Tuesday, June 03, 2014

From Rift Valley to Oculus Rift (7 lessons learnt at eLearning Africa)

A mind blowing week in central Africa at the eLearning Africa Conference in Uganda, where I was flipped so many times, both mentally and physically. My mind was repeatedly flipped when I saw the wrong solutions being forced into the wrong contexts. Conversely, I saw unexpected solutions in the right context. Physically, I was flipped into the Nile on a White Water raft trip – more of that later.
Technology, learning and Africa
My opening gambit in a talk to Ministers from across Africa was to show that we were not far from the Rift Valley, where the first technology was invented by man – the stone axe (see full article on its importance as a learning technology). This handheld device was to last for the next 1.5 million years and is a window into the mind of early man. It showed, intent, planning, ability to find resources, hand-eye co-ordination and a culture of teaching and learning. We were close to the source of the Nile, and it was in Egypt that the first writing was invented (see full article), the big-bang in learning technology, far more important then the printing press. Papyrus technology was also invented in Africa (see full article). So what does Africa need now?
1. Innovation is not innovation unless it is sustainable
In asking what Africa needs now from technology and learning I believe we must stick to a simple mantra – that innovation is not innovation unless it is sustainable. Sugatra Mitra’s Holes in the walls are now just that – holes in walls, with no computers, no lasting impact, a waste oftime and money. Tablets may prove to be less than useful, especialy Negroponte's Ethiopian experiment. Before any initiative is funded or started, do a cost-effectiveness and sustainability analysis.
By sustainability I mean the big 6:
Sustainable stakeholders
Sustainable learners
Sustainable change management

Sustainable teacher skills
Sustainable design
Sustainable culture
Sustainable electricity/Sustainable wiring
Sustainable resources
Sustainable on cost
Sustainable technology
Sustainable maintenance
2. Infrastructure not devices
Flip the mindset away from devices to infrastructure, and focus spending on bandwidth so that accessibility and prices fall. $50 a month for an unreliable 126K connection is way too high. This means deregulation and getting networks built along with free tariffs, such as Wikipedia Zero, for educational content. Economic growth is closely correlated with internet penetration.
3. Projects not pilots
Africa is littered with short-term, funded pilots. A donor-led, pilot mentality means too many pilots are really ‘doomed to succeed’ and fall flat when finished. Pilots are thinly disguised research projects, often led by academics whose real goal is simply publication not pragmatism. Fund projects that have real feasibility objectives and sustainability as their goal.
4. Vocational not academic
Africa has schooling and Universities but a huge hole in the middle – vocational colleges. Yet what Africa desperately needs is not more Universities but more vocational learning. Economic growth will come from practical skills agenda not building expensive educational institutions. Why copy a University system that doesn’t work in the developed world. It’s expensive, elitist and graduate unemployment is rising. Only 6% of Africans will even have a chance of a  University education, what about the other 94%. Let’s focus on them, as they are Africa’s future.
5. Learning not schooling
The Millennium goals focus too much on simple schooling, yet all of us eventually leave school. What happens then is important. Employability and job creation is vital, not the Anglo-Saxon liberal-arts, colonial agenda. It’s not schools that matter but what is taught and learnt in schools. Improve the quality of teacher training (take it out of Universities) and focus on what is required locally.
6. Leapfrog don’t follow
Africa has the highest growth in mobile penetration in the world. Everywhere, people have cheap phones and use them to transfer money, communicate and get on with their lives. Mobile griwt has been the big success story and new, cheap smartphones will accelerate internat access via mobile. They’re cheap and compelling because they’re useful. Africa needs to do the same with learning, leapfrog with good infrastructure projects that use the BYOD devices. Fascinating things are happening on leapfrog infrastructure –  a geostationary satellite above the Congo with pan-African reach – one way internet access but a start. Then there’s Facebook’s solar powered drones using infra-red to provide internet access, easy to launch and maintain. Finally Google’s balloons.
7. Focus on the free
They say that information wants to be free, well education now wants to be free. We have Wikipedia, Khan Academy, OER, MOOCs (see articles on MOOCs) and so on. Africa would be mad not to take this stuff, as it’s free. MOOCs are now being produced by the likes of EPFL, Kepler and the African Virtual University in relevant languages on relevant topics – and they’re free. With MOOCs Africa has bandwidth problems, even on campuses, so well designed offline solutions are needed. We also need to integrate MOOCs into local curricula, blend involving local faculty, collaborate at the teacher level. Academic regulations need to be amended and MOOCs bundled.
Africa is rising and needs, not the failed models of the developed world but new models that are more suited to the massive demand that already exists for education and training. This is not more universities but more vocational learning. The great opportunity here, is to use the great gifts of the internet, that are already there, for free. 
This conference is a small miracle, but it's in Africa and well attended by Africans from across the continent. Once again, Rebecca Stromeyer and her fantastic team pull together a fantastic conference that focuses wholly on Africa and is not scared to ask hard questions and seek out new and radical answers.  
News from China may be the greatest boost Africa has seen in a long time. A major Chinese Solar Tech CEO says, "We are not far away from the cost of (solar energy) production for conventional energy. We are sure that by 2016 - or at the latest 2017 - the cost of solar PV will be the same as coal-fired generation in China". If true, at that moment each ail drive economic and educational growth in Africa.


Rebecca said...

Thanks for the great summary from eLearning Africa. I went a couple of years ago, and found it to be one of the most useful conferences I've ever attended. I particularly like the first comment about the need for solutions to be sustainable - I'm glad to see that that message is finally being heard. The year I attended Sugtra Mitre was the keynote speaker! The message on sustainability was mentioned in the fail-fest discussions, but it wasn't a conference "theme".

Anonymous said...

Hi Donald - heard you on Radio Scotland this morning. Excellent! How do you stand on independence for Scotland? Cheers, Deedee (Glasgow)

Donald Clark said...

Was a'NO' for ages but swinging towards 'YES". I haven't liven in Scotland for 30+ years so don;t have a vote but I'm tired of the 'establishment' clique that runs the UK. So veering towards a 'YES".