Conference sneak preview

The eLearning Africa debate – should Africa continue to invest in ICT?

Africa is witnessing a gradual shift towards massive investment in Information and Communications Technology (ICT), thanks to the role of policymakers who are pushing for full regulatory reform for ICTs. Many African leaders have realised that, for any meaningful economic development to occur, technology has to play its part. But the free flow of investment in the sector was slowed down last year, owing to the global economic downturn, which forced many African countries to cut spending in some sectors and prioritise the most urgent areas. The question as to whether Africa should continue to invest in ICTs was raised at this year’s eLearning conference debate in the Zambian capital, Lusaka.

By Talent Ng’andwe

The debate, chaired by former British parliamentarian Dr Harold Elletson of the New Security Foundation, UK, and Dr Katherine Getao from NEPAD on the last day of the conference, centred on the following motion:

“Despite the global financial crisis, Africa must continue to invest in ICTs for education, and 1:1 computing provides the most affordable, educationally rich computing solution.”

The two opposing panels comprised Richard Niyonkuru, Monitoring and Education Advisor for ICT Projects for the Rwanda Ministry of Education, and David Cavallo, Vice President for Learning at the One Laptop per Child project, USA, on the proposing side, and Alex Twinomugisha, Global e-Schools and Communities Initiative (GeSCI), Kenya, and Anthony Bloome, USAID, USA, on the opposing side.

In his opening speech, Richard Niyonkuru argued that Africa must continue to invest in technologies for education.

“ICTs are lifetime opportunities which are knocking on African doors, and as a continent we should not miss this opportunity“, he said, before going on to explain that ICTs in education should not be considered a luxury, as has been the case in the past, but should be regarded as commodities or public goods, since they allow the benefits of the information revolution to be harvested.

The audience backed his argument that in terms of ICTs in education, the emphasis should not be on computers and software deployed in schools but rather on revolutionising and re-engineering education systems so that they provide a service to the new society.

His views were supported by David Cavallo who added that the education system in Africa needed appropriate technologies suitable to its culture and environment.

Much to the amusement of the audience, Alex Twinomugisha interjected, saying that we do not need massive investment in technology at the expense of poor road networks, unreliable energy and the fight against diseases such as HIV/AIDS. “We have come this far without technology, we have proven that we can achieve our educational goals without technology,“ he said.

Alex Twinomugisha said he believed that Africa should focus on one-to-one solutions for teachers, who are fundamental to the development of education. Teacher development is vital, he said.

Anthony Bloome agreed with Alex Twinomugisha, saying that investment in ICT for education at this stage, when Africa is struggling to recover from the global economic downturn, is not practicable and is very costly. “My concern is that without greater reform efforts, ICT for Education initiatives will not get past the pilot stages and will not be more widely integrated, so that wider education reform efforts will not get the support they need,” he said.

However, such investments in education, if any, should be contextualised by significant improvements in terms of quality educational reforms in policy, curriculum development, professional development for teachers and administrators and focusing on student achievement.

The debate intensified when members of the audience were given an opportunity to express their views. There was plenty of lively confrontation and a couple of tense of exchanges.

Bernard Appiah from the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications, USA, accused major players in the ICT sectors of dumping technology in Africa. James Uhomoibhi from the UK responded by saying that people should not portray every technology for Africa as bad. He cited examples of mobile phone technology, which is helping to improve education in Africa’s health sector.

In conclusion, the proposing side was unable to convince the audience of the role that ICT can play in enhancing education in Africa and failed to explain adequately the costs associated with the introduction of technology.

The opposing side was quick to take advantage and capitalise on such weaknesses.

Mr Elletson, the Chairman, put the motion to a vote by a show of hands. The opposition had the majority and emerged as winners of the debate.

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