Time has flown by since May 2011 when we gathered in Dar es Salaam for the 6th eLearning Africa conference. Now that the dust has settled, we have the chance to look back and reflect on how the conference unfolded. An evaluation of the conference entails examining the feedback provided by the conference participants and reflecting on what we have learnt, what was most enjoyable about the conference, and what can be improved for the future.
By David Hollow
Developing a culture of continuous improvement is central to the ethos of eLA. The conference exists in order to enhance the way that technology is used to enhance education in Africa. In order to do that, the conference team have to focus on the continual development of the conference itself – assessing how well the objectives are being met. This means taking feedback seriously, with significant time and energy invested in order to find out genuine participant views. There were several things in place at eLA this year to ensure that the conference team really heard from participants regarding their perspectives. Alongside the conference evaluation forms, many participants were interviewed by a member of the programme team. In addition was the new My eLA session where participants had the opportunity to discuss, critique and brainstorm with the programme team regarding the future of eLA. So, what did this teach us about the conference?
First, we received an overwhelmingly high degree of positive feedback! Participants appreciate belonging to the eLA community in addition to simply attending the conference. This was explained by one well known participant, Gaston Donnat Bappa, a traditional chief from the Babimbi region in Cameroon who says, “Every year, we have more and more the feeling of belonging to a community. eLA is the only place where ICT is meeting culture and culture meeting ICT in Africa.” Participants also value the high standard of the sessions and logistics. An academic from South Africa noted: ‘the conference this year is a few notches up on quality of presentations, quality of discussions, [and] definitely far more coherent, well put together.’ eLA 2011 had over 1700 participants from over 90 countries. We wanted to know what it is that motivates people to come to eLA. The clear answer to this question is that people come to eLA because it is the most important place to be for networking and learning regarding ICT-enhanced learning in Africa. eLA gives people the opportunity to establish partnerships, meet key practitioners, view new innovations and find solutions for daily work.
Many participants expressed that they view the conference as a platform facilitating a learning environment, opening up opportunities, and addressing concerns around ICT and education. One participant from the private sector in Tanzania commented: ‘eLA is the only place you can meet the people you need to meet – This is where everyone from across Africa will be…If we missed out on this conference, then we would miss out on everyone who is here – We would miss the ICT and education sector in Africa.’ Similarly, an academic from Mozambique expressed the view that ‘the most important thing here is learning from other people…there is the potential to begin partnerships for eLearning here.’ It was great to hear repeatedly how participants value the opportunity to share ideas together regarding the effective integration of ICT in education: learning from one another across the continent. On a practical note, the decision to move the opening plenary to the previous evening was widely welcomed. MacDaniel Powell and Jenerali Ulimwengu were the most popular plenary speakers. One participant expressed this clearly: ‘listening to Jenerali and MacDaniel at the plenary session was very important … they taught us to know our cultures first, and then to learn and pick the ICTs that are useful for us.’
A frequent suggestion was that next year there should be more African representation in the plenaries in order to reflect the diversity of the Continent. In addition, there were requests for better clarity about the conference themes. Specific requests were for dedicated attention on mobile learning, eHealth, eLearning beyond the classroom, rural areas, pedagogy and sustainability. Another area where we will be working to improve is the quality of multilingual services, as a few participants reported that translation was a significant challenge in some sessions. Linked to this was feedback requesting that more Francophone sessions and French-speaking chairpersons, alongside an overall increased focus on experiences from Francophone Africa, be included in the eLA programme. This is also something we will work hard to address as we move forward with eLA 2012 which will take place in the Benin where the national language is French.
One of the main things attracting people to eLA is the size of the conference. This means that there are hundreds of people with whom interaction is possible, but some structure to these networking opportunities would be useful. We also heard that participants want more structured mini-sessions to aid networking and skill sharing. Specifically, people want the chance to engage with their counterparts from other countries alongside trouble shooters and technical support people from the service providers. One noted specifically the desire for more opportunities ‘to meet people to share problems with, to find people to talk to about the problems that I am facing in my role – those that have the same technical challenges as me each day’.
Participants highlighted the value of online communities in helping them keep connected. That is exactly what the eLearning Africa Facebook group is for, with well over 1000 members. Please do join the group, become part of the conversation, and keep collaborating throughout the year. We improve what we do whenever we connect with other like-minded, skilled people. We share knowledge and go home with more gained: this is the nature of a learning community and this is what happens at the eLA conference. The eLA team are always seeking to facilitate this environment more effectively and to improve things as we go forward. Please keep giving feedback to help shape the future of eLA: Together we can become increasingly effective at reaching our goal of using technology to improve education and transform society. It is with this goal in mind that we have decided that eLA 2012 will focus on “eLearning and Sustainability”. In view of the environmental, political and economic turmoil across the world, opening the conversation on the role of e-learning to explore more creative ways towards a sustainable future becomes urgent. We look forward to healthy debate and engagement on this timely subject.