Fostering Skills Development in Africa

To what extent are we innovating our educational system at all levels?

It is imperative to lead the way in embracing innovative ways of developing capacity at scale. ICT enabled learning can be an effective tool for closing these gaps. ICT can bring world class teaching and learning resources literally to the fingertips of a young lady going to work, on a Keke Maruwa somewhere in Nigeria. ICT will not resolve all of Africa’s education problems, but it can help to fundamentally change the current paradigm of skills development systems.

There’s nothing more important for our success than to educate the next generation if we are to make Africa an economic powerhouse. However, looking at the current population and the explosive population growth expected in the next decades, we cannot rely only on traditional formal learning to build capacity at scale. Our youth need some key skills to thrive in today’s world – critical thinking, complex problem solving, and creativity. These are crucial in being able to develop local solutions to local problems; and sparking more home grown entrepreneurs which are key to economic growth.

Read also: Africa’s economic integration slacks index reveals

There are three key trends that we can take advantage of. The first is mobile phone penetration, in particular smartphone penetration. There are currently over 45 million mobile internet users in Nigeria, and over 30 million smartphones. Smartphones are growing at 14% year on year. As device prices continue to drop, more people now have access to smartphones (even if low-end). The second useful trend is cloud computing. To access good quality educational content, it is no longer necessary to buy a thousand servers. One can subscribe to different services from different technology providers; and “rent infrastructure from the cloud”.

The third trend is big data. Big data is a term that describes the large volume of data – both structured and unstructured – generated by businesses on a day-to-day basis. But it’s not the amount of data that’s important. It’s what organizations do with the data that matters. Big data can be analyzed for insights that lead to better decisions and strategic business moves. More and more people are more comfortable with sharing personal information than ever before, and as a result there are lots of extremely large data sets that may be analysed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behaviour and interactions. The insights from the data can be used to customise content and make learning more relevant to users. These three trends have created an opportunity. Deploying and distributing technology, leveraging a low cost, scalable infrastructure, would make technology solutions accessible and affordable to educational institutions; and informal teaching and instructional platforms in Africa.

It is important that the educational curriculum is up to date and relevant in the 21st century. While some institutions grapple with the challenge of updating their educational curricula, we can be deliberate about harnessing relevant online tools and making them available to students at little to no cost. Schools and other educational bodies or the Ministry of Education can negotiate volume discounts and licenses to make these curricula available for faculty and students to enhance their knowledge. Teachers can be equipped to stay ahead and connected to the business environment; creating a better alignment between research and the needs of the business community. We have access to a world of information at our fingertips. All we need to do is teach people how and where to find it. Nationwide advocacy on the need and opportunities for skills development would be essential to drive adoption.

Content on the platforms should include basic, intermediate, and advanced learning modules in different fields; covering both academic and vocational studies. All these modules should be optimized for access via mobile phones. Deliberate interventions to reduce access barriers would also be necessary. For example free or discounted data bundles to access the online learning materials can be negotiated with Telecom operators by providing subsidies or other incentives.

The ability of these initiatives to raise productivity and build capacity at all levels is non-trivial. For example, a driver spending hours of idle time waiting between assignments, can use that time productively to upgrade himself by learning relevant modules on his phone. A lot of idle time exists in the course of each day – time spent in a taxi or on a bus sitting in traffic, time spent waiting in line for a service, or even waiting to get a job.

If we wonder about the scale of this task, I would assert that this is readily accomplished by organizations like the Ministry of Education, the Nigerian Universities Commission, relevant NGOs, and other institutions involved in capacity building if the will exists. The challenges may seem daunting but the opportunities are just as compelling. Collectively, we must work to transform challenges into opportunities by adequately – and proactively – exploring new innovative ways of creating results and impact. The world is fast changing, hyper-connected, ever more complex and becoming more fragmented. We can leverage these trends in a way that shapes our future to our sustained benefit. The window of opportunity for doing so is NOW.

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