Is the developing world ready for universal uptake of online educational technology?

On December 7, 2020 Louis Barry, Managing Director of Educative Tech (Pty) Ltd, was asked to present to a small group of African educational pioneers in training curriculum development to urge them to give online educational technology its proper place in the world that they want to build. You can find an approximate transcript of his presentation below that will help answer the question “Is the developing world ready for universal uptake of online educational technology?”

A few years ago, if I look back I would have called myself an online educational technology sceptic. I knew about how powerfully the technology was being leveraged in the developed world but I had this view that our developing African context is not ready to embrace it fully due to our unique challenges like poverty and lack of internet access. I also had the view that certain things like skills development (something we probably need most to build our struggling economies) was just simply not possible to teach online.

Now it has been a journey of discovery to convince me of the desperate need for online education in Africa but I think there is a realisation which was the last straw which broke the back of my scepticism. This was the realisation that there is nothing completely new under the sun. In the year 1440 AD an event took place which is possibly the most influential event in a thousand years or more. It was an event which God used to make a reformation of education and democratisation of learning possible. This reformation was probably the catalyst behind the transition of the world from what is sometimes called the dark age, where the common person on the street had little access to intellectual stimulus, to the world we live in today with all its grand accomplishments in areas like that of social upliftment, science, art, technology and more – none of which would have been possible without widespread literacy and access to educational material.

What was that event? It was the invention of a piece of educational technology, the printing press. Invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 and it spread through the world in mere decades enabling the printing of millions of copies of low cost written material. Today we are in the early years of a new educational reformation made possible by the invention of a new generation of educational technology. This is of course the online education reformation made possible by online educational technology. I call it a reformation and not a revolution because revolutions are by nature violent and destructive while reformations are peaceful and constructive. Now, if I compare this reformation to the revolution in the 1500’s my previous scepticism seems crazy. I’m sure many people were sceptical of the printing press that came out and concerned about the dangers it posed. Those dangers are real – I have no doubt that there is printed material out there that started wars and destroyed nations. But do you know of any institution whatsoever that refused to embrace it which is still in existence today? I am pretty sure they all became irrelevant pretty soon and not long thereafter probably closed down.

So in this presentation I would firstly like to evaluate a few objections to adopting online educational technology universally in Africa in comparison to the uptake of the printing press 500 years ago. And then I would like to look a little more specifically at why it is vital even for face to face institutions offering skills development. Thirdly, I would like to discuss a surprising threat to the uptake of online educational technology in Africa. Lastly I want to very briefly mention what we offer as a company in a minute or two.

Let us discuss the objections to the uptake of online educational Technology in Africa:

Firstly, In Africa so many people or even teaching institutions are extremely poor so many argue that we are not ready for the online education reformation since these people or institutions cannot afford to access technology to learn or teach online. But what if we argued like that about the printing press? That would be crazy. What if someone argued “We are not going to use printed books in our courses because people are too poor to afford them.” That is backwards, the printing press brought down the cost of educational material to an unprecedented level. So also with online learning technology it makes educational content even several orders of magnitude cheaper than printed material. And we as decision makers and educators do people an injustice when we underestimate their hunger to learn. I know of people who would go without meals so they could buy more books because they had such a hunger to learn. So also I have seen the resourcefulness and determination of people in Africa to access the internet. And isn’t it our job to stimulate and point them in the right direction rather than labelling them and looking down on them. If we argue like that I believe we are, in fact, poverty enablers not uplifters.

A second objection to using online educational technology to educate Africans is that people don’t have reliable access to the internet. Once again it is instructive to compare this with the spread of printed material in the 1500’s. What if nations resisted the import of printing presses because there were no book shops or libraries or other distribution channels? Once again this is backwards thinking. Book shops and libraries opened because there is a demand for books, books didn’t get printed because there was an existing distribution network. Bookshops and libraries were built and other shops began selling books because there was a demand. Distribution networks arise based on demand and demand arises based on value. The same applies to the internet. One cannot wait until every person has a reliable internet connection before creating educational value online, creating educational value online is what will drive more people desiring and investing in reliable internet access and companies arising to address that need.

