Special Report


By Mary Ann Zehr — May 06, 2004 10 min read
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Digital inequities run deep and wide in Africa, both between and within nations.

But in pockets of the continent, school technology is catching on—and it’s not only children from well-to-do families who are benefiting. Several pan-African efforts, including a nonprofit organization based in Johannesburg and run by Africans, called SchoolNet Africa, are helping schools in impoverished areas get computers.

“There is an upward curve of awareness and policies,” says Shafika Isaacs, the executive director of SchoolNet Africa, which has an annual budget of about $2 million. Thirteen of Africa’s 53 countries or territories now have some kind of broad policy that promotes technology in education, she says, though governments have had highly uneven success in carrying out those policies.

One of the biggest obstacles to bringing technology to schools in Africa is a lack of sufficient infrastructure, such as phone lines and electricity, Isaacs and other experts on school technology in Africa say.

Among sub-Saharan African countries, South Africa has by far the most technology in schools, according to experts and reports. The government of South Africa estimates that slightly more than a quarter of the country’s schools have computers for teaching and learning. In North Africa, Egypt has also made significant progress, observers say.

Since 2002, all African countries have offered public access to the Internet in their capital cities, according to the 2003 book Africa Dot Edu: IT Opportunities and Higher Education in Africa. But some African countries have much higher proportions of Internet users than others. United Nations statistics for 2001 show that South Africa had 65 Internet users for every 1,000 people, while Angola, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Malawi, Nigeria and some other African nations had about two Internet users per 1,000 people. In contrast, the United States had an average of 502 Internet users per 1,000 people during the same year.

Those sparse numbers for their continent concern many Africans, who believe their countries need technology in education to improve economic conditions for the 816 million people who live in this part of the world.

“If we really want to move with those who have gone ahead, we simply have to use [information computer technology] in education,” says the Rev. Emmanuel K. Dadebo, a former science teacher who now coordinates education technology for Ghana’s Ministry of Education. “If we are able to really train our people, they will fit into the global village. Otherwise, we’ll be left out.”

Now, most of the efforts in African countries to put computers in schools are underwritten by development agencies of wealthy industrial nations, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, or private companies—such as Intel or Microsoft—that have an interest in the growth of technology use in those countries.

But those programs are hard to sustain, says Isaacs of SchoolNet Africa, because they are often short-term or pilot programs. “When the pilot [project] is completed, there isn’t a move beyond the pilot,” she says.

‘An Amazing Thing’

South Africa provides an illustration of the difficulties that face public and private entities in trying to close the digital gap in African countries.

One of the pivotal organizations supporting school technology is SchoolNet South Africa, which was established in 1997 and helped inspire the creation of the continentwide SchoolNet Africa.

SchoolNet South Africa brings computers to historically disadvantaged schools, which in South Africa usually means schools that serve black children. SchoolNet South Africa’s chief executive officer, Rod V. Grewan, says his organization has demonstrated the value of computers in such schools. He just wishes that the South African government would support the deployment of computers to schools in a bigger way

“We’ve done our job,” says Grewan. “We’ve shown that [technology] is a requirement for a future age. In theory, we should be closing up and moving to the next order of business, which is research, changing the management process in schools, e-readiness issues, integration into teaching and learning—not just putting technology into schools.”

Even where SchoolNet South Africa has been successful in getting computers into schools, many big-picture issues must be resolved before students from low-income families have the same access to computers as their wealthier counterparts in South African cities do.

For example, at many schools with computers, only teachers and administrators—not students—use the Internet. That’s because the cost of Internet connectivity tends to be much more expensive in Africa than the United States, even before taking into account that the per-capita income in most African countries is a tiny fraction of what it is in this country.

That’s the case at Percy Mdala High School, a 1,050-student secondary school in a poor area near Neizer, South Africa, says Star Geldeahuys, the deputy principal for the school.

The students in her school primarily use computers for a math software program, to access information from Microsoft’s Encarta Encyclopedia, and to learn keyboarding and other computer-literacy skills. Those are all computer uses that are done off-line.

If the students were able to have full access to the Internet, that would help to close the digital divide, Geldeahuys says, but her school simply can’t afford the telephone bill. The school’s current bill for connectivity is at least $150 a month and is partly subsidized by donors, but she says that seemingly modest amount is still a burden for the school to pay. So instead of giving students direct access to the Internet, teachers will find a Web site and download it so students can use it offline.

As do many other Africans, Geldeahuys emphasizes the need for South African students to learn to use computers to prepare them for the job market.

“Just the fact that they are learning to use [computers] is an amazing thing,” says Geldeahuys.“There is nowhere else in their home environment where they are exposed to computers in any way whatsoever. The children in town, they have Game Boys and electronic games to play with. Our children don’t have that.”

