New Report Downplays Potential Role of Ed-tech in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Cait Etherington
March 20, 2018

According to the United Nations, enrolment in primary education in developing countries has reached 91% yet 57 million children still remain out of school and more than half of the children not enrolled in school live in Sub-Saharan Africa. A new study by the World Bank, Facing Forward: Schooling for Learning in Africa, offers an in-depth snapshot of education in Sub-Saharan Africa, especially at the elementary level. While the report does acknowledge the potential role technology might play in bridging the ongoing education gap across the continent, by and large, the report stays focused on other educational concerns from staffing and training to facilities and textbooks.

The Current Education Landscape in Sub-Saharan Africa

As stated in Facing Forward, enrolling students in elementary-level schools is “the first step in building the region’s knowledge capital.” While gains have been made over the past 25 years across Africa, there is still a great deal of work left to be done: “For the region’s knowledge capital to catalyze socioeconomic transformation, all its young people will need 9 to 10 years of basic education, with adequate competencies in literacy, numeracy, and science—and many of them must be educated and trained beyond basic education. Such knowledge capital remains thin, even as the frontiers of knowledge push forward at a rapid pace.”

Report Cites Technology as Part of a Broader Solution

As stated in the World Bank study, Africa’s technology gap is part of the current educational crisis, because grappling with the weaknesses in Sub-Saharan Africa’s basic education systems entails “complex activities—including planning, coordination, negotiations, operational oversight, follow-up, course correction, evaluation, data collection and analysis, and communication.” However, according to the report, to date, efforts on all these fronts have remained “fragmented and operate with limited technical capacity in most of the region’s ministries of education.”

As the report emphasizes, technology, specifically mobile technologies, might provide a viable solution: “The high level of mobile telephone penetration in Sub-Saharan Africa and the falling costs of using digital resources provides an opportunity for the region to use technology.” However, as further emphasized, “Faced with the constraints of infrastructure and connectivity…the introduction of technology must necessarily be an iterative process. Nevertheless, the use of technology and digital resources must be actively considered, given the high cost of building traditional laboratories and libraries and the low level of teacher subject knowledge and skills.”

While the World Bank’s Facing Forward report does recognize that technology matters and further acknowledges that mobile technologies, in particular, might help bridge the education gap in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is important to note that the 75-page report doesn’t directly discuss online learning or eLearning nor even mention the web or Internet. By contrast, a lack of textbooks is cited as a problem, as is a general lack of printed material. Indeed, as stated in the report, “When governments try to cope by hiring more teachers and building more classrooms,” it frequently “means that students often lack printed materials and other resources for learning.”

Facing Forward’s Key Recommendations

Given the depth of the education crisis, especially in some of Sub-Saharan Africa’s poorest nations, the World Bank’s Facing Forward report offers several key recommendations, including the following:

  • Prioritizing the regularity and accuracy of data collection of key indicators and improving the use of national learning assessments.
  • Creating a pool of education specialists in-country to improve the technical capacity of ministries of education, through targeted university programs in curriculum and materials development; teacher education and professional development; assessments, monitoring, and evaluation; and education economics.
  • Participating in broader governance initiatives to improve the efficiency of ministries of education and decentralized entities, specifically in public financial management and human resource management.
  • Using a regional approach to building capacity through long-term support to overcome the past “market failure” in capacity building, particularly by developing many of the “soft” capacities of leadership that are better acquired through peer learning, exchange of knowledge about implementation experiences, and cooperation between countries.

Facing Forward serves as a reminder that while much can be gained from ed-tech initiatives, in parts of the world where books and other printed materials are often still a luxury, apps and platforms alone can’t be the only answer.