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e for education
E for education.



Lahore, Pakistan. Poor children learn IT in an Oxfam funded school
Lahore, Pakistan. Poor children learn IT in an Oxfam funded school.



New Delhi, India. Advert for computer training
New Delhi, India. Advert for computer training.



E for education

E-learning could be the answer to the hugely escalating demand for education in the developing world, argues Mark Rowe.

The poorest parts of Nairobi seem light years away from the high-tech information superhighway that, thanks to the internet, has become part of our everyday lives. But a small grass-roots project in the Kenyan capital is discovering that technology that seems so out of reach to so much of Africa may in fact be able to help meet education needs - from primary through to higher education. E-learning, which can involve both teaching computer skills and using those skills to undertake distance learning, is set to become a critical educational tool in the 21st century.

Nairobits, an NGO run by local staff and supported by Dutch and Irish computer experts, has developed a free e-learning programme in computer skills for youths living in slum areas of the city. Twenty students, aged 17-20 from Nairobi’s Mathare Valley slum area were initially selected in 2000, and 100 have since passed through the organisation’s doors. Demand has increased to the point where the annual intake this year is now 100.

The original students have progressed from absolute beginners who had never touched a computer mouse, to leaders of a small company making websites for local organisations and training their peers. Facilitating them is a group of international volunteers and there are now plans to expand into other parts of Kenya. “We help those who complete the course to set up computer centres in the slums,” said Ralf Graf, Nairobits’ education coach. “They offer business services and teach youngsters computer skills and social skills. It stops kids hanging around on street corners and getting into drug abuse.


“ The social element of e-learning is very important in Kenya and other African countries. Africa has only limited access to computers and many people feel that life is passing them by, they feel isolated and, as a result, see little point in fighting corruption. Giving young people computer knowledge boosts their self-esteem. E-learning is a tool that makes them feel part of the 21st century. ”

At a higher level the African Virtual University is starting to flourish, funded by the World Bank and using satellite and wired Internet technology to offer students from pre-graduate to post-gradate level access to courses from a select group of universities in the west. At present, though, such institutions are isolated pockets in Africa. The technology boom in other developing regions of the world remains a distant dream. There is little or none of the related infrastructure at higher education level that is essential before any benefits can filter down to grass roots.

Mr Graf feels technology is just as important as food and water to a nation’s development and that e-learning can have a “trickle-down” effect on education and wealth in Africa. “E-learning may ultimately help in providing universal education,” he said. “But IT education in Kenya is not as it should be, and e-learning needs to start from the top. Once we have

e-learning at university level we can move it to the colleges and then to the secondary schools. Only then can we introduce it at primary level.”


As per capita incomes increase, demand for higher education grows. Asia, home to the post-boom “tiger” economies, presents a different picture. The 1999 figure for primary enrolment in South Asia was just above 85 per cent, which is encouraging. But consider these figures: Asia is already home to nearly half the world’s higher education students and this number will rise from 17 million in 1995 to 87 million by 2020.

Demand will be vast and almost certainly overwhelming in the world’s two most populous nations, China and India. By 2020 China will require higher education places for 20 million prospective university students. In India the figure will be nine million by 2015. Many education analysts believe these demands can only be met by e-learning, creating vast virtual universities where students can log on at home or at regional hubs. “Asia is seeing a massive and insuperable demand for higher education,” said Alan Olsen, director of the Hong Kong-based think tank Strategy Policy and Research In Education. “It is beyond the ability of the world’s universities to satisfy that need by physical campuses. Students are looking for first degrees that they cannot access by any other way. The thinking was that e-learning would apply only to those taking post-graduate course but it’s in demand at every level.”

Yet the supply of e-learning remains embryonic in most Asian countries. In India, for example, Indira Gandhi National Open University, which was specifically launched to offer distance learning, today runs just two virtual degree courses, though it now also exports online provision to other Asian countries. And while China knows the West will be required to provide its higher education, the country is focusing almost exclusively on increasing space at its physical universities and deregulating current education laws. E-learning is low on the government’s agenda. This contrasts with Hong Kong, where, despite the advanced transport network and relative proximity of study centres in the region, virtual institutions are particularly popular.

