Global Education Coalition explores the digital learning turn in Africa

On 25 May 2021, on the occasion of Africa Day, UNESCO brought together ministers from the African continent, education stakeholders and private sector representatives to the online Global Education Coalition (GEC) Forum, titled ‘The Digital Learning Turn in Africa: The Role of Local Eco-Systems.’

”We mark this Day in the wake of the greatest disruption to education in recent history. It has exacerbated inequalities and seriously threatens development gains made over decades across the continent and globally,” said Ms Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO, opening the Forum to more than 200 participants. “But it is also generated innovations holding potential to ensure that all children and youth have access to quality education and learn differently and better.”

As in other regions of the world, school closures in Africa due to COVID-19 impacted education for millions of students, widening existing inequalities and hitting the most vulnerable populations hardest, especially girls, children with disabilities and learners living in rural areas. According to a paper released by UNESCO for Africa Day, school closures across the continent ranged from 11 to over 40 weeks.

In response, many governments in Africa quickly launched educational broadcasts via television, radio or online. While these initiatives are positive, only 34% of households have access to the internet and around 89% of learners do not have access to a computer at home, making the digital divide a major obstacle to learning continuity.

UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition, launched at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to support learning continuity, has prioritized Africa in its operations. Today, the Coalition is working in 39 countries in Africa on 66 projects and with additional 38 projects currently in discussion.

Mr Firmin Matoko, Assistant Director-General for Priority Africa and External Relations, UNESCO, warned that the pandemic is pushing 34 million Africans into extreme poverty and stressed the urgency of making distance learning more effective, supporting teachers and co-creating the future with youth. “Today’s spirit of celebration and innovation across Africa must continue to be harnessed to support the continuity of learning with investments in our youth, technologies and educational actors to build a better future for the continent,” he said.

The increased interest in leveraging technology to strengthen education systems offers the opportunity to reimagine, through diverse cross-sectoral partnerships, a new future of education for the African continent, building on the goals of Africa 2063, the Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA) and the Sustainable Development Goal on Education.

H.E. Professor Sarah Anyang Agbor, the African Union’s Commissioner for Education, Science, Technology and Innovation, emphasized that “the pandemic had reinforced the importance to transform education systems across the continent through digital education.” She explained this is the aim of the Africa Union’s digital technology strategy that takes a holistic approach, spanning access, quality, learning contents, pedagogies, connectivity and devices.

During a first roundtable, African ministers from the Republic of Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kingdom of Morocco and Tunisia, as well as the representative of the Democratic Republic of Congo, shared lessons learned from the pandemic and the national challenges for scaling up digital learning and local ecosystems. All highlighted issues of equity, teacher training, connectivity, poor infrastructure and lack of devices. They concurred that the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation, reported an increased reliance on hybrid learning, and stressed the urgent need to mobilize financing and partnerships and strengthen peer-learning, knowledge sharing and pooling of education resources in a spirit of solidarity.

The following GEC partners’ roundtable provided an opportunity to present ideas for the development of thriving digital learning ecosystems in Africa, including involving key stakeholders, mobilizing funding and establishing broad-based strategies. Finally, a marketplace session showcased promising local and global solutions and opportunities to strengthen local ecosystems for digital learning, composed by exhibitors from the GEC including companies and networks such as Technovation, Pix, LabXchange, Curious Learning, Teach for All, Blackboard, Orange, Vodacom, Weidong Cloud Education and the University of the People.

A snapshot of educational challenges and opportunities for recovery in Africa

UNESCO’s paper, A snapshot of educational challenges and opportunities for recovery in Africa, highlights the challenges and responses to COVID-19 based on sub-regional data, including the shift to remote learning.

Regarding the transition to distance learning and the digital divide in Africa, the paper highlights that the COVID-19 crisis and the sudden closure of schools resulted in rapid national shifts to replace in-person teaching with various forms of ICT-based, remote and hybrid education. Data from UIS, 2021, show that both at the peak of the pandemic and in September 2020, online learning was provided as an effective solution for globally all the countries (84-86%). However, Sub-Saharan Africa and, to a lesser extent, Northern Africa lacked sufficient devices and internet connection to sustain online and other remote forms of teaching and learning for all students. A year into the pandemic has illustrated that African countries must create and support an enabling environment for the expansion of digital learning infrastructure to leave no one behind.

The report concludes that in the past two decades, Africa has made important progress in social development, economic growth and education, all of which has been jeopardized by the global pandemic. Poverty and inequality might be exacerbated in the near future unless bold action is taken to promote equity and inclusion in Africa, including leveraging innovation and creativity potential such as education initiatives designed and implemented during the crisis.

As education is the greatest equalizer in society and best placed to help curb disparities, the following short and long-term actions are identified for education to play a key role in the continent’s recovery:

Short and medium term priorities:

Bring learners back to school
Organize catch-up programmes
Empower teachers (digital technology should be incorporated into their teaching including pedagogies for blended learning)
Support education demand in particular from disadvantaged population
Implement upskilling and reskilling programmes for workers at risk of losing jobs
Protect public expenditure on education
Long-term priorities:

Address long-standing structural challenges including access, equity and quality of education
Mobilise more domestic resources to education
Invest in infrastructure (including digital equipment and connectivity)
Engage digital transformation of education and leverage technologies for advancing quality and equity of education and lifelong learning opportunities for all

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