One of the hot topics at eLearning Africa this year is certain to be the educational implications of the rise of social media. There will undoubtedly be a great deal of ideas, innovation and speculation regarding the future of the sector. If you want to combine this energy with some substantive analysis regarding the social realities of eLearning across Africa, then you should head straight to the eLA research stream!
In this article, we profile the work of Dr Paula Uimonen, Director of The Swedish Program for ICT in Developing Regions (Spider), Stockholm University. At eLearning Africa, she will explore the impact of Facebook in Tanzania.
By David Hollow
Dr Paula Uimonen was one of the first scholars to treat the Internet as a tool for social development. She has been engaged for over a decade in developing innovative ways to utilise the social benefits of technology across Africa.
At eLearning Africa, Dr Uimonen’s presentation will focus specifically on the realities of digital learning in the host nation of Tanzania. It will explore what happens when people begin using digital technology and their early expectations of connectivity, through the transition and journey towards mature usage. It will engage with accounts ofyoung people engaging in digital learning, forming new identities, and demonstrating considerable creativity in their efforts to overcomebandwidth limitations. With each of these topics, the lessons and experiences shared will be contextualised nationally but also applicable for practitioners across Africa.
Reflecting on nine years of research
Within the eLearning community we focus a lot on preparing for the future and attempting to influence its course. One effective way to do this is by understanding where we have come from: the foundation of history that we build upon. In a fast moving environment this is not a very fashionable message, but it remains important. Sustained, critical reflection on the past is a valuable way to prepare for the future.
This is one of the things that makes Dr Uimonen’s work so important. The research that she is presenting at eLearning Africa began in 2002, providing participants with a rare opportunity to reflect on the last nine years, what we have leant along the way, where we should be heading, and how we might get there.
Rapid growth rates for Facebook in Africa
Within her presentation, Dr Uimonen will explore the impact of Facebook in Tanzania, againalso considering wider implications across the Continent. As you might expect, Africa is the continent with the lowest overall Facebook usage rates, with penetration levels of approximately three per cent. However, it is also the continent with the fastest growth rate, with Facebook now established as the single biggest non-mail client product in Africa. There are current 28 million active Facebook users in Africa, with many countries having doubled the number of users in the last seven months. Unsurprisingly, Egypt has led the way with 6.6 million users, and South Africa and Morocco also have more than 3 million each. Although there has been rapid growth in these countries, the uptake is not universal, and there are several countries where this social network has made limited impact thus far. Burundi, Eritrea and Chad all exemplify this, with less than 1 in 300 people using Facebook.
The rapid spread of Facebook across Africa has attracted significant attention, especially in light of its recent assistive role in facilitating social change in Egypt and Tunisia. It is fascinating to observe how people are making use of their newly accessed online communities. But in addition to observing the trends, we also have the potential to shape them, and this is where we need to consider potential educational implications.
Social networks for educational purposes?
The question of whether Facebook constitutes a legitimate subject for an eLearning conference is contentious in itself. I have witnessed some intense discussions with people arguing that a social network should remain a social network, free from the attempts of educationalists to co-opt, integrate and blur their boundaries.
In contrast, it seems clear to me that Facebook – as one embodiment of the wider social media milieu – is transforming the way people communicate across the globe, and therefore by necessity it undoubtedly has the potential to transform the way that people learn.
The long term impact of utilising social networks, and social media more broadly, within formal and informal education systems remains uncertain – but it is a vital conversation for the eLearning Africa community to engage in and to shape.
A trans-disciplinary exchange about social media in Africa
This takes us back to the specific value of Dr Uimonen’s presentation. In order to shape conversations regarding the future of education, we need to progress beyond speculation in order to be equipped with the tools that can help us engage intelligently with the task. Speculative innovation should be combined with informed innovation, often based on the outcomes of longitudinal research.
Our understanding is enriched when we listen to and interact with people that come from different professional and intellectual backgrounds. When exceptional social scientists and exceptional technologists listen to each other and contribute to the same conversation, then we all have the opportunity to undertake our work in a more informed, innovative manner.
Dr Uimonen’s perspective as an anthropologist engaging with technology is sure to provoke, challenge and inspire, helping participants get to grips with the real, transformative potential of social media for education in Africa.
Indeed, this is central to the trans-disciplinary ethos of eLearning Africa – moving beyond defensive competition and instead developing a rich, diverse learning community. This learning community is a space in which dialogue occurs, boundaries are stretched and ideas formed. Our objective is to facilitate an environment of reflective engagement where we can learn from one another’s expertise.
Come and be part of it!
At eLearning Africa, Paula Uimonen will present ‘Facebooking in Tanzania: Digital Learning, Hybrid Media Engagement and Online Identity Construction’ as part of the Research Stream Session ‘African Youth and Digital Identity’ on Thursday 26th May 2011, from 14:30-16:00.