EdTech for the African: moving beyond supplementing formal education

EdTech for the African: moving beyond supplementing formal education

On my way to work one morning, I came across a billboard advertising Deakin University. I work in Nairobi, the bustling capital city of Kenya. The billboard stood out to me for two reasons, I completed my PhD at the University of Melbourne, Australia and the statement “Among the top 1% universities in the world” was quite clever of Deakin. They placed themselves in the same category as Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, MIT, Harvard etc., even though according to the 2020 Qs University ranking, they are not top 10 in Australia.

Secondly, it reminded me of how lucrative the Kenyan market is for higher education. According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Kenya ranked 8th (out of 54 African countries) in sending students out for tertiary education in 2017. A survey conducted by Synovate in 2011 observed that “of 1,044 students polled in the survey, 57% of them said they would prefer to study in a foreign university as opposed to a local (Kenyan) one.”

African Outbound students by country in 2017

African Outbound students by country in 2017

Does that mean that Kenyan education, erm, sucks?

No. Not really.

The reason foreign education is appealing to many in the country, and I dare say on the continent, is that well-known factors plague formal education for the average African. These include a high student-teacher ratio, poor school infrastructure, underpaid staff resulting in regular strikes, a perception of low-quality education especially at public institutions etc. As a result, several commendable apps have stepped in to alleviate one or more of these challenges. Eneza for example, offers primary school revision and learning materials via basic feature-phones, while Zelda provides free career guidance to high school students plus eases access to funding for tertiary education. Mtabe from Tanzania tackles text book scarcity by providing learning content to students in rural secondary schools via SMS, while Ubongo uses edutainment to provide fun localised educational content to children. These apps are among 10 from Africa that recently competed in the 2019 Next Billion EdTech prize. They represent a growing number of African EdTech solutions that tackle challenges hampering formal education.

The need for EdTech to move towards the informal

As an afro-centric researcher and Designer, I put forward that what remains ignored, underexplored or underprioritised is the potential benefit of uplifting informal education. What I mean by this, is the education that takes place outside formal institutions and in the world, often through learning-by-doing.

The need to augment informal education is evidenced by the fact that a huge number of Africans do not have access to quality formal education, particularly at the tertiary level. Moreover, African economies benefit more from the informal sector than from the sector that formal education primarily feeds, that is, the formal sector. The 2019 Kenyan Economic Survey shows that 86% of jobs created in Kenya in 2019 were from the informal sector. At the same time, it is estimated that about 1.5M students drop out from both secondary school and university every year. Thus, for example, out of the students who completed primary school in Kenya in 2014, only 67% of them completed secondary school 4 years later. The numbers of those who fail to join university is equally staggering. Not only can the average Kenyan not afford to attend the likes of Deakin University, they cannot even afford to attend University of Nairobi. EdTech has had little focus on augmenting the learning of these dropouts, yet their contribution to our economies is unquestionably significant.

For many drop-outs, the only option for gaining a semblance of education is to learn from experience. Either their own or the experience of others. This learning can take the form of apprenticeships, YouTube videos, field demonstrations or by duplicating what others have done successfully.

A furniture hub in Nairobi, Kenya. Image source: http://www.kenyanmoments.com/ngong-road-furniture-heaven/

A furniture hub in Nairobi, Kenya. Image source: http://www.kenyanmoments.com/ngong-road-furniture-heaven/

The picture above is of one of our Kenyan furniture hubs. While one can find great quality furniture here, many of the shops have more or less the same furniture products. Therefore, while this area is lush with skilled craftsmen, the area produces few high-quality furniture makers and is instead rife with abundant duplication.

I put forward that these hubs could alternatively be centres of learning, innovation and high-quality mass production. The great sociologist Manuel Castells talks about centres where thematic innovations can be fostered depending on the socio-economic attributes of the particular area. In Germany for example, Stuttgart is characterised by developments of combustion engines and automobiles, while Munich is characterised by the development of semi-conductor devices. These centres not only contribute to the socio-economic development of Germany as a whole but also serve as centres of innovation and learning.

How then can EdTech solutions enable drop-outs of formal education to:

upskill; gather new and/or unique skills; get recognised for their current skills; demonstrate competence over their competitors; increase the quality of their products; invent new products; and in the best case, create centres for innovation, learning and mass production?

I offer some factors that can foster the design of relevant and beneficial EdTech solutions for Africans today.

1) Legitimise experiential learning

While a majority of EdTech solutions for Africa are pegged on supporting the student in grasping or improving formal education, sharp focus should also be on supplementing informal education.

