With a growing internet penetration rate in Africa, interest in digital tools is increasing in the development sector, particularly in the field of education. But can new technologies really make a difference?
In a few decades, school enrollment rates in developing countries have increased dramatically. According to the World Development Report 2018 by the World Bank, most children now have access to basic education. However, the most impressive factor is how quickly developing countries have made this progress. The number of girls attending school in Morocco went from 57 to 88% in 11 years, a feat that took 40 years in the United States a century earlier. Another example is Bangladesh: in 2010, the average worker had more years of schooling than the average French worker did in 1975.
New technologies to reach vulnerable populations
Despite this progress, the World Bank estimated that 260 million children still do not attend elementary and secondary school, and emphasizes that schooling is not synonymous with learning or good-quality education. Some development stakeholders believe information and communications technologies (ICT) offer solutions.
Based on the observation that a lack of access to basic education is caused by vulnerabilities such as disability, gender, ethnic background or living environment, they see information technologies as a means of reaching all individuals, without discrimination. The UNICEF Can’t Wait to Learn program in Sudan, for example, provides marginalized children with tablets they can use to access their math lessons. The initiative will eventually expand to include all subjects up to the middle school level. The Télécoms Sans Frontières NGO helps Syrian child refugees continue their education despite the lack of suitable learning facilities.
From basic access to quality: the promise of ICT
However, according to Shanta Devarajan, Chief Economist for the World Bank Group, “[education] is no longer a problem of access, but a problem of quality.” In Sub-Saharan Africa, 50 to 80% of children in the second year of elementary school have not learned rudimentary reading, writing and arithmetic. In his opinion, digital technology serves as an assistant for teachers who are not always well-trained, offering new, more suitable media solutions, thus improving the quality of education. This is especially true since artificial intelligence can now be used to adapt teaching methods to students’ individual needs. In India, the MindSpark adaptive learning program has reportedly increased students’ math performances by 38% in five months, for two dollars per student per year, with an order for 1,000 schools.
For example, a girl’s access to education does not always guarantee she will receive the same level of attention and education as boys. In Malawi, NGO Onebillion has developed a learning application aimed at eliminating gender inequality. According to a study conducted by professors N. Pitchford, A. Chigeda and P. J. Hubber in schools equipped with this application, the results seem very positive in terms of literacy among girls.
No ICT without infrastructure and energy
Should ICT be viewed as the panacea for education? Although it recommends the large-scale deployment of these digital innovations, the report by the Pathways for Prosperity Commission entitled Positive disruption: health and education in a digital age emphasizes that giving a student or teacher a tablet will not solve the problems inherent to the education systems of developing countries. “The effectiveness of technology depends first and foremost on management and administrative systems,” Cameroonian economist Vera Songwe reminds us in an opinion piece advocating ICT.
Access to the internet, energy, digital tools, robust telecommunication facilities… The minimum development requirements for integrating ICT into basic education programs are far from being guaranteed for all countries. In Ethiopia, for example, according to D. Mequanint and D. Lemma, only 20% of schools benefit from an internet connection.
In addition to these material limitations, there are ecological risks involved in producing digital tools, an issue that must be considered in order to prevent SDG 4 on education from being achieved at the expense of SDG 13.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.