• Class code

    Old teaching methods are being replaced by new technology

    Class code

    Education in sub-Saharan Africa has made great strides over the past 50 years. Between 1970 and 2010, the percentage of children who completed primary school rose by almost 50% (from 46% of children to 68%), while the percentage of children completing lower secondary school nearly doubled from 22% to 40%. Yet the region continues to experience a learning crisis – nearly one in three children still do not complete primary school, and literacy and numeracy skills remain low.

    New technologies made available via mobile (Africa is the fastest-growing and second-largest mobile phone market in the world) and internet connectivity are touted as the solution to ‘leapfrog’ sub-Saharan Africa’s inadequate and unequal education systems ahead, especially following the pandemic, which caused catastrophic setbacks for learners (many of whom may never return to school), while at the same time forcing a greater dependence on technological solutions in all spheres of life.

    In October 2021, global market research company HolonIQ released its annual list of the 50 most-promising edutech start-ups across sub-Saharan Africa. ‘More than two-thirds of the 2021 [edutech] cohort are less than six years old, showing just how active the Africa edutech ecosystem is, with teams […] forming during the pandemic, one of the most challenging periods for education globally.’ Coding and robotics curricula, personalised learning, educational video platforms, career guidance, coding bootcamps, SMS-based learning and personal learning tools are just some of the diverse edutech categories in play.“

    Unfortunately, funding is hard to come by, speaking to a major challenge facing education efforts on the continent. A lack of investment is one of the biggest obstacles in the edutech sector. According to venture capital fund GSV Ventures, edutech in Africa today is very small, having attracted just US$20 million in venture capital from 2019 to 2021 – a drop in the ocean compared to the US$20 billion-plus of venture capital invested in edutech globally in 2021.

    Addressing this shortfall is in part the motivation for Injini, Africa’s first edutech accelerator, owned by the Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative, a tech incubator. This Cape Town-based NPO focuses on financial backing, coaching, mentorship, strategy support, market research assistance, access to networks, upskilling opportunities and capacity building, and has also introduced a think tank to house African education and innovation research, advisory and advocacy work.

    ‘Since Injini was established in late 2017, it has supported 40 African edutech start-up businesses through intensive incubation and acceleration support, and over 1 000 early-stage edutech innovators with short-term training interventions aiming to build and stimulate the African edutech ecosystem,’ says Injini executive head Krista Davidson. ‘With portfolio representation across 10 African countries, Injini’s interest has always been to improve the quality, accessibility and relevance of education across sub-Saharan Africa. Beyond directly supporting edutech businesses, Injini also offers research and advisory services to international clients interested in Africa’s education innovation landscape,’ says Davidson.

    FoondaMate is an example of a South African edutech start-up that has found success after launching during the pandemic, having reached more than 800 000 students. Offering low-data chat support via WhatsApp – aka an AI ‘study buddy’ – in 13 languages, the app supplies a wide range of learning materials for both students and teachers, giving access to those with low internet access and poor-quality phones. The app was founded by Tao Boyle, who subsequently won the Africa Women Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum Young Entrepreneur award, and Dacod Magagula, who, having grown up in a rural environment and being the only student with access to a computer, obtained the best leaving results in the history of his school, and was its first student to be accepted to the University of Cape Town. Recently, the pair secured US$2 million in seed funding to drive uptake and scale their reach across the continent.

    Of course, start-ups aren’t the only edutech interventions in need of investment. ‘Funds are needed for developing educational learning infrastructure and resources, training teachers and experts. Lack of funds leads to poor infrastructure and insufficient resources, such as high-performance computing and fast networks to store and share information,’ says Basuti Bolo, endowed chair of educational technologies at Africa University in Zimbabwe.

    ‘Other challenges include skills shortages and a lack of qualified teachers to train in and use advanced technologies. Inadequate STEM education at primary school level is also a problem. STEM subjects attract and motivate students to use technology.’

    Other factors undermining the impact of edutech, according to Bolo, include unreliable technologies and resources from open-source educational learning platforms, a lack of investment in research, and technophobia leading to limited participation.

    Demi Swart, programme manager for coding and app development at iStore Education (Apple’s suite of e-learning services), proposes yet another barrier – blind adherence to traditional teaching methods. ‘When we consider the current education system, many institutions have a traditional approach to teaching. Research has shown that in order to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow, we need to move away from traditional teaching methods to a more collaborative and creative teaching environment. When students are given the opportunity to learn creatively they develop the essential 21st-century skills that will help them succeed in future careers.’

    Swart, whose role involves supporting educational institutions to bring coding, robotics and app development to their students, underlines the importance of teaching coding skills to youth, not only to prepare them for the workplace of the future, where coding skills will be in high demand, but also because Africa will need these skills to compete in the global economy.

    The era of 4IR is changing the way children are being educated while necessitating the need to prepare them for the workplace of the future

    ‘The introduction of AI, augmented reality [AR] and robotics, all tied together with coding, has changed the way we educate our youth. More and more educational institutions are acknowledging the benefit of bringing coding and robotics to students,’ she says. ‘With platforms like Apple’s Swift Playgrounds, we are able to teach students how to code their own AR experience or create apps that contribute directly to a growing app economy.

    ‘Best of all, students develop soft skills such as creativity, problem-solving and collaboration, skills that are critical in any future workplace.

    ‘Coding also opens up the opportunity for digital entrepreneurship and self-employment. When students are exposed to coding from a young age they are able to easily enter an app development market and grow their skills. This leads to creating business opportunities and not becoming reliant on traditional employment.’

    Sadly, edutech and skills such as coding may remain out of reach for many children in Africa, especially those living in poverty.

    The World Bank points out that many solutions are designed with little understanding of the practical day-to-day realities and contexts in which these technologies are to be used, which is what makes the mobile phone such a powerful ally to education efforts, as penetration is high, even in rural areas.

    ‘To minimise educational challenges faced by sub-Saharan Africa, the education needs to be a top priority for governments,’ according to Bolo. ‘Advanced educational technologies such as robotics and mobile learning systems have to be implemented; STEM programmes have to be promoted and included in curricula at primary level.

    ‘STEM attracts students into technologies and promotes critical thinking and innovation,’ she says. ‘Governments have to partner with the private sector, and produce policies and strategies that promote new educational technologies.’

    By Robyn Maclarty
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images