I have to add here that I quite oppose the formal- informal dichotomy as it conjures historical patterns where colonisation led to the institutionalisation of western education (branding it as formal), and the delegitimisation of African education (branding it as informal). I will instead use the term ‘experiential learning’. This way of knowing views knowledge as created through social and physical interactions with people and the environment.

Edtech can play a key role for Africa by increasing access to experiential learning in ways that fit into the lifestyle of those in the informal sector, and that can be scaled beyond geographical and technological limitations. Experiential learning utilises ways of knowing quite typical in traditional Africa where modes of learning include music, dance, proverbs, storytelling, use of multiple languages, field excursions, apprenticeships and peer expeditions. Above all, excellence, quality and community (Ubuntu) was highly emphasised.

I quite like the advent of Accredited Experience Degrees. These are degrees that are awarded by a university based on the work experience and training of the student. Though quite rare, these degrees present an opportunity where experiential learning can be legitimised. A plumber can acquire a certificate based on his years of experience and a practical assessment.

By increasing access to experiential learning, Edtech can not only propel innovation and quality in the informal sector, but also legitimise learning experiences for a huge number of Africans who gain knowledge and skills outside the classroom.

2). Design for digital-physical interactions

Currently most EdTech apps are designed for one-person use and require the user to learn and complete tasks online. What this leaves out is the learning that occurs in the world, and in concert with others. In our furniture hub example, what typically happens is that the learner spends time with an established furniture maker and learns on the job, not only about carpentry but also about running a business. My push is that EdTech apps should foster the situated learning of these carpentry and business skills; social, temporal and physical interactions between the teacher and the apprentice(s); plus, textbook learning.

I will give the example of the TangDou app. TangDou is a Chinese app that teaches middle-aged to elderly women how to dance. One of their primary users is the TangDou teacher. The app supports digital interactions where the teacher learns new moves, gains followers, communicates with her followers and receives ratings. The app supports physical interactions by helping the elderly women to find and meet their preferred teacher and enjoy a face-to-face dance session.

The same can be applied to EdTech; the skilled teachers can connect with their students online, teach them offline, and maintain interaction through both online and offline means. While online tools like MOOCs do encourage group social interaction, they are primed for text and video learning. Informal jobs on the other hand are best learned and improved through face-to-face practical sessions.

EdTech for the African needs to move beyond only online interactions, and into a hybrid of digital-physical interactions among groups. Such solutions would foster the type of interactions that are key for experiential learning.

3). Design for dignity

Could it be that the skills that we oft look down upon simply need a face lift? Take for example the blue-collar white-collar dichotomy yet blue-collar jobs can be more lucrative than office jobs. Another rift is between STEM and Art/Sport professions, where the latter are viewed as yielding short-term, rarely successful, often flamboyant careers.

One way to elevate informal/blue-collar/manual/Artsy jobs is through the titles we give them.

Naming is a very powerful activity for several African cultures. Onicha Ado N’idu explains that the Igbo of Nigeria for example, believe that the name given to a child bears “a message, a meaning, a story, an observation, a history, a life experience or a prayer”. This high regard for naming births names such as Zkemma which translates to ‘power of beauty’, or Nkiruka which translates to ‘the future is greater than the past’. My name Kagonya, which is from the Luhya tribe of Kenya, loosely translates to ‘the caring one’.

As afro-centric designers, we can adopt these naming practices for EdTech. The titles we choose to use for professions can serve to promote respect and awe, instead of disdain. Demeaning job names, like the ones below on the left can be replaced with much more befitting ones.

Using naming to uplift informal jobs

Using naming to uplift informal jobs

While seemingly cosmetic, naming can serve to promote a sense of respect for “lowly” jobs and legitimise professions that arise from the informal sector. This legitimisation serves students from both formal and informal institutions as either of them can take up professions in the informal sector.

In conclusion folks, while African governments continue to solve and build out the political and technical infrastructure needed to facilitate education, we as Designers can design technologies that meet the socio-economic needs of the populace.

One of my favourite minds in Human-Computer Interaction, Helen Verran, points out that Designers are todays epistemologists. They define and design the knowledge forms and methods of learning that ICTs will support. As an afro-centric researcher and designer, I add that for African EdTech solutions can move beyond supporting formal education and formal ways of learning, and mediate and legitimise experiential learning and its outcomes.

Let us Design Edtech solutions that move the needle for the Africans of today, and the innovations of tomorrow.