eLearning Africa

My understanding of education and learning technologies is largely confined to European, Canadian, Australian, and American contexts. While I have frequent informal interactions with individuals from other regions, my understanding of the unique challenges facing these areas is limited. In particular, I’m largely unfamiliar with African, Russian, Asian, Middle Eastern, and South American use of information communication technology for teaching and learning. These are all areas on my “must go to” list.
When the opportunity arose to attend eLearning Africa 2008, I eagerly embrace it. The conference itself ran for three days, including various policy and government meetings before and after. Needless to say, after only three days, I’ve mainly learned how much I have to learn. What follows are a few reflections on the experience.
I arrived at late in the evening. My arranged ride did not materialize and astute local entrepreneurs quickly realized I was a dazed visitor. It took only a few minutes for them to have me loaded in a cab where I was happily charged tourist rates (in retrospect, as I’ve been advised by others, it’s generally not a good idea to accept rides in unmarked cabs when in foreign countries). A cab ride, according to locals, should be about 4 cedis (their currency, roughly the equivalent of US dollars). My cab driver was nice enough to offer me “12 cedis, but I don’t have change, so just give me 20”. No problem. I pay that and more for most rides from the airport to the hotel. While I didn’t begrudge the fare, the fact that it was “unfair” did chafe slightly (why does that sense of not wanting to feel cheated, though it’s only a small amount, reign so strongly?).
Once I got to the hotel, I discovered my prepaid reservation didn’t exist. I quickly realized that I needed different (not lower) expectations. All problems are solvable in Accra, I discovered. They just take patience. After about two hours, I was in a different hotel, a significant downgrade. I doubt the facility would have passed a 2 star rating in Canada or US. But, the people were the friendliest I have ever met. Any where. From cab drivers giving me advice on how not to get mugged, to hotel front desk staff, to interactions with people during the conference, I found graciousness largely non-existent in much of western culture.

Lesson one:
patience with people is the hardest of all attributes to acquire
Police were in full presence at the conference centre, though surprisingly, no one had a gun. On the opening day, I was on a panel with a fairly diverse group (I was the token white guy, I think). The conference was slated to start at 9:00 am. But the panel included the Vice President of Ghana. So we waited. And waited. Around 10 am he arrived. The other panelists were escorted from the waiting area into the main conference room (I can’t imagine being in the audience waiting over one hour). Then, the VP was escorted into the room, lead by a few drummers and flanked by a few security members and an individual I later discovered was mainly there so the VP didn’t have to pull out his own chair. Once he entered, the doors had to be closed and no one else could enter. A few diplomats stuck in traffic were not granted the privilege of entering late. Why they were still stuck in traffic a full hour after the event was scheduled to begin is beyond my capacity to understand.
The VP was very polite and generous, opening the conference with much acclaim as to the urgent need for Africa to embrace ICT in order to educate the continent to compete in the knowledge age. Each panel presentation started off with about 2 minutes of “professor chairman, your excellency, honorable ministers, distinguished guests and on and on”. I only managed to remember a few of the titles. I got the “his excellency” part. I’m guessing that was likely the most important.
Lesson two: Patience, formality, and respect are critical aspects of African culture
The theme and tone of the conference was mixed. Huge challenges. Profound optimism. We would be in a session and suddenly all the lights would go out. After a few seconds electricity would be restored. And in the next breath someone would talk the rhetoric of western education: learner-centred, knowledge construction, blogs and wikis, open source software, open educational resources, constructivism, etc. This was a bit disconcerting. Is the educational focus in Africa largely a duplication of the western system? Examples used were heavily from Europe and USA. Is it possible that Africa had a simultaneous emergence of concepts, ideas, and language with the west? I doubt it. There has been much information sharing – largely by development groups.
Lesson three: optimism and humanity seems strongest in some of the direst circumstances
Lesson four (well, ok, more of a speculation): Africa risks being an extension of the ideals of development agencies and governments who provide funding. In the long run, that’ll only lead to significant backlash.
Most astonishing, educators were doing some amazing things. Without huge grants and research dollars. In many cases, innovation was driven by enthusiasm, commitment, and love for one’s culture. Many of the leaders at the conference had been educated in the US, Europe, or Canada, and had returned through a desire to assist their family, country, or community. Innovation was seen through “mobile telecentres” – vans equipped with laptops, satellite internet access, and solar electricity panels. Or through the development of small solar panels the size of a sheet of paper used for recharging mobile devices. Or the use of SMS to inform farmers of market prices.
Lesson five: Innovation driven by commitment to core values and existing difficult conditions reveals the ingenuity and creativity of humanity.
Many aspects of the conference reflected what I have encountered at different conferences over the last few years: web 2.0, blogs, wikis, collaborative learning, and so on. Missing, however, was the discussion of millennial learners and game-based learning. Second Life wasn’t mentioned once. The vendors, however, were a “who’s who” of technology. Cisco. Google. Intel. HP. Microsoft. Oracle. And they were hiring. Google was the most aggressive of the group. They were promoting existing African offices and mentioning a half dozen to be opened soon. It was the same overlay of technology we see in developed countries.
Lesson six: We are exporting our solutions to problems we don’t fully understand. The in-conference conversation was dramatically different from the out-of-conference conversation. Much more so than what I generally encounter. And I don’t know if that’s good or bad. Or neither.
As my visit to Accra was quite short, I wasn’t able to explore the city as much as I would have wanted to. Some assumptions of life in Africa are quickly dashed. Others are enforced. Mobile phones, for example, are almost as prominent as they are in other parts of the world. My evening taxi rides to the hotel revealed numerous cell-phone card vendors set up on the side of streets. Phones are everywhere. I don’t know about the quality of mobile connectivity. My wireless access at the conference came in at a roaring 5.5 kbs (I spent the better portion of a day downloading a 30 mb file). The infrastructure and the mindset for connectivity is definitely mobile. I would be interested in studies that address what people are doing with mobile phones. Staying in touch with family/friends? Information access? Sharing images?
Morning cab rides revealed a city with a similar entrepreneurial spirit one would encounter in New York or London. The scale in Accra was a bit different. Vendors on the side of the road were selling soft drinks, clothing, and fruit. Large black cauldrons (not sure if there is a better word) full of steaming broth/stew/something appeared to be strategically placed in one block intervals. Vehicular traffic was accented by numerous individuals (amazingly balancing baskets of fruit and other food items on their head) selling a huge array of items. Clothing. Chips. Toilet paper. It was like driving through a supermarket. In Canada, I go to the grocery store to shop. In Accra, the grocery store appears to come to the customers.
A few highlights of the conference:
1. Getting a chance to chat with John Connell during the evening of the first evening of the conference. I’ve known John through his blog for years. We technically were at the same conference in Sydney a few years ago, but we didn’t chat. Our conversation in Accra took place against a wonderful backdrop. The organizers had arranged for local musicians and dancers to perform. Stunning. John has posted a few photos.
2. Chatting with the director of Aluka on an initiative to build a resource base of African artifacts and resources. Great to see these types of initiatives that seek not only to adopt good ideas from other regions, but also to export their own history and culture. I made a similar point during my pre-conference interview.
3. Getting somewhat acquainted with the research being conducted on the status of ICT use across Africa. While their may be other organizations, infoDev was the one I found most valuable. In particular, their report on Survey of ICT and Education in Africa..and Using Technology to Train Teachers. Numerous other reports and publications are available.
4. Meeting with Rebecca Stromeyer of ICWE. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her several times. She has a passion and energy for learning and technology that is unmatched. And meeting Sally Reynolds again as well. She has a wonderfully pleasant demeanor. I bump into her every 15 minutes at the conference it seems!
Accra was truly fascinating, reflecting the best of human character and the weight of challenges facing humanity. While I often found myself wishing for some of the comforts of Canada (in particular, a nice cup of Tim Hortons), I never felt alone. I had more casual conversations and exchanged more smiles in Accra than I do on many trips.

