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EDUCATION-AFRICA: Will eLearning Make Teachers Redundant?

Rosalia Omungo

NAIROBI, Jun 7 2007 (IPS) - Does electronic learning (eLearning) threaten to displace the teacher?

This question emerged at an international conference held in Nairobi last week, attended by 1,400 people from 88 countries. The latest in information communication technology (ICT) with a focus on education, training and development was showcased.

eLearning makes use of computers, radio or television in addition to books and classes. It ranges from single users to group learning in class. Students are able to talk on-line and exchange ideas. It is participatory and allows the sharing of learning material between networked users.

The format helps to reinforce what has been learnt through the use of graphics and pictures. Students can hear sound and practise on their own. The greatest advantage of eLearning is that users can learn at their own pace. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) is encouraging countries to adopt eLearning.

Jenny Cole of South African-based NetLearn tried to dispel fears that the method will eventually render teachers jobless. ‘‘eLearning does not take the teacher out of the classroom. You need a teacher to drive e-Learning,” she observed.

John Matogo, a lecturer at Kenya’s Strathmore University, said eLearning complements the work of teachers. ‘‘eLearning facilitates the provision of extra material on-line. Sometimes it is impossible to give personal attention to students, so they can send questions on-line and communicate with other students.”

Kenyan education minister George Saitoti said at the opening of the conference that the ICT method of education was cost effective compared to the current modes of teaching used in schools. ‘‘With eLearning, one teacher can reach many learners through video conferencing and other modes.”

But Chris Smith, a lecturer at the UK-based University of Bolton, said African teachers risked being made irrelevant by the adoption of e-Learning unless they were trained in the field.

When it comes to other areas, eLearning has reaped some fruits. NetLearn supplies its services to the long-distance University of South Africa (UNISA) and currently deals with 14,000 students. ‘‘We are having great successes with the International Computer Driving Licence (ICDL),” said Cole.

‘‘The technology is improving. Our accomplishments come from having a mixed approach, blending books, eLearning and workshops,” added Cole. UNISA is looking at rolling out ICDL to other faculties.

The health department in KwaZulu Natal, one of South Africa’s provinces, wants over 3,000 health workers in the seaside city of Durban to be provided with the latest treatment information, including on HIV/AIDS, through an interactive health education project.

The educational material in the project is being created by the nurses themselves, to be shared on-line with professional peers. Peggy Nkonyeni, the provincial health minister, has a long-term vision of nurses and other health workers using the programme to support their professional development.

Strides have been made in the NEPAD e-schools initiative. The project was initiated in secondary schools with the aim of reaching young Africans and enabling them participate in ‘‘the global information society and knowledge economy”.

A key output expected from the project is to impart ICT skills to young Africans in primary and secondary schools and to harness ICT to improve and expand education in African schools.

Countries which have embraced eLearning by participating in the NEPAD initiative include Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Mali, Mauritius, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Mozambique, Egypt and Lesotho.

Six schools from each participating country were selected for the demonstration project. The pilot phase has successfully been concluded. The schools have been equipped with computer laboratories, networking facilities and internet access.

The next phase will involve getting partners to equip secondary schools with ICT infrastructure and training stakeholders on how to implement eLearning in schools.

For some participants, like Zambia’s education minister Geoffrey Lungwangwa, the digital divide between Africa and developed countries can be bridged by embracing eLearning.

Emmanuel Odhiambo of Computer Networks Company which provides eLearning in 13 African countries noted the high cost of equipment as well as lack of local expertise. ‘‘When machines break down after we are gone, there is no one to repair them.”

Building capacity to reach the remotest parts was cited as a challenge by speakers from Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana.

Ghana’s deputy minister for education, Kwame Amporfo Twumasi, advised African countries to develop their own eLearning curriculum to suit the African situation.

Maria Levy of Eduvision, a South African education ICT company, said her company was developing software that would digitize textbooks and make them available to schools across Africa.

‘‘We will digitize school textbooks and use a satellite network to relay the contents to students. All a student will need is an aerial and a server,” she said. The Kenya Institute of Education is also in the process of digitizing the school curriculum to lay the groundwork for learning and teaching using ICT.

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