Since the adoption of education into the 1948 Human Rights Declaration to Sustainable Development Goals (2015-2030), one would be hard-pressed to find an occasion when education systems across the globe were disrupted to this extent. In Africa, the situation could undo the painstaking achievements in equitable access to education opportunities, putting the future of basic education in jeopardy across the continent. This can be seriously damaging to African economies if the responses are too focused on immediate fixes rather than long-term solutions.
The extent of COVID-19 impact on education in Africa
By the end of March 2020, all the 54 countries in Africa had closed primary and secondary schools as a precautionary measure to curb the spread of corona virus with uncertainty of resumption. Considering the lack of frameworks and infrastructure for alternative provision of basic education in Africa, more than 200 million pupils were technically out of school for at least one academic term. This adds to an estimate of over 30 million out-of-school children pre-COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Further, as we have seen during previous crises, the impact of such a disruption is faced disproportionately by girls and young women. Girl students and female teachers may be burdened by additional care responsibilities in a global pandemic that take them away from schools. This threatens the global progress towards the SDG 4 targets of ensuring equitable access to quality education. The unprecedented disruption of education came at a time when most schools were in the middle of the term with candidates preparing for their education level examinations. There continues to be widespread uncertainty about when schools around the world, particularly in Africa, will resume.
Improving the quality of human capital should be the future of Africa’s economic transformation, as it moves away from a dependence on natural resources. A near-universal expansion of basic education opportunities has enabled this further. Education economists have argued that societies achieve high rates of return on investment in quality basic education as it provides cognitive abilities essential for productivity in the world of work . The disruption COVID-19 caused on basic education poses a great threat to these gains and future plans if sustainable solutions are not enacted.
Could prudent use of technology be the answer?
Policymakers in Sub-Saharan Africa need to act urgently to address these challenges. The COVID-19 crisis has led to a sharper focus on the potential of technology in delivering education. Even as the evidence so far remains mixed, this global pandemic has led to widespread adoption of technology as the default option. Distance learning was launched in a number of countries, with both students, teachers and administrators essentially having to learn on the go. For instance, education ministries in Uganda, Nigeria and South-Africa are providing multi-media and reading resources online while Kenya, Rwanda and Somaliland running radio and TV programmes for continued learning. A number of EdTech start-ups like Zeraki in Kenya and Snapplify in South-Africa have been able to build audio-visual e-learning resources that students can accessed through mobile phone applications. That in turn, has highlighted the key areas of consideration in designing an education system that relies on technology.
The use of computers and internet connectivity offers an opportunity through which pupils can interact with education content and teachers real time, enabling the continued provision of education when physical access to schools is impossible. In Africa, the lack of technological infrastructure is currently the biggest obstacle. However, this could be overcome through reprioritising the available education resources, while tapping on additional resources from complementary sectors such as ICT. An investment of this magnitude would require huge start-up capital, but governments could argue that resilient education systems that are widely accessible can deliver quality learning and guarantee efficiency in the long-term. Africa spends 5% of its GDP on education, the second largest in low-and-middle regions, but is the least efficient in how this investment is utilised. Africa has a 58% and 41% efficiency score in primary and secondary level respectively  – an index that desperately needs improving on. The investment in technology in the provision of basic education can be cost-effective if it is designed for long-term use, as opposed to short-term measures reacting to emergencies such as caused by pandemics.
Beyond technological infrastructure, there are serious design issues African countries need to get right. EdTech-revolution might look deceptively simple, but for effective utilisation of technology, there is need for better understanding of education functionalities and operations. This would typically revolve around the following domains – curriculum, pedagogy, assessments, and education management. Additionally, the adoption of technology needs to innovate around limitations such as lack of social interaction, which is integral in the learning process. Education policies will need to be reviewed so that the changes can be embedded in the education system, instead of technology remaining an ad hoc solution. The following paragraphs outline key issues in each education domain that African countries need to take into consideration while designing a technology-based education system.
Curriculum is the formal and informal framework of interactions within an education system aimed at achieving education goals. The formal aspect of education curriculum entails subject content, instructional guides and learning resources while informal aspects, mainly, interaction environment conducive for socio-emotional development. Digitisation, audio-visuals, animation and various technological interaction enhancements with ease-to-access and user-friendly interfaces can be adopted in the curriculum. There is anecdotal evidence that use of technology would enhances learners’ intrinsic motivation and instrumental in improving learning outcomes. Social media and computer-based games could constructively be used for psycho-social development where physical interaction is constrained.
Pedagogy is the collection of techniques utilised in teaching, oriented by various learning theories. For instance, the student-centred pedagogical techniques like group work, discussions, debates and project work could be integrated into online platforms for effective education delivery. Like classroom interactions, the online platform provides real-time connection of teacher-student and student-student, which is essential in academic task coverage. Unlike physical classrooms, online platforms are not limited by space and could thus solve the endemic challenge of oversized classes. There will however be need for reorientation and capacity building of teachers to effectively use technology in education delivery.
The formative and summative assessments in basic education could adapt online-based assessment approaches like Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) and General Records Examinations (GRE). The online-based tests have proven to be efficient, reducing the turnaround time and resources needed for examination preparations, administration and grading. These platforms provide opportunity for innovation that could build integrity in student assessment and continuous improvement of assessment designs.
The digitisation and visualisation of education management information system would provide real-time information for decision making and improved education management. For instance, it would enable tracking of progress on achievement of education outcomes to inform specialised support on subject content and individualised attention for student improvement. Also, this would enable accountable utilisation of funds, inhibiting pilferages that have often result to loss of education funds. In addition, digitization of school assets could enable ease retrieval of data and accountable tracking of school resources use for effective management.
The COVID-19 pandemic puts the future as envisioned in SDGs and gains made in basic education in Africa at risk. Education planning needs to be done with understanding of potential disruptive effects of various shocks. A new education system built on technological platforms as a result of the crisis could make basic education provision in Africa resilient, as it has the potential to circumnavigate challenges to attainment of learning outcomes. This would also improve efficiency if it is planned as an alternative long-term measure of provisioning basic education.
The integration of technology as a strategy of building resilience in basic education provision in Africa might look far-fetched, but is one that could be gradually built up and guarantee sustainable education provision. Successful achievement of this would require commitment to getting key design elements right.
Ronald Odhiambo, Education Advisor East Africa
Views expressed herein are those of the author.
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 AfDB, 2020 pp103&105