Field Stories

SchoolNet Africa and Shafika Isaacs


Shafika Isaacs, founding Executive Director of SchoolNet Africa, the network that links education policymakers, teachers and learners in 31 African countries, has been a Senior Programme Officer for the International Development Research Centre and an independent consultant on ICTs for development in Africa for many years. As a South African member of eLA’s Organising Committee, she looks back at the development of ICTs for education in Africa, highlighting progress, evaluating current initiatives and addressing the challenges that still lie ahead for the Continent.

eLA: eLearning Africa celebrates its fifth anniversary in 2010. What do five years mean for Africa in the digital age?

Shafika Isaacs: 2010 is indeed a historic year for Africa – besides the continent hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup for the first time, this is also the year when we monitor where we are in terms of reaching  UNESCO’s “Education For All” (EFA) goal of meeting the learning needs of all children, young people and adults by 2015. In a few African countries, too, we are beginning to celebrate more than 10 years of attempting to integrate ICTs into learning, teaching and education management.

UNESCO’s most recent Education for All – Global Monitoring Report 2010 suggests that we have made some progress in education. Since 1999, enrolment rates in sub-Saharan Africa have been increasing five times faster than during the 1990s, with countries such as Benin, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Tanzania registering rapid advances. It also suggests that gender disparities in primary schools have been narrowing.

However, over the past few years we have also witnessed an unprecedented global financial crisis that is challenging the extent to which much of Africa will reach the EFA goals. With the effects of this crisis still being felt, the report suggests that there is a real danger that much of the progress of the past ten years will stall or be reversed in the face of rising poverty, slow economic growth and pressure on government budgets. A number of countries in Africa are vulnerable to this.

The report also suggests that there is evidence from sub-Saharan Africa that many children are failing to master basic literacy and numeracy skills, even in cases where they complete a full cycle of primary education.

I think that this reality puts our work into perspective. Invariably, we are all actors, influencers and decision-makers in Africa’s education system, claiming that ICT integration can potentially enhance education access, equity, quality and management. This stark reality suggests that we really need to take a long hard look at ourselves and the way we are working.

[callout title=]Ms Shafika Isaacs is an independent consultant on ICTs for Development in Africa, specialising in education. Her major clients have included the World Bank, Cisco, ICWE and Microsoft. She has formerly held positions as Education Director at Mindset Network, founding Executive Director of SchoolNet Africa and Senior Programme Officer for the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).  She serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Steering Committee of ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN, the Organizing Committee of eLearning Africa and the Board of Directors for SchoolNet South Africa, and was founding Steering Committee member of the Global eSchools and Communities Initiative.  She obtained her Master of Science degree in Science and Technology Policy at the University of Sussex and an Executive MBA at the University of Cape Town. In 2003 she was a finalist for the World Technology Network Award.[/callout]

eLA: In our last interview 5 years ago, we talked about how the African continent could overcome the digital divide. Does Africa still face the same problems today?

Shafika Isaacs: I think the world has certainly become more volatile, more complex, more uncertain, and the associated social problems have increased significantly. This makes it imperative for us to clarify the nature of the problems that we are indeed addressing, especially in the ICTs in education space. Here I take my cue from Einstein, who said that, if he had one hour to solve a problem, he would spend the first 55 minutes trying to understand what the problem was. Perhaps we need to ask more questions about the problems we all think we are trying to address and how they should be addressed.

I am still amazed by the fact that, even though our common refrain is that technologies are no silver bullet for resolving the educational challenges in Africa, our behaviour and the design of many of our projects are often still strongly device-driven and our approaches to planning are still formulaic and linear. Some projects I have been involved with are designed in a vacuum, devoid of the socio-economic and cultural contexts that shape the way people learn and failing to take account of the change and disruption that accompanies technology integration in resource-poor environments. And so we have a consistent recurrence of the shotgun approach to integrating technologies in education systems, and yet we are surprised when things consistently fall apart.

