Distance Learning in Africa Goes the Distance

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PORTSMOUTH, Ohio — The pandemic saw a rapid shift toward distance learning as schools shut down across the globe. Unfortunately, hundreds of millions lacked ready access to remote education resources, whether online or over the airwaves. Distance learning in Africa became a priority throughout the pandemic. Now, many have to learn to adapt to live with the pandemic to survive. As a result, remote education has become part of a broader conversation about African development.

Examining Egypt’s Approach

Bearing in mind current resources and past successes, countries in a variety of circumstances implemented a range of distance learning initiatives in Africa.

In Egypt, where the internet is more accessible, distance learning initiatives focused on delivering online curriculums. In March 2020, the Ministry of Education and Technical Education permitted online access to the Egyptian Knowledge Bank. Students from kindergarten all the way to secondary school received access. This provided online multimedia curriculums to both students and teachers. Additionally, Egypt implemented online education platforms for student-teacher communication.

These platforms can be accessed via a desktop or mobile device. To make access to online education more equitable, the Ministry of Communications and IT partnered with mobile carriers to distribute free SIM cards to students. However, these students needed to already have access to a device. In some cases, higher-level students received tablets for evaluations.

Kenya’s Distance Learning Efforts

Farther south, Kenya utilized multiple avenues of remote education for 15 million students. Authorities made significant efforts to provide online education to students, partnering with Alphabet, Inc. and Telkom Kenya to float 4G base stations over Kenyan airspace. These balloons provide a wireless network to Kenyans on the ground. In this same vein, Kenya partnered with mobile network providers to cut deals on mobile data.

Kenyan authorities also explored providing remote education to students who continuously lacked internet access. The Kenyan government partnered with both television and radio broadcasting groups to deliver remote education on a weekly basis.

Sierra Leone Employs its Own Strategy

Sierra Leone revived and adapted its own sweeping radio education strategy from the 2014 Ebola outbreak for the COVID-19 shutdowns. The World Bank, Global Partnership for Education, UNESCO and UNICEF assisted in the implementation. Moreover, educators experienced with radio education from the Ebola outbreak proved essential to orienting newcomers to the medium. Overall, initiatives benefitted from lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak regarding curricula and instruction. Sierra Leone was able to improve its radio education resources to accommodate students throughout 2020 by doubling its number of studios.

Despite all these efforts, many students have been left without education. According to UNICEF, 463 million students globally lacked access to distance learning resources amid COVID shutdowns. Africa is home to at least 121 million affected students. These students lacked access to technology or tools, including the internet, television, radio or educational programming, that would have allowed them to learn.

Mapping A Way Forward in Distance Education

Distance learning initiatives in Africa have taken many forms, allowing for creative solutions to address gaps in student access throughout the pandemic. But even with these initiatives, millions of students continue to lack access in 2021. In particular, UNESCO warns of the impact on girls, disabled students, and students in rural areas, all of which can exacerbate existing inequalities.

The Global Education Coalition prioritized education in Africa at the outset of the pandemic in 2020. As of May 2021, there are 66 active initiatives in 39 African countries “with additional 38 projects currently in discussion.” Speakers at the Coalition’s 2021 forum on digital learning in Africa emphasized the need to leverage technology in education. They also pointed to a holistic approach to closing digital divides in Africa.

Evaluating the Future of Learning Styles

The pandemic has “accelerated digital transformation” and the adoption of new education strategies in Africa. In the short term, distance learning initiatives in Africa will likely take a backseat to reopening schools, organizing “catch-up programmes,” and implementing technology in the classroom. In the long term, however, new infrastructure and local resource initiatives in education and technology are expected to be priorities in regional development.

Distancing learning initiatives in Africa will likely remain active for the foreseeable future as the pandemic persists around the world. However, the situation appears hopeful as equitable internet and technological access become developmental priorities. The shift toward remote education left many students behind, but there is hope that everyone will be caught up to speed on their education.

Mckenzie Howell
Photo: Flickr

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