Harnessing Information Technology
for Development in Africa

Sub-project Proposal:

Creating Learning Networks for African Teachers
Rationale | Background | Project outline | Proposed project activities | Related projects and activities

1. Rationale

Providing opportunities to meet Africa's basic learning needs is a first step towards a long-term solution to prepare the Continent for its future in a global society. Africa's example has taught us that these learning needs cannot be addressed only by expanding the formal education system, but require new ways to look at both access to and quality of education and learning.

National policies in Africa are placing a high priority on improving education, for example through initiating curriculum reforms, improving in-service teacher training and reinforcing non-formal and distance education approaches. Teacher training colleges, working with the relevant departments within Ministries of Education, have been major partners in implementing such new directions and programmes. Their role in improving the quality of learning could be extended beyond the traditional training of teachers by their becoming:

  1. an information, communication and learning resource for educational planners and researchers, for teachers and, through them, for specific learning communities, and
  2. a test bed for innovation in teaching and learning. Advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) can facilitate such processes, if applications take full account of technical constraints and educational concepts.

This project proposal is part of the larger: "Harnessing Information Technology for Development in Africa" project for the development of 20 national information and communication infrastructure plans within the framework of Africa's Information Society Initiative and the United Nations System-wide Special Initiative on Africa, and closely linked to the "Basic Education for All African Children" priority within this same UN Initiative. The project aims to contribute to providing meaningful learning environments for Africa's people by connecting teacher training colleges to the information highway, thereby enhancing their capacity to respond to new challenges to teaching and learning and to become real learning organisations for their communities.

Creating Learning Networks for African Teachers
Rationale | Background | Project outline | Proposed project activities | Related projects and activities

2 Background

2.1 The changing concept of learning in the African context

In the eighties, Africa had the highest growth figures in educational enrolment at all levels as well as in expenditure on education (as a percentage of GNP). In the nineties, these figures have stagnated or even declined, leaving Africa with more than 200 million illiterate adults (44% of the adult population) gross enrolment figures in sub-Saharan Africa at 73,1 %, 23.1 %, and 3,3 % at primary, secondary and tertiary level respectively, and alarmingly high unemployment figures among educated youth. Africa's example shows us that an enormous expansion of the formal education system alone cannot address existing, let alone future, basic learning needs, and even adds new sets of problems such as increased need for training and re-training of teachers, for adaptation of curricula, more textbooks and learning materials, and for improved communications and administration systems.

The world is rapidly changing. Different patterns of labour, new ideas on political participation and human rights, multi-cultural societies, and environmental problems are evolving in Africa, as elsewhere. Pressures of the contemporary age require people and institutions to continuously acquire new knowledge and skills. Today's globalization of the economy and international trade have made education a crucial element of socio-economic development. Learning is no longer an initial activity preparing one for a productive life, but rather a continuous necessity to cope with societies' changing demands. This increased need for lifelong learning opportunities takes on a special meaning in the African context, presenting not only a challenge to the limited effectiveness of the traditional school systems in meeting basic learning needs, but also a historic opportunity to leap-frog into the Information Age to participate and compete as equal partners in our global society.

At the World Conference on Education for All (Jomtien, March 1990) the leaders of the world adopted an "expanded" vision of basic education, that surpasses present resource levels, institutional structure, curricula and conventional delivery systems. UNESCO has responded to this challenge by creating the Learning Without Frontiers Programme that aims to promote diversified and open learning systems in the perspective of lifelong learning, emphasising the potential contribution of modern information and communication technologies (ICTs) to create more meaningful and open learning environments.

2.2 Network connectivity in Africa

Internet connectivity on the African continent lags far behind that of the rest of the world. Although rapid progress this year (1998) will fully connect all but one of the capitals of African countries to the Internet (see Figure 1 below, and this comprehensive overview). Where full Internet access exists, it is generally restricted to the largest cities and its cost is far beyond the means of public sector users. At the same time, more and more countries are also providing full access to remote areas, and prices are seen to drop significantly over time. However, still about 70% of African's population does not live in reach of Internet access points. Both inadequate telecommunications systems, the socio-economic situation, as well as lack of human resources in some countries are the main reason for Africa's low connectivity.

African Connectivity in June 1998
Figure 1: African Connectivity as per June 1998
(source: http://demiurge.wn.apc.org/africa/afrmain.htm (opens in separate window)
used with permission -- see this page for recent and older connectivity maps)

Technical roadblocks are also important in efforts to stimulate access to the information highway for development in Africa at both the national and individual levels. Five of the major ones in many African countries are:

  1. the small number of potential users having both the skills and equipment to benefit from access to electronic information networks;
  2. the scarcity and high costs of equipment, software and information compared to situations in the North;
  3. lack of reliable and accessible physical telecommunications infrastructure;
  4. telecommunications monopoly, associated with overly restrictive regulations and high costs, and
  5. lack of interregional networking and cooperation.

Currently several initiatives are under way to improve connectivity and networking on the African continent. At the basic infrastructure level, two of the major initiatives are Rascom, the Regional African Satellite Communications Organisation that aims to carry all satellite traffic within Africa through the co-ordination of satellite capacity, and Africa One, an AT&T project to lay optical fibre cable around the continent with gateways to all the coastal countries interested. In the area of capacity building and policy making reference should be made to the Africa's Information Society Initiative (AISI), an action framework approved by the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) Conference of Ministers in May 1996 to build Africa's information and communication infrastructure and to promote national development and regional integration through telematics applications in priority areas such as finance, employment, tourism, health and education. A recent overview by Mike Jensen provides a more comprehensive view on connectivity in Africa.

2.3 ICTs and the teaching-learning process

Information and communication technologies, and in particular telematics applications, dramatically expand the options for engaging in teaching and learning at individual, community and societal levels, especially for those who have not been able to obtain an education, due to inadequate numbers of schools and qualified teachers in particular, or to barriers such as inadequate time schedules, age limitations, educational fees, or language of instruction.

ICTs provide opportunities for greater flexibility, interactivity and accessibility through multi-channel applications such as interactive radio and television, video conferencing, teletext, Internet based virtual communities (ranging from the chatroom to academic discussion circles), WWW publishing and individualised CD-ROM tutorials which can support both classroom teaching and learning in a distance education mode. ICTs can connect schools, universities and research centres and libraries in order to promote and support collaboration among students, teachers and research sources, and reduce communications and administrative costs through networks linking educational establishments and governmental bodies. Through ICTs, learning opportunities can be made available to the community on a 24-hour basis, thereby establishing an important condition for an open learning environment.

However, in the educational context, it must be remembered that ICTs are simply tools for facilitating learning and teaching. Their success does not depend on the technology itself, but on the appropriateness of its application. High expectations for ICT applications may cause disappointment among their users, if they do not take full account of the actual educational contexts including, for example, untrained users, unreliable supply of electricity, and, more importantly, educational messages that do not meet the standards of quality and relevance.


Creating Learning Networks for African Teachers
Rationale | Background | Project outline | Proposed project activities | Related projects and activities
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