In that same interview five years ago, I also recall making the point that the digital divide was an extension and a reinforcement of existing socio-economic and cultural disparities. These remain very severe and, according to the UNESCO report, have become worse, particularly in view of the effects of the global financial meltdown. The report suggests that by 2010, the economic crisis could drive another 90 million people into extreme poverty and that education systems are bound to be affected by these conditions.

And so yes, we are still challenged, more than ever before. The problems are still the same and have, in fact, become worse, making our task as actors and decision-makers in the African education system even more urgent in terms of finding creative ways to address the fundamental human right of children to have access to quality education and to ensure that it does not remain the preserve of a privileged few.

eLA: In 2007, you published a comprehensive field report on ICT in Education in Africa. Where do you see the most positive developments? What obstacles still have to be overcome?

Shafika Isaacs: Well, I think we have seen greater commitment from African governments to integrating ICTs into their education systems. Legislation on ICTs in Education has been accompanied by large-scale programmes that invest in improving the quality of education by giving teachers and learners greater access to technology and connectivity. In South Africa, for example, the government has committed to improving the quality of learning and teaching and has invested in an initiative to provide 365,000 teachers with a laptop.

I think the obstacles we face are systemic and, perhaps most significantly, our systems are suffering from a dire shortage of intellectual, human and financial resources. In our endeavours to transform education in a bid to meet the needs of the 21st century, many of our systems are contending with the need for social redress in the face of decades of structural inequalities and inequity. Namibia, Rwanda and South Africa are a few examples. These are formidable obstacles, which make it important to maintain a long-term view, because we are trying to transform complex social systems.

eLA: Through your work at Schoolnet Africa, you have been fighting against marginalising girls in education. How would you assess the situation today? Where have ICTs made a difference?

Shafika Isaacs: I think it is interesting that the UNESCO Report suggests that there has been a narrowing of the gender gap in primary education in many countries and there has been a decline in the proportion of girls out of school. This is encouraging. What is also promising is that a number of West African countries have adopted policies aimed at strengthening equality as part of the wider strategy for achieving universal primary education. Some of these policies focus on addressing attitudes that prevent any improvement in the conditions of girls and women. However, it is discouraging in some cases that there have also been higher numbers of boys dropping out of school and that 18 countries failed to reach gender parity in primary schooling in 2007.

It is difficult to assess the extent to which ICTs have made a difference. However, we are starting to see the results of research showing the effects of ICTs on the ability of girls and women to learn and teach respectively. I am aware of a study which shows the positive effects of learning mathematics through the use of mobile phones by girls in South Africa, for instance.

eLA: What do you expect from this year’s eLearning Africa?

Shafika Isaacs: For me, the conference provides an excellent opportunity for many stakeholders in Africa’s ICT in Education sector to meet face to face and take stock of the progress (or lack thereof) that we are making and to debate the most topical issues. I am hoping that this year we will talk more openly and honestly about our roles and how we can work collectively towards meeting some of the fundamental challenges that the UNESCO Report highlights.

eLA: Thank you very much for your time, Ms Isaacs.


  1. HI Serah
    Your comments are very kind. I am interested to hear about the speech you find encouraging. Hopefully we can talk about it at the conference this year. If you do catch a glimpse of me at the conference, please come and talk to me. I look forward to meeting you too.


    • Hi Shafika,
      I am currently working at Microsoft and World Bank and we are researching a project for introducing ICT in order to improve the access to education in Africa.
      We are looking at a broad range of technologies, including mobile access, electronic textbooks, e-Readers, cloud computing and e-Learning.
      I would be glad to establish further contact and exchange information in order to propel our efforts.


  2. Serah Mbetwa

    It was good to hear from you. I was encourged by your speech at the eLearnig conference in Zambia. You came out to be a very intelligent woman. My mindset about ICT has changed drastically. I have just realised that no meaningful progress can take place without the use of ICT tools. I look forwad to meeting you at the conference in Tanzania. It would be a great privillege.

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