Geldeahuys’ top priority is to obtain more computers so that more students can have access to them. The school has only 39 computers—and 10 of them are out-of-date 286s— to serve more than 1,000 students.

The South African government has taken one important step to support computers in schools, observers in the country say. It produced a September 2003 “white paper” on technology in schools that proposes policies such as an “education rate” to help schools pay for Internet connectivity. Experts say it would help even out the distribution of technology resources in a fashion similar to the federally administered E-rate in the United States.

‘Competing Priorities’

The problem, says Craig Nicholls, the head of information technology for the South Africa Democratic Teachers Union, is that the government hasn’t implemented the policies outlined in the study. For instance, it hasn’t put in place an education rate for discounted telecommunications services for schools.

Others point to additional roadblocks.

Janet E. Thomson, a teacher trainer for SchoolNet South Africa, says the real delay in bringing technology to all schools lies with South Africa’s provincial governments, which are charged with deciding how to budget education spending.

The government’s white paper shows huge disparities between provincial governments in their commitment to school technology. For example, about 57 percent of schools in the Western Cape province have schools with computers for teaching and learning, while only 4.5 percent of schools in the Eastern Cape do.

The paper estimates that more than a quarter of South Africa’s 25,750 schools had computers for teaching and learning in 2002. But that doesn’t mean that the computers are hooked up to the Internet, notes Khetsi Kehoko, the deputy director-general for further education and training for the South Africa Department of Education. In fact, Internet access for schools is a rarity in Africa— Kehoko estimates that the vast majority of South African schools do not provide Internet access.

Kehoko, who oversees secondary school technology issues for the Education Department, acknowledges the technological inequities between South African schools. But he says the government is limited in what it can do.

“We operate in a context of fiscal austerity,” Kehoko says. “There are competing priorities between health, education, and welfare. Remember, there are still children in this country who are learning under trees. You obviously can’t put a computer under a tree.”

Kehoko points to private partnerships as the way to bring technology to schools—citing, for example, Microsoft’s promise to provide each school in South Africa with a suite of software programs.

The Bottom Line

In contrast to South Africa, the government of Egypt has rolled out a program to make sure that all middle and secondary schools have computers.

As part of a national plan by the Egyptian Ministry of Education that began in 1994, the government placed computer labs with 10 to 15 computers and multimedia rooms in nearly all of the 10,400 middle and secondary schools and about half of the 15,600 primary schools in the country.

The multimedia rooms include two or three up-to-date computers, devices for projecting images and text from a computer to a screen, Internet access, and a library of educational software, according to Mark Warschauer, an associate professor of education and informatics at the University of California, Irvine. He conducted a study of school technology in Egypt from 1998 to 2001.

But Warschauer concludes in his October 2003 research paper that the technology in Egypt’s secondary schools is vastly underused. He says that the computers in multimedia rooms are spread too thin to make a difference.

“During my visits to schools, when students did use these multimedia rooms, they usually sat and watched the teacher lecturing, as usual, but this time with the aid of a CD for presentation,” Warschauer writes in his research paper, which was published in the online journal, Education Policy Analysis Archives.

In addition, he says the computers in laboratories were used primarily for computer-literacy classes that focused on mastering either DOS or Windows commands. He concludes that broader educational reform in Egypt needs to take place for the technology to be used well.

The government of Ghana has also tried to put computer technology to use in a number of secondary schools. With its own resources and funding from the British government, it provided science centers, equipped with computers, at 108 of the country’s 477 public secondary schools.

But Dadebo, the Ghana government official, says that schools have encountered problems in maintaining those centers. Two of the biggest problems have been keeping the centers staffed with teachers who have been trained in the use of computers and also keeping the computers in the centers repaired.

“The moment you change the science teachers and they become computer literate, they become very marketable” and leave schools for other jobs, Dadebo says.

Meanwhile, in Zambia, a U.S.-financed initiative has used technology other than computers to increase access to education for poor children. Working with the Zambian government since 2000, the USAID has helped establish 500 places of learning that use hand-crank radios. The radios, which cost about $40 each, have small generators inside that allow them to run for several hours and are used to broadcast school lessons developed by the Zambian Ministry of Education.

The program focuses on reaching Zambia’s children who aren’t in school, says Mike Laflin, a vice president of the Boston-based Education Development Center Inc., a subcontractor for the USAID on the project. In much of Africa, explains Laflin, the number of teachers is rapidly declining because so many are dying of AIDS. As a result, he says, “you may have schools in name, but in fact there is only one teacher there who is trying to deal with multiple classes and grades, and the amount of time children spend in instructional time is minimal.”

The bottom line on the continent, says Isaacs of SchoolNet Africa, is that if governments don’t play a larger role in taking school technology to scale, “we run the risk of having only pockets of schools having access to information computer technology and a whole sea of those who don’t.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 2004 edition of Education Week


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