Wednesday, June 12, 2013

E-learning Africa – 7 new narratives

Amazing event - 1500 people from all over Africa, to discuss, debate, dance, sing and celebrate. I’ve never been to a conference like it, and believe me I’ve been to a few. I was there to give a keynote, workshop and take part in the final event of the conference – the Big Debate but to be honest I gained much more than I gave. To give you some idea of the humour on hand, during a meal at which I was eating crocodile, zebra, kudu and springbok, a lad from Uganda asked of Channa (who’s vegetarian), “If you like animals so much, why are you eating all their food”.
1. New African narrative
Africa (whatever that is) wants to do things its own way. The people at this event wanted to change the old pessimistic narrative of poverty, starvation, AIDS, malaria and dependency, to a new narrative of optimism and self-sufficiency. I met nothing but friendly, enthusiastic, committed people, who want to do things the African way.
So what is this African ‘way’? What I think lay at the heart of the sentiment was the idea that Africa had been subjected to foreign influences for too long. I constantly heard calls for approaches and contents to be more relevant, contextualised and in local languages. I gave my own view in The Big Debate, a wonderfully, raucous event held at the end of the conference, where I presented evidence that Mitra’s Hole-in-the-Wall projects ad Negroponte’s Ethiopian adventure were dangerous, unsustainable and at times downright lies. "Don't let educational colonialism sneak in... with bucket loads of hardware and content that is inappropriate for your children." My formidable opponent Adele said something similar when she urged approaches “By the Africans for the Africans - and we will share best practice with you when it's done." This debate, on ‘sustainability v innovation’ was a hoot. Massive audience participation, loads of laughs and although we clearly won, there was a messy recount and the decision was reversed. When I asked why, the reply was telling, “Remember Donald, this is Africa!
2. Mobiles as lifelines
My keynote talk was on mobile learning, small beer elsewhere but BIG in Africa. The Nokia 3310 has legendary status in Africa, but Samsung’s the new kid on the block. Africa loves mobile tech. Calls, text, health, finance – they’ve found a myriad of ways to use mobiles to enhance their lives. Tariffs are still high but youngsters would go without food for more airtime. As was explained to me in the Katatura Township, a mobile for someone in real poverty is far more important than for someone in a developed country. If you rely on piece-work, you need to be available to take a call at any time. It’s a way of managing and transferring what little money you have and receiving remittances from that relative abroad. It’s a way of switching on your electricity and getting medical help. It’s a lifeline.
My keynote was all about mobile learning. The very first piece of technology was invented here in Africa – the stone axe. And for 1.7 million years this was the dominant technology – the first handheld device. But there’s something odd about stone axes, as many are found in pristine condition, unused, or as large axes, far too big to be practical. As pieces of useful technology, they had ‘status’ value. In that sense we have to be careful about m-learning as they may be seen by youngsters as ‘too cool for school’. My second piece of advice was to forget ‘courses’. Mobiles are the GPS for learning, rather than delivering learning itself. Think search, performance support, informal learning – not courses. Think of contextual learning, vocational elearning out in the field, reinforcement through spaced practice. Think different. Also, be careful with video, as few watch video on mobiles, think audio and text. Media rich is not necessarily mind rich. What I saw in Africa was the clever use of mobile technology to enhance literacy and practical learning.
3. Mobiles as motivators for literacy
In my workshop on ‘Mobiles and literacy’ I was pushing the idea that mobiles had produced a ‘renaissance of reading and writing’ among the young. It will, I think, be the single most important factor in increasing literacy on the planet. Why? Every child is massively motivated to learn to text, post and message on mobiles. The evidence shows that they become obsessive readers and writers through mobile devices.
I saw ample evidence of learning how to read and write through mobiles in what can only be described as ‘challenging’ conditions. Cornelia Koku Muganda showed us real evidence for positive results with girls and women in Tanzania, who not only had to learn to read and write (txt) but who couldn’t afford to make expensive mistakes such as wrong numbers, wrong codes for electricity switch-on and so on. Mignon Hardie had a wonderful scheme for young people in the Townships of South Africa, gaining not only literacy skills but valuable insights into their own lives through specially written narratives. Ian Mutarami and Mikko Pitkanen showed how games technology could deliver mobile phonics apps in local languages.
My own session focussed on the fact that Africa showed the fastest growth & massive use of txting. Txting is a significant form of literacy, introduced by youngsters, on their own, spontaneously, rapidly & without tuition. Oddly, some complain about poor literacy, but when a technology arrives that provides opportunities to read and write (constantly) some complain about that! So why the moral panic? Is it a linguistic disaster? No. Almost all popular beliefs about TXTING are wrong. It’s not new, not for young only, helps rather than hinders literacy and adds a new dimension to language use. Language is about being understood and txting has adapted to this need. Good txters understand that ‘Cnsnnts crry mr infrmtn thn vwls’ and play with language. Interestingly, women more enthusiastic txters, write longer txts, more complex txts, use more emoticons, more His & BYEs and more emotional content (Richard Ling  The Sociolinguistics of SMS)