The last objection I want to mention is that learners or educators are computer illiterate. Once again, consider whether there was widespread literacy when the printing press started spreading. Of course not. Uptake of that technology increased literacy, not the other way around. As a business we have seen the tenacity and drive people had to overcome all obstacles to learn online and we have been able to be creative ourselves to assist them. We have worked with students who are computer illiterate, students with unreliable electricity and internet access, students who are very poor. Where people have a will to learn, there is always a way to learn. And I will argue that learning with the help of online educational technology is the best way we have ever had in the history of human kind. That is a bold claim, let’s consider the value of educational technology where you least expect it in the next section of this presentation:

The value of online educational technology for face to face institutions that teach very practical hands on skills

I think the most resistance to adopting online educational technology we have found comes from these face to face institutions with no interest in online education and/or institutions that teach very practical hands on skills. Is online educational technology also vital for them? The argument goes that face to face teaching is so foundational to the learning process in these institutions that there is no space for online educational technology. Once again it is helpful to think of a possible situation 500 years ago of a teacher or professor arguing that hand writing notes to learn from was so foundational to students’ learning process and memorisation of printed books were surely of no use in his classroom. What is wrong with this argument? It is simplistic. We still hand write notes to this day printing technology didn’t replace writing, it complimented it. Likewise no one is arguing that online educational technology will ever replace face to face education or hands on training but that it can so richly compliment it that we can no longer afford to put off its implementation. In fact, the more practical the training and the more knowledgeable the teacher offering the face to face instruction the more value online educational technology can offer. Why is this?

Because with online educational technology one can take the most inefficient, repetitive and lowest level of learning and do it more effectively online. That actually frees up more precious time in class and in person to do higher order learning and practical application or mentorship. Educational researchers have long known that people sitting in a classroom listening to a monologue is probably the least effective way to learn. What if that low level information transfer could be better accomplished online, outside of the classroom so that the teacher can rather leverage his or her precious experience and synthesis of knowledge to stimulate discussion or answer questions or facilitate practical exercises or demonstrate and mentor practical skills. At the end of this presentation I hope to quickly show you a short demonstration of how learning is enriched online.

And besides all of the above one needs to realise that online self study and life long learning is in itself one of the most empowering skills of the internet age. If face to face students can be empowered to continue their learning after graduation by introducing them to online learning there will be no limit to what they can achieve and, of course, ongoing online professional development will be a breeze and what I have mentioned is only the beginning. We have not even discussed the administrative power offered by online technology and the incredible efficiency gains that it offers to teachers and the leadership and administrators of institutions.

The best online educational technology setups consist of a couple of systems all seamlessly integrated into one system. The two main aspects of the system is the Learning Management System (LMS) which is the tool that the students can actually use to learn on and the Student Information System (SIS) which facilitates all the administration – everything from transcripts to finances and so on. What makes these two systems particularly powerful are their integration. For example, all the academic setup like course shells and enrolments can be automatically be pushed by the SIS to the LMS – saving teachers hours of busywork and from potential errors. And then as the semester progresses the SIS can once again pull out the students’ grades to keep track of their overall performance and administer their academic career. These systems can then be further integrated into other learning technology or administrative technology. For example, the LMS may integrate with a teleconferencing tool like Zoom or the SIS with an accounting system. So one can imagine that this offers incredibly value to any institution, not just those interested in teaching online. But this background prompts us to discuss an unexpected threat to the uptake of online educational technology in Africa.

The threat of systems that are marketed as “Free” for uptake of online educational technology in Africa.

This is surprising because surely free tools are an answer to one of the big challenges of Africa which is poverty?Well maybe for minor elements of an educational institution’s technological ecosystem it can be of help to use free tools – for example teleconferencing systems or online office applications. But unfortunately if the main systems like the LMS or SIS is marketed as free I would be very weary. In every such case I have seen using these systems involve hidden costs that actually, if one identifies and calculates them, far outweighs the cost of equivalent proprietary solutions.

Firstly, these systems offer little to no support. We have found that one of the most critical pre-requisites for an institution to successfully adopt online learning technology is high quality support.
Secondly, they cannot be integrated with other systems in the way that I mentioned above which kind of defeats much of the purpose of implementing them in the first place.
Thirdly, they involve hidden risks like exporting students data abroad or companies selling students data for marketing purposes. These companies are not charities if a product is free it is not a product and one needs to ask what is the product and normally the product is actually the user him or herself.
Fourthly, the greatest motivation to implement a system optimally and quickly is investing in it. If a system is free what we have seen often happens is it just gets adopted in name but because there was no investment in it users also do not see the value of investing their time in it to get the most value out of it.
Lastly, of course, there is no training or onboarding available to help and encourage users to adopt free systems because no free tool provider can afford to provide that.

But let me just mention in a sentence or two what Educative Tech as a business offers.

We offer local implementations of a learning management system called Canvas used by the top four universities in the world and 13 of the top 20 and we have recently begun offering a student information system to integrate with that. But what is way more important than the technology we use is that we are not a provider of a product but we are a solutions partner. In other words, we partner with institutions to implement our systems for them in a way that solves their problems and offers them a high level of support.

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