With a population of over 349 million people, West Africa comprises 18 countries, all of which are taking up online learning to some extent. Education agencies say that illiteracy rates in West Africa are the highest in the world, with 65 million West African adults unable to read or write. However, the countries are making progress and literacy rates are higher than in the 1990s. Education features strongly in budgets of West African governments but none are meeting the 7% of Gross Domestic Product targets that governments promised back in 2005.

Sub-Saharan and West African countries are full of young and ambitious people who realise that the Internet is changing the world and want to be part of this through access to technology and education. A big part of this is e-learning but the situation is complicated by access hurdles to participating in classical higher education and studying at university. Booming study areas include mining, construction, engineering, healthcare and agricultural research but challenges include:

• access to funding,
• intense competition for places on e-learning courses,
• inadequate infrastructure and resources.

All these affect the quality of courses and the opportunities for e-learners to flourish.

[H2] What are e-learning and m-learning?

Learning by using electronic technology is called e-learning and is the ability to access educational materials outside of a traditional educational setting. It usually means taking a course, a learning program or even a degree and studying online. Online courses don’t focus on content delivered by DVDs, CD-ROM, videos or television but are interactive and e-learners can communicate with tutors, professors or other students. Sessions can sometimes be live through streaming. Students benefit from a remote teacher or professor who interacts and communicates with them and grades their participation, assignments and tests or examinations. A proven and successful teaching and training method, e-learning is spreading across the world as one of the most popular methods of learning.

Also a popular method of education and learning, m-learning uses mobile technology with some important differences to e-learning. For example, m-learning has an element of social learning with apps that encourage learners to share their experiences and is becoming an important part of online courses and distance education. Technology is continually developing and m-learning will become a major contributor to education and training. However, like all major initiatives, it needs to work with existing technology to be effective. Adopting mobile learning is not uniform across all Sub-Saharan Africa countries with problems such as a lack of awareness of the technology involved, infrastructure availability of expertise for new technology along with user willingness to adopt and use this technology.

[H2] Major hurdles to overcome for e-learning in West Africa
Language
Language is a major hurdle for distance education in Sub-Sahara Africa. Most edtech developers (education technology developers) design their programs in English, which is an issue for some students as proficiency in English throughout Africa is not very high. This is particularly the case in rural areas. This also means there is a lack of an understandable curriculum in schools, universities and colleges that are needed to form a base for developing e-learning courses. Many non-English speaking individuals, or those with limited English, can feel that they have nothing to gain from technology when the content of distance education programs is difficult to understand. Even if students can speak and understand English, often this is in the context of social media, e-mails and entertainment (e.g. viewing films). This means that many people may only use English in restricted situations with most of their daily communications being in their local language. Moreover, surveys suggest that up to a third of online e-learners indicate that they would prefer to study in a language other than English. So edtech developers need to address language issues, possibly by having native developers working on edtech programs to make learners feel more comfortable with the concept and content of distance education.

Costs
The sheer cost of rolling out online learning in Africa is a deterrent for many academic institutions and governments. Both learners and authorities can be overwhelmed by the level of investment required. The result is that West Africa and Sub-Sahara countries have been extremely slow on the uptake and implementation of distance learning. The cost of internet access is also an issue for learners as this is priced as a luxury. Overall, entry level broadband costs are more than 40% of people’s average incomes. Needed are 500mb per month as a minimum for e-learners to view several educational video tutorials and fewer than 3% of Africans are able to pay for this.

Some online learning bodies are trying to meet the costs of their programs by charging additional fees to students, which discriminates against poorer students. Also, the high costs and difficulties in accessing distance education programs particularly affect women in developing countries.

Finally, few students have access to technology at home or own mobile devices. Students may need to try and borrow devices from friends or relatives, which is far from ideal.

Cultures
The majority of distance learning programs are designed for Western cultures. The problem with this is that e-learners can experience inadequate learning results if they are expected to use e-learning designed in a different culture or country. These programs are designed within the local culture with associated life experiences reflected in the information gathered. Cultures affect who we are, how we think, behave, and react to our environment and therefore determine how we learn. To be effective, online courses must relate to each individual culture.

Internet connectivity
Due to a lack of technical infrastructure in West Africa, most organisations who offer
online courses will sub-contract their requirements to third party providers. In this case, employees may need to travel to access their programs, which leads to logistical problems and also motivational issues for users to want to adopt online courses. An inadequate technological infrastructure could threaten any online courses regardless of how focused its goals may be. Certain infrastructure, such as high-speed Internet, is simply not common in West Africa.

Attitudes towards e-learning
In Sub-Sahara Africa, sticking to traditional practices as part of the learning process is a tradition that is difficult to break. Therefore, technology-based tools for online courses are seen to interfere with the practices that have been used for decades. Botswana is a good example of this as it is a country with a very strong socio-cultural environment and students in the country are very embedded in their country’s culture. Therefore, their attitude towards distance education reflects this. Although the country has taken significant steps to recreate a Western-type economy, connections with the country’s traditions and roots remain strong. Evidence points to the fact that students gain much of their knowledge by integrating with their communities, where values, knowledge and beliefs are dominant.

For online courses to be better accepted in higher education institutions in
Sub-Sahara Africa, appropriate training on various levels must be provided and this would include developing expertise in using online learning techniques as well as conducting research to collect data as a basis for future development. These critical steps require considerable attention and effort on the part of governments in Sub-Sahara Africa to ensure that awareness, positive approaches, and improved motivation can prevail when it comes to e-learning.

[H2] In conclusion

In spite of the many challenges, the growth of e-learning in West and Sub-Sahara Africa is relatively steady. To prove this, revenues in 2013 were in the region of $332.9 million with a yearly growth rate of 15.2%. Adopting mobile technologies, even in rural areas, has helped to fuel the growth as big players like Google and Microsoft are beginning to take an interest in these areas, thus helping to provide better internet access for e-learners. However, the deep-rooted challenges discussed above still prevail. Countries in Sub-Sahara Africa will need a huge cultural and attitudinal shift, not to mention considerable changes in resources and infrastructure to overcome the many issues that are causing online courses to stutter.

For a balanced view and more valuable information about online e-learning and m-learning in Africa, visit http://www.apps-for-learning.com. This site provides more information and, if you’d like to get involved, you can post your thoughts in the comments section and/or share the ideas, including this article, on Twitter or Facebook.

By: Jens Ischebeck

Jens Ischebeck, African edtech specialist: Website publisher www.apps-for-learning.com.

The website presents and compares e-learning and mobile learning providers with a special focus on the African market.

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