6 Responses to “eLearning Africa”

  1. I really appreciated your thoughts and reflections on your trip, George. I will be passing this post along to the two teams heading over to Africa (soon!) with Teachers Without Borders to add perspective to the workshops we are planning. Can’t wait to begin blogging my own African adventure! Thanks for the links too – the ICT links will be pertinent to what we will be doing in Cape Town.

  2. Wow, George. This captures much more than the 140 character tweets when you were there! I’m bookmarking this post for future reference. Not only is this fascinating as a story in its own right; it is a great start on a travel guide. Move over Rick Steeves! Africa is high on my list, and I’ve run into similar challenges and epiphanies when I’ve travelled elsewhere (remind me to tell you about Sao Paulo someday).

  3. Thank you for the overview of your experiences in Accra, they validated my thoughts and perceptions while spending the month of March in Ghana – laying the groundwork for an international collaboration between US partners and a university in Ghana – involving the use of technology to enhance nursing education and promote a global health perspective. I am a nurse educator, currently involved in doctoral studies as a 3rd year PhD nursing student, and greatly appreciated the resources you provided through links on your blog posting. I had been following the eLearning Africa plans since last year – and in early spring 2008, had forwarded the link for it to the institution I am working with in Kumasi. I hope that someone from KNUST was able to attend. I understand you may be at UTHSC in July, and hope to have an opportunity to meet and talk with you about e-Learning in Africa – with a particular focus on Ghana.

  4. Karyn Romeis says:

    Interesting post! Two comments.
    You have now discovered what people mean by ‘Africa time’. As long as you arrive on the right day, you’re considered to be on time – especially if you’re the dignitary. Church services go on for five hours plus. I have attended very highbrow award ceremonies where people receiving awards arrive hours after the scheduled start time, which means that they were unavailable to collect their award. I have known of weddings where the bride arrived 90 minutes late and still got there before the groom. Punctuality simply does not have value – not even among those with PDAs and digital watches. It simply is not part of their culture. I would say that the start of your conference was signified by the arrival of the VP. Time of day was not the point.
    Secondly, thank you so much for pointing out that “We are exporting our solutions to problems we don’t fully understand.” I keep saying this and I get the impression that people just roll their eyes at me. We keep talking about the flat world. I can’t say this emphatically enough: IT IS NOT FLAT. We collect in our so-called global conferences and Africa is not present. We discuss the issues that face us and come up with solutions. But we haven’t got a clue about the problems that face those who are not present. Yet we blithely expect them to apply our solutions. I’m sorry, but it smacks of “Let them eat cake.”

  5. Abdulateef Ahmed says:

    The Accra discussion 2008 was really enlightening. There is a lot to achieve in africa and globally with e-learning. I enjoyed 4 things mainly:free wireless service, constant power,security(which wasnt achieved by deploying armed-to-tooth kind of military apparatus) and connecting with people/ideas. Thumbs up george!

  6. Charles Adjah says:

    It quiet interesting reading about your experiences in Accra. That is Africa. You need to know of other peoples culture in order to be able plan your own contribution to such a community. Mobile phones in Africa are mainly used for contacting family and friends. It is true that Cisco, Microsoft, Intel and HP have monopolsed issues on technology in Africa. Governments of the various African countries have been made to believe that those are the only service providers when it comes to e-Learning.