Carrying out a sustainable plan for the development of ICTs on the Continent will necessarily entail cooperation between the private sector and government, and the eLearning Africa forum allows for fruitful dialogue between various stakeholders. The topics to be explored at eLA 2012 include the development of sustainable technology and infrastructure and how eLearning can be a vehicle for the sustainable development of communities, cultures and economies. As we look ahead to the Cotonou conference, we examine how this discussion of sustainable development is taking shape in host country Benin.
Infrastructure for eLearning
Across the continent, eLearning opportunities differ from country to country as does ICT penetration. Data gathered by Research ICT Africa in their Comparative ICT Sector Performance Review 2009/10 indicates a shrinking voice divide as cellular phones become more widespread; however, broadband Internet access is sparse across the Continent. Computer technology is central to education for the 21st century, and thus problems of prohibitive costs of penetration and a slow pace of development must be addressed. While foreign investment has boosted ICT infrastructure in Africa to date, the global economic downturn has also seen the decline in this investment, so increasingly, local public sector-private sector partnerships are defining a more sustainable model of development.
In Benin, the host country of eLA 2012, the Agency for the Management of New Communication Technologies (AGeNTIC) plays a key role in coordinating the efforts to make ICTs and eLearning accessible to all. Government and business collaborate in drafting and carrying out sustainable solutions that take all stakeholders into account. Director General of AGeNTIC, Gilletta Mouyabi Gbanhoun says, “The improvement and accessibility of the Internet are indeed a challenge for Benin.” While the country has an ICT policy in place (the Sector Policy Statement of 2008 which lays out a blueprint of how ICTs are to be used as a tool for and goal of development) there is nevertheless a need to find practicable ways to implement those developmental goals. Mouyabi Gbanhoun sees eLearning Africa as having a vital role in bringing together people with ideas about sound strategies on how ICTs can be used as a tool of sustainable development in Benin and on the continent. She says, “eLearning Africa is a melting pot of knowledge exchanges, training, information on innovations, country strategies, and, in particular, best practice guidance for the integration of ICT in education and learning.” It is important to focus on practical ways to bring eLearning to all communities.
eLearning for sustainable communities
ICTs have transformed the very concept of community, bringing disparate peoples together in virtual interactive communities of shared experiences and understanding. This revolution has wrought social changes that necessitate a rethinking of what it means to be part of a community since lack of access to the knowledge society invariably means exclusion from the social, economic and political decision-making process. In outlining some policy frameworks that can be adopted by interested governments, the United Nations Department of Economic Affairs (DESI) has stressed the value of “genuine participation of well-informed and well equipped citizens” as the driving force of sustainable development (2005). The eLearning enterprise is an avenue of such community growth. eLearning communities have already fostered much cooperation and dialogue continent-wide as is evidenced by the success of eLearning Africa. The knowledge shared ultimately has tangible benefits in “real-world” communities too. Mouyabi Gbanhoun says that it is necessary to establish genuine partnerships to meet not only the needs of the commercial sector, but the socio-economic needs of individuals too. She suggests that the empowerment of communities through formal and informal eLearning opportunities is an area where sustainable plans must be put in place.
eLearning & cultural transformation
Gender disparities in education levels are an area that must be addressed continent-wide. According to Gillwald, Milek & Stork (2010) although the Research ICT Africa (RIA) Household and Individual Access and Usage Survey reveals gender inequity in ICT usage across Africa, this is more a reflection of inequity in access to education in rural and urban areas. Oftentimes, the perceived gender inequity disappears when education and income of men and women is on par. In Benin, strides have been taken to narrow the gender literacy gap (47.9% for males and 23.3% for females in 2002). Since 2007, the country has instituted a number of reforms to educate and empower the populace. Mouyabi Gbanhoun continues, “The key reform was the decision to make education free of charge in all state schools, initially just for girls, and subsequently for all children of primary school age. This encouraged a greater number of girls to attend school.” Better educational policies incorporating best-practice eLearning practices are therefore an integral part of long-term cultural transformation.
eLearning for sustainable economies
An educated workforce is vital to the success of a country, and thus plans put in place today must be sustainable in the long term. eLearning Africa presents a forum for all participants to engage in meaningful discussion, and for the host country Benin, specifically, Mouyabi Gbanhoun hopes:
- That the organising of eLearning Africa 2012 in Cotonou encourages the Benin government to quickly finalise and adopt the draft policy document regarding the integration of ICT in education in Benin
- That the private sector builds business partnerships with the participating organisations in order that the new teaching methods are adopted in state schools and private schools
- That new opportunities arise in the education sector for application developers
- That civil society is supported with its activities in this sector.
These expectations resonate continent-wide, and thus the discussion of integrating ICTs as a tool for sustainable development is one from which we all can learn.
My own experiences of teaching in an emerging nation illustrated the need for tools that could assist the limited number of trained teachers. It’s really exciting to read of the increasing influence of distance learning in supporting those in the field; more exciting when we let our imagination stretch the possibilities for smartphone application in the near future.