E-learning and virtual lessons, on their own, are not the answer to the education and employment questions facing the African continent
The former CEO of Cisco, John Chambers, once noted that there were two great equalisers in today’s world: the internet and education. As school gates across the globe have slammed shut in response to the pandemic, these two things have become inextricably linked, with digitally delivered forms of learning becoming the central feature of the educational landscape.
Understandably, a number of wide-eyed commentators have marvelled at the scale and scope of schooling still possible under lock-down conditions, something that would have been unthinkable in a pre-internet age. However, given that only 11% of learners in Sub-Saharan Africa have access to a household computer and 18% to household internet¹, much of the continent still arguably exists in that earlier age. As such, virtual lessons and e-learning cannot so quickly be hailed as an educational panacea for this region, despite the giddy eagerness of many to do so.
Indeed, even prior to the arrival of corona virus, classrooms across the continent were plagued by poor teachers who had been handicapped by inadequate training and demoralised by disgracefully low pay. That over two-thirds of primary school teachers in Kaduna State, Nigeria scored less than 75% when asked to sit a test normally given to their students² illustrates the woeful teaching standards that are worryingly typical within many African countries. While it is certainly true that bad teachers are themselves victims of a neglectful educational system, their continued presence at the blackboard ensures that there will be ever more victims of the same sort.
Moreover, the challenge of low-quality teaching is compounded by crumbling infrastructure which has been starved of vital investment over successive generations and governments. Taking the example of Nigeria, a professor from the Obafemi Awolowo University explained that, in the 1960s and 70s, the strong, well-managed economy enabled the government to fund education appropriately such that universities and technical colleges were furnished with state-of-the-art equipment. The graduates, particularly those in scientific / technical fields, that subsequently emerged from these institutions were comfortably able to compete with their international counterparts, having enjoyed comparable exposure and access to quality facilities. However, the steady decline in Nigeria’s economic fortunes, as reflected by the fact that $1 USD is now equivalent to up to 450 Naira, had devastating educational consequences: after all, how could any university, training college or school hope to buy the latest lab equipment while contending with such an exchange rate? This pattern has painfully played itself out in other African nations, to the detriment of their young people.
All this suggests that, more than new age technology, what Africa truly needs is to revisit and refine the basics — the ‘ABC’ of educational excellence, if you will. With around 60% of Africa’s population aged under 30³ and 72% of the labour force employed in work classed as ‘vulnerable’⁴, Apprenticeships, Businesses and Community-driven education could play key roles in holistically and concurrently addressing the twin issues of education and employment on the continent.
Apprenticeships: could offer an alternative to 20th century-style universities that are increasingly irrelevant to 21st century students who are focussed on preparing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Businesses: could take charge in equipping young people with the skills actually required in the local market through the establishment of industry-oriented training centres, as seen in countries such as South Korea. The upshot would be a clearer pathway from learning to earning.
Community-driven learning: led by hyper-local entities, such as churches, could take a more active role in circulating high quality development / career guidance and scaling relevant information flows.
In conclusion, the digital revolution currently disrupting education is something that holds the promise of meaningful transformation for Africa in the future. However, initiatives that aspire to make a difference to the educational and employment prospects of today’s African youth must be grounded in local realities rather than in thrall to global trends that can’t always be translated into our continent’s context.
¹United Nations (2020), ‘Education in a post-COVID world: Nine ideas for public action’, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
⁴McKinsey (2012), ‘Africa at work: Job creation and inclusive growth’, McKinsey Global Institute
This article was originally published on Medium.com.