but this will be an increasing area of focus for us in years to come. I note that the use of eBook readers often fits rather comfortably within their existing view of educational delivery (“in the end it’s just a book, and we understand books”, an African education official remarked once to me) in ways that potentially ‘disruptive’ and ‘connected’ technologies like laptops and phones do not.

That said, I have been involved in more than a few presentations where the projected costs for physical textbooks and the costs for eReaders are graphed over time. With the costs for eReaders projected to continue to fall, at some stage a point of intersection is achieved. It is at this juncture, advocates say, that the costs for using eReaders will help ministries of education achieve significant cost savings. This is potentially true … assuming a whole set of other things are in place that ensure that locally relevant content is available at affordable prices to put on the (increasingly low cost) devices. While end user device costs are important, they are only one piece of the puzzle.

The comments expressed here are those of the speaker, and are not necessarily representative of the World Bank.

Michael Trucano will deliver his keynote speech at eLearning Africa in the Plenary Session C on Friday, May 27, 2011 from 08:30 – 10:30.


If you are interested in more information on any of these topics, you may wish to see the related posts on the World Bank’s popular EduTech blog:

Education & Technology in Africa: Creating Takers … or Makers?

eReading in Africa

Mobile learning in developing countries in 2011: What’s new, what’s next?

Stuffing the Internet in a box and shipping it to schools in Africa (eGranary)

EVOKE Reflections: Results from the World Bank’s on-line educational game

Worst practice in ICT use in education

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