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The COVID-19 pandemic has, no doubt, accelerated the move to digital learning in Africa, just as it has in other parts of the world. But is Africa ready for e-learning, given a myriad of challenges associated with it? Hardware, software, internet access, skill levels of faculty and students, perceptions around quality, and the effective delivery of practical skills are among the named barriers. And what of the potential of e-learning on the continent, which will be home to a billion youth by 2050. Is e-learning the answer to reaching millions of young people who yearn for a formal education?

These and other topics were the subject of a recent roundtable co-hosted by Davis College Rwanda and Concordia on Africa’s Digital Education Transformation. Convened as part of Concordia’s 2020 Africa Initiative, the roundtable explored the challenges and opportunities for e-learning in Africa and delved into different stakeholders perceptions on the value of a virtual education. Speakers from several higher learning institutions in Africa as well as accreditors and donors shared their perceptions and learnings around e-learning to date at the gathering.

“Before Covid-19, e-learning worldwide had not fulfilled its potential,” said Teppo Jouttenus, Chief Innovation Officer at Kepler. “In most other areas of society, technology has lowered costs while providing new, more effective experiences through the new modality. However, most online degree programs cost the same as in person and offer an inferior copy of the traditional campus learning model. When I think of e-learning, I take that as a challenge and ask if we could do better.” 

Vijayakumar Bhagavatula, Carnegie Mellon University’s Africa director, also spoke of the cost of e-learning, especially during this complex transition phase, but suggested that could change over time. “Internet access is still one of the biggest challenges for e-learning success, said Bhagavatula. “Moving from face-to-face learning to online learning, there is a set of skills to be acquired and materials to be redesigned, devices to be provided…There are universities that have been doing online learning, but for other universities that have never done it before and they suddenly switch to the new modality. It’s challenging.”

Michael Horn, the author of multiple books and articles on education and a senior strategist at Guild Education, emphasizes the fundamental shifts happening in education today. “Digital learning is growing rapidly across higher education, but oftentimes schools simply implement shiny new features instead of focusing first on their learning model and then on how to operationalize that with an emphasis on outcomes and scale. Getting the sequence right, however, can unlock huge potential to change the lives of millions of learners left of the traditional system.” 

Participants agreed that more can be done to spur the move to e-learning. “There is a need for all education stakeholders to think about ways of scaling education in Africa, by leveraging the innovations in e-learning systems and learning from others who have been operating in this space, even prior to this pandemic,” said Paul Swaga, President of Davis College Rwanda. “How do we make e-learning systems accessible and affordable to all categories of learners?” Swaga recommends greater collaboration among educational institutions, regulators, internet providers, and employers to ensure that e-learning programs can effectively deliver on the promise of high quality student outcomes, now and into the future.

Another big challenge has to do with faculty training and support. “Connectivity is not just for students but it is the same with teachers,” said Gaidi Faraj, dean of faculty at African Leadership University. “It is as important for faculty to adjust to the systems and be comfortable to use the online platforms as well as students.” Ashesi believes trusting faculty with the content material and allowing them to innovate is key. “At Ashesi University, we ask faculty what they will teach each week and to state which technological tool they plan to use. This enables the IT team to adequately prepare to support them technically, if need be. Both faculty and the IT team were exploring and discovering the different learning management system tools concurrently,” said Angela Owusu-Ansah, Ashesi’s provost. 

Rwanda, home to several higher education institutions, has the potential to be a leader in e-learning on the continent. Transitioning to a knowledge-based economy centered on technology has been a long-term government priority. In 2016, a new education policy highlighted the role of technology in addressing the key challenges of access, quality, equity, relevance, and management efficiency. Policy, however, is different from practice. The higher learning council of Rwanda is working to accredit online programs, but they are in uncharted territory. “This has never happened before,” said Christine Niyizamwiyitira from the Rwanda Education Board.

When asked about the future of e-learning in Africa, the speakers were unanimous that, in spite of the challenges, e-learning is here to stay. The question is how to get from here to there, and at what cost. “We need to ask ourselves how we are going to reach people who are difficult to reach and then work our way up to make education accessible to all,” said Bhagavatula. Jouttenus goes further. “Educators need to have a commitment to serve the vulnerable and provide all the tools people in underserved communities need, such as the internet and electricity, to try and make e-learning accessible for all in the future.”  

Attendees expressed optimism that this roundtable and subsequent discussions can offer greater insight on how to fast track e-learning systems and ensure learning opportunities are available for all young people. The future of education in Africa is here.

Karen Sherman is the President of Akilah, the women’s leadership institute(Global) at Davis College, and the author of Brick by Brick: Building Hope and Opportunity for Women Survivors Everywhere, published in 2020.