More importantly, txting benefits literacy as it is a motivating factor in writing (Katz & Aakhus), requires phonetic knowledge, has links with success in attainment (Wood & Bell), helps one be concise (Fox) and helps develop social skills (Fox).
4. Hardware
A huge debate erupted over what devices should be used in learning in Africa. For my money, the good projects used mobile or notebooks/laptops. Tablets were being hyped but when I spoke to people they were wary of their lack of flexibility, low level learning potential, maintenance problems and costs. While they may be appropriate in some contexts, such as Merryl Ford’s work in rural S Africa and in early years or primary school, I have serious doubts about their efficacy in most other contexts. They are impossible to repair, difficult to network and can severely limit skills development in writing, coding and the use of more sophisticated software tools.
I was much more impressed  with the laptop projects. Nkubito Manzi Bakuramutsa was an impressive project manager from Rwanda. He stressed the need for proper infrastructure- it’s all about wifi, electricity, cabling and sockets. But where he was smart was in his capacity building of teachers. This is, “fundamental – they are your front line troops”. It starts with 5 days training for heads of schools, each with one champion teacher,  to familiarise themselves with tech, then teaching with the laptop. Education must come before technology. Then the bombshell – he pleaded for a proper academic study on their effectiveness.
5. Vocational v academic
The Namibian Prime Minister spoke on the first day of the conference. He was witty but also wily. I liked him, as he warned us against the ‘spectacle of hallucination’ where technology was used to create illusory progress. Shiny objects that dazzle but don’t deliver long-term solutions. He urged us to focus on vocational, not academic, context and content. Health, farming, tourism, entrepreneurship – employability was the watchword for Africa.
Big problems need big and innovative solutions. Time and time again I heard requests for approaches and content that are more sensitive to context and culture. Too many projects parachuted technology and English content that had little relevance for learners. The western idea of ’academic’ schooling was being pushed but was unsustainable. Schooling in itself is not the answer in itself, as almost everyone in Africa leaves school – then what? Millennium goals around schooling will not deliver unless that schooling is relevant.
6. Health, agriculture, public sector, entrepreneurship
I saw a myriad of useful projects around agriculture (look out for the conference in Kigali, Rwanda, later this year. Giacomo Rambaldi is passionate about the use of technology in farming, especially around the use of m-banking (Robert Okine in Ghana), messaging on livestock (Darlington Kahilu in Zambia), iCow in Kenya, optimising the use of pesticides (John Gushit in Nigeria), vetinary projects – the list goes on and on. Then the healthcare projects, nurse licence renewal, HIV counselling (Fabrice Laurentine in Namibia), drug prescription (Lesek Wojnowski in S Africa). I saw innovative thinking around capacity building in the public sector. Then there’s the innovation hubs and entrepreneurship projects. Bloggers, like Mac-Jordan Degadjor, show that the new narrative must be created from within.
7. Sustainability
My contribution to The Big Debate focused on ‘sustainability’. You can keep on ‘taking the expensive tablets’, buy into the myth that is Sugata Mitra’s ‘holes in walls’ or believe Negroponte’s Ethiopian hype’ OR you can start with real problems and real, sustainable solutions. Tech-led projects can work but only if the risks are understood and assessed from the start. Innovation without sustainability is not innovation at all. If you want to avoid massive failure, then watch out for tech that lies at Gartner’s ‘Peak of inflated expectations’ as it will more than likely end up in the ‘Trough of disillusionment’.
Africa has had a swarm of mosquito projects, what it needs are more steady, long-lived tortoise projects. Sustainability comes in several forms; sustainable in technical infrastructure, stakeholders, teacher training, learner take-up, maintenance, context, relevance, languages and culture. Above all, Africa needs sustainability in terms of costs. 20% of the poor  exist on  $1 a day  20% 40% on  $2 a day. Now if the global average of ICT spend 3% of income, they can only afford $10-$20, and it would have to be relevant. In fact they tend to spend this on cheap mobiles. Think, then, on this. Tablets $200-$300but total costs - solar power, maintenance & support add much, much more. These expensive tablets have serious side-effects.
Monica Weber-Fahr gave a potent presentation with a focus on social mobility. The key point is urbanisation. This is what lifts people out of poverty. But she had a stark warning. Social mobility is not guaranteed and by no means certain. Africa has huge resources, huge challenges but also a huge reservoir of hope. I came away with a different mindset about Africa. Throwing hardware at the problems is not the solution. True solutions must be home-grown. African projects, run by Africans for Africans, using African content relevant to African contents and languages.
Even at the airport I was engaged in conversation with people from Nigeria and Ghana, all eager to talk and get on with things. On the plane I sat next to a young girl from Uganda who had been at the conference. She was from Uganda and was brimming with hope for the future and I look forward to seeing her next year in Kampala, where the next brilliant e-learning Africa will take place.

Well done to Rebecca and her ICWE team for organising the conference. They were magnificent. From the warm welcome at the airport to the final sundown party at River Crossing, the whole experience was a joy.

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