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Covid-19 pushes online education to take technological leap in Africa

Posted on 22 May 2020

Technology and the internet are increasingly showing the way forward for education in Africa during the pandemic, just as they are in the West, and the changes could soon lead to a whole new way forward and enticing opportunities for businesses and partnerships once COVID-19 has passed.

Countries such as Malawi and Kenya and other members of the commonwealth are among those implementing sweeping changes, with both private and public schools already piloting projects.

In Malawi, a project dubbed Unlocking Talent through Technology, has already been in place since 2013 through a collaborative initiative between London-based software developer Onebillion and the Voluntary Service Overseas. The universities of Malawi and Nottingham are also involved.

The project sees children learning on tablets called onetabs – which cost about $50 when purchased in bulk – and having their progress recorded and remotely monitored. Currently some 11,000 tablets have been distributed to young learners in remote communities across Malawi, targeting students who do not have access to radio-based distance-learning. The company says over 150,000 primary-aged children in Malawi are using the software.

In Uganda onetabs are being used in rural communities under a partnership between Onebillion and another software developer, Hello World. Onebillion’s software is also being used in Tanzania, Kenya and Ghana as well as places beyond Africa. Unlocking Talent has been replicated in other countries, including South Africa – where 13,000 children use the software through implementation partner iSchoolAfrica – Uganda, Brazil and Ethiopia.

Unsurprisingly, companies such as Onebillion say the coronavirus has placed much sharper focus on learning at home. The time for these technologies to really take off is at hand and the potential for scaling is enormous given the emergency funding in place for countries to implement education strategies amid COVID-19.

Nicola Pitchford, a Professor of Developmental Psychology at University of Nottingham has been leading a team of researchers in evaluating the Unlocking Talent programme. “The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for high-quality education programmes, that can be implemented effectively with little adult assistance, to support children in acquiring basic literacy and numeracy skills,” she says.

Pitchford and her team have also conducted studies on scaling the project in Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, South Africa, Brazil and many other countries in the Commonwealth. The signs, so far, are promising.

Dario Gentili, VSO Country Director for Malawi says opportunities and the need for scaling up the use of technology across the continent is huge. “There are 290m children that are illiterate and innumerate in the world, starting in Malawi we will try reach as many as possible in the world,” he says.

Other companies involved include JP.IK, a Portuguese hardware supplier which operates in some 70 countries, implementing 20 large-scale education projects which it says have had an impact on more than 16 million students. JP.IK’s tablet has comes with a range of offline tools to make ebooks easier to use such as text-to-speech and some solar power capability.

Several other edtech companies are also involved in transforming Africa’s education sector including local start-ups including Kukua, a Rwanda company empowering illiterate children through a game-based mobile learning platform. Another company, Snapplify, started in South Africa and has created the Snapplify Reader which allows users to read eBooks on an Android smartphone or tablet.

All these companies and others are striving to harness the extreme changes that we have all seen during the pandemic to kickstart a bright future for edtech in Africa.

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