Policies and programs in the education systems of sub-Saharan Africa cannot be ‘business as usual’ in the aftermath of Covid-19. This column argues that there is an urgent need for public investment in information and communications technologies to address the short-, medium- and long-term implications of the pandemic, notably widening educational inequalities. The private sector and development partners should complement these efforts by initiating digital technology packages in educational institutions in Africa.
As a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, the role of information and communications technologies (ICT) in education has become an issue of great concern for policy-makers and the public. Here, we focus on evidence on the key impacts of investment in ICT on education in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa.
In summary, investment in ICT improves the quality of teaching and learning, boosting educational outcomes and bridging educational inequalities. These benefits imply that African countries should design policies that promote investment in ICT in the educational sector, coupled with investment in boosting infrastructure such as electricity, school buildings, and human resources.
In addition to public sector investment, the private sector and development partners should complement these efforts by initiating ICT packages in educational institutions. It is also crucial to accompany public and private ICT investment with research projects that deliver impact evaluations of the pandemic on educational outcomes in Africa, and the coping mechanisms that have been adopted.
The role of ICT in education in sub-Saharan Africa
Africa is making progress in the use of ICT in all aspects of life. But progress has been much slower than in other parts of the world. For example, Africa has the lowest 4G coverage and computer access. The region also has the highest gender disparity in the use of ICT, and the most expensive prices for mobile-voice and data. The low use of ICT is evident in its application to various sectors, especially education.
The lack of ICT in Africa could be explained by the poor access to infrastructure. Therefore, investment in ICT for education in Africa should be undertaken as a ‘package’ including providing complementary services such as school buildings, electricity, and human resources. Evidence from China suggests that the use of ICT in educational institutions is influenced by ICT infrastructure development.
Numerous recent interventions have sought to boost investment in ICT in the educational sectors of African countries by both governments and development partners. Examples of such initiatives include the UNESCO-Korea Funds-in-Trust (KFIT) initiative on ICT Transforming Education in Africa and eLearning Africa.
At the country level, there are similar interventions, such as distribution of laptops to students and investing in ICT resource centers in schools. For example, Kenya, which is regarded as an ICT hub in Africa, has implemented several ICT-related programs and policies, including launching a national broadband strategy from 2013 to 2017, a ‘one laptop per child’ program, the Kenya Education Network (KENET), and a digital literacy program.
Despite these interventions, a full-scale and transformative application of ICT to education in Africa is still disappointingly low. For example, many educational institutions (particularly at primary and secondary levels) still rely on ‘chalk and blackboard’ for teaching and learning. In addition, Africa has the most disadvantaged upper secondary schools in terms of access to electricity, computers, and the internet. This makes it difficult to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly on ICT use and quality education (Goals 9 and 4).
Researchers and policy-makers advocating for greater ICT interventions in education highlight several benefits, such as improving the quality of teaching and learning. Investment in ICT-driven education changes the way teaching and learning are conducted, stimulating more practical-based training than theoretical training. ICT platforms provide teachers and students with the means to explore deeper, as there are numerous technology-based gadgets and instruments. Through ICT, trainers are exposed to a vast array of new pedagogy and work more efficiently in their administrative duties.
While there is limited evidence on the impacts of ICT on educational outcomes in Africa, evidence from other jurisdictions, including Asia, Europe, and Central and South America, points to positive impacts on educational outcomes such as test scores, cognitive skills, and digital skills.
Evidence from Kenya shows that the poa! Internet initiative – a private internet service provider that provides free access to selected educational institutions – led to improvements in immediate and intermediate educational outcomes, including access to information, and skills and training in computer and internet use.
These results indicate that investment in ICT in the educational sector in Africa could lead to improvements in educational outcomes. But evidence from the other jurisdictions suggests that the positive impacts of ICT on educational outcomes require complementary investment in electricity, school buildings and human resources.
Covid-19 and education in sub-Saharan Africa
The pandemic has affected access to education in Africa. While there has long been inequality in educational delivery between the region and elsewhere in the world, the pandemic has exacerbated an already precarious phenomenon. The long-term implications of Covid-19 for educational outcomes are unknown, but it is widely understood that there is a need to re-orient educational systems through investment in ICT, both globally and in Africa (see similar initiatives by the Universal Service Fund, USF).
In developed countries, even before the advent of the pandemic, the use of ICT in schools was profound. For example, ICT platforms in well-endowed schools enabled lessons and lectures over the internet, thus promoting inclusive educational activities.
The closure of schools, colleges, universities, and skills training centers during the pandemic – which in itself has the capacity to reverse progress on access to education – has had uneven effects on students, with those in vulnerable and disadvantaged areas being disproportionately affected.
Furthermore, the pandemic has had both psychological and physical effects on children’s wellbeing. Within a very short time, students whose families could afford it adjusted to the ‘new normal’ of online teaching and learning. But in many African countries, students were largely left out and had to stay at home without much support in their education.
The way forward
First, countries in Africa have to implement ambitious ICT policies in the educational sector. For example, there is the urgent need for investment in ICT for improved teaching and learning in educational institutions at all levels. Such investment should be done on the foundation of boosting ancillary infrastructure such as electricity, school buildings, and human resources. In this way, investment in educational ICT should be seen as a ‘package’ and not treated in isolation from other investment.
Second, private companies could provide ICT to educational institutions as part of their business models, similar to poa! Internet in Kenya. Most private interventions in the educational sector in Africa are skewed towards investment in classroom infrastructure, uniforms, and textbooks.
Finally, research has to be conducted on the impacts of the pandemic on educational outcomes in African countries, and the coping mechanisms that have been adopted. This will provide rigorous evidence for policy-making in the educational sectors of these countries.