Coping with the educational tsunami in Africa: digital, a tool both powerful and indispensable

There will be 2 billion people in Africa by 2040, half of them under 25. Colossal educational challenges are posed, and the booming demand will not be met by simply adapting the models that already exist elsewhere in the world. Efficiency requires organisational innovations and the gathering of a diversity of stakeholders, among which digital will have to take its full place.

Africa’s illiteracy rate still amounts to 38%, while over half of the parents cannot help their children with learning. 20 million new students are expected in Africa between 2013 and 2030, when students were only 8 million in 2013. What solutions to imagine to deal with such massive challenges?

These three figures show how much will be at stake for the decades to come with education in Africa, not only for the continent but also for the planet’s equilibrium. Whether these young people receive an education that turns them into financially autonomous citizens and world citizens or whether they grow into millions of desperate illiterate people, becoming easy prey for extremisms of all kinds, will lead to very different global economical and geopolitical balances.

The increase in the number of young people to be educated in Africa concerns all educational levels, from basic education for children to secondary, higher and continuing education. None of the ordinary organisational modes already existing in the sector will be able to solve the new issues that will be raised by the growth rates of this demographic tsunami. Indeed, PAXTER Next15Years research work reveals that the student population should rise from 0.6 to 3.6 million in Ethiopia over 17 years, from 1.7 to 6.6 in Nigeria and from 0.2 to 1.8 in Tanzania. While these growth rates will necessarily outpace the number of appropriately trained teaching staff, digital can help ask pedagogical questions differently. Meeting such a rapid increase requires to combine very low-cost accessibility to high-quality standardised educational contents, co-learning with young people serving as “monitors” for younger students by 1-2 year(s), and low-cost access to digital as well – to reach very dispersed areas on a given territory.

It is unsure whether the awareness of the magnitude of this challenge is completely shared, or if the States and the Technical and Financial Partners will be able to adapt fast enough to these new realities, each having their own strict processes and demands. To deal with the situation, private actors, such as content producers, software editors, access suppliers and start-ups – which are to play a leading role thanks to innovation often being “easier” to them – and public actors, aware of the importance of developing their countries and necessity to take advantage of the opportunities provided by digital technologies, will need to work together. Calls for bids or other rigid organisational forms are not protective enough for start-ups and/or constitute barriers to entry that lead to the loss of numerous opportunities for making different topics progress quickly and appropriately: efficiency requires contractual innovations.

This massification challenge goes with a change in youth’s expectations which provides for an interesting pedagogical opportunity. The higher their education level nowadays, the more young people are keen to learn « anything, anywhere, at any time », asking for high-level customisation that is possible only with the help of digital technologies; many are the companies and start-ups specialising in educational technologies that have found innovative ways to fulfil these expectations. MOOCs (with e-learning having surged by 300% in the world in the last 10 years) and online collaborative work platforms are two of them, but many more are still to be invented, developed and implemented.

That is why digitalisation of all-level educational and training programmes in all sectors, especially when intended for young teaching and training staff, constitutes a wonderful opportunity at the crossroads between these massive needs and future professors/trainers’ appetite for initial training contents as much as continuous education programmes in precise areas, like health for example. If Technical and Financial Partners were to allocate systematically at least 10% of their educational expenses to digital technologies, a new innovation capacity would arise to invent prototypes likely to be scaled up to very high levels.

Another challenge lays in adapting this educational ecosystem to different languages, territories and financial structures; some institutions have already taken it on by creating educational programmes aimed at combating illiteracy, improving education quality, providing students with coding training or training data scientists, but this is only the beginning.

Where a complementary, very interesting challenge is to be found is in the opportunity provided by digital, thanks to its great flexibility and adaptability, to professionalise informal economy – the latter often accounting for up to 90% of the job market in many African countries. This represents a reservoir of millions of resourceful and flexible people that digital technologies could help progressing towards formalisation – providing that this serves their interests.

The combination of the power of digital technologies and the booming demand for education in Africa provides for both a business opportunity and a chance to serve the public interest – on condition that we know how to take them.

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