Malaysia, though, is installing e-learning across the educational spectrum. The UN’s Development Programme is working on a series of initiatives under the umbrella title “e-learning for life”. This focuses on innovative use of ICT for youth learning, education and development with the aim, said a UNPD spokeswoman, “to bridge the growing ‘digital divide’ between ICT ‘haves’ and ICT ‘have-nots’ - a divide that is exacerbating socio-economic divides across Asia.”


In the first phase of the project, six ICT ‘hubs’ were set up at selected secondary schools across peninsular Malaysia last year and equipped with internet connectivity and state-of-the-art hardware, software and educational information, providing thousands of students and teachers with access to and training in ICT. The Malaysian government has also introduced a programme of “smart schools”, which use browser-based teaching-learning materials and related print materials for Bahasa Melayu (the Malay language), English language, science and mathematics.

Yet new technology brings with it old concerns. Is e-learning a new form of cultural imperialism? Just about all the e-learning material and technology comes from Europe, the United States or Australia. And as 60 per cent of Asian students study in English, it is clear what the lingua franca of e-learning will be. India, where the desire is to seek expertise from within, is particularly sensitive to any such phenomenon. And part of Malaysia’s push involves actively promoting itself to the Middle East as a cultural alternative to study in the West. The Syrian Virtual University, was set up last autumn to run along similar lines to its African counterpart and attracts students in the Arab World, a region where geo-political tensions have led to a wariness of things western.

“ For the medium term most e-learning will be supplied by developed countries to developing ones,” said Mr Olsen. “But higher education in the West is now so ethnically diverse that you cannot get away with mono-cultural and insensitive material. A lot of work is being done on internationalising the subject matter and in the next 10 years we will see Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong delivering it.”

Richard Garrett, deputy director of the Observatory on Borderless Education, a strategic information service funded by the Higher Education Funding Council, Universities UK and the Association of Commonwealth Universities, believes western influence is generally viewed in a positive light. “This does raise the issue of cultural imperialism and the evidence is there that you need to localise the knowledge in some ways,” he said. “But there is a great desire for western qualifications and they are seen as marketable. E-learning is simply mirroring the traditional route whereby students travel abroad to get these degrees.”


Yet Mr Garrett feels the nascent e-learning industry has some progress to make before entering the mainstream. “Developing countries where traditional education is weakest also have the weakest technology infrastructure,” he cautioned. “Most of the viable on-line provision is not yet targeted at this market. On-line learning is growing as a supplement to traditional learning, and less as a 100 per cent remote concept and even less so as a 100 per cent remote provision for developing countries.

“ But e-learning can help to train teachers who then go out to primary and secondary level schools. If there are strong links between universities and primary education that will help towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals. The trickle down effect is definitely there and there is huge potential. It’s a tantalising promise on the horizon.




Imfundo (im-fun-doe), from the Nguni languages of Southern Africa, can be translated as ‘the acquisition of knowledge; the process of becoming educated’. This pioneering DFID initiative aims to create partnerships that harness information and communication technologies (ICT) to deliver the Millennium Development Goals of Universal Primary Education and Gender Equality in Africa.

‘Imfundo: Partnership for IT in Education’ has three core areas: a ResourceBank of contributions from partners; the delivery of activities on the ground in Africa; and a KnowledgeBank which promotes awareness and understanding of how ICT can enhance education in Africa. Imfundo supports DFID programmes in Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa, and The Gambia.

More than 30 partners have already contributed resources to Imfundo. Its activities in Africa include helping the Teacher Education Division of the Ghana Education Service develop an ICT-based strategy to deliver enhanced teacher training; supporting a knowledge and communication strategy for the Limpopo Province Department of Education in South Africa; and helping to design the Gambia Basic Education for Poverty Reduction Programme.

Through its KnowledgeBank, Imfundo is supporting innovative research into the contribution of satellite technology to education in Africa, gender issues in the use of computers for education, and evaluating educational software in the African context. Imfundo is also working to identify the best ways in which ICT can support special educational needs, street children and refugees.

More about imfundo at www.imfundo.org