Are Apps the solution to Africa’s looming Education challenge? Maybe not, but they’re a good start

There are over 250 Million children around the globe who can not read and write according to UNESCO  and 1.6 Million more teachers are needed in classrooms by 2015. Staring long at these numbers can make one sterile because of the sheer scale of the problem at hand. The pertinent questions are; how do you create or equip more teachers to attend to the educational needs of more than 250 million children who can’t read or write?

The daunting journey to finding a solution to this remarkable problem has got some problem solvers rethinking who the teacher should be. With mobile app developers creating clever Apps served on intuitive touchscreen devices that even 3 years olds can operate without an instructor, do we still need a teacher standing in-front of a blackboard in a four cornered classroom? Apparently not.

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A global challenge dubbed “$15 million global learning Xprize” by Peter Diamandis has been setup to challenge teams from around the world to develop an open source scalable software solution that will enable children in developing countries to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic. The key phrase here is “teach themselves”. This emphasizes the thinking in silicon valley and around the world that technology, that’s mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets will soon take the high place of the teacher in the near future.

This challenge comes after a group of researchers led by Nicholas Negroponte, founder of One Laptop Per Child, experimented whether or not kids in Ethiopia could learn all by themselves. The goal was to see if illiterate kids with no previous exposure to written words can learn how to read all by themselves, by experimenting with the tablet and its pre-loaded alphabet-training games, e-books, movies, cartoons, paintings, and other programs. The results apparently were astonishingly positive.

Already silicon valley has been awash with several EdTech initiatives that are thought to change the way students will learn tomorrow. Among the self-learning innovations are adaptive digital textbooks created by the OpenStax project at Rice University which use machine-learning algorithms to enable biology and physics textbooks to adapt to individual students, as NewScientist reports. Apparently the books can adopt to the learning pace of the student using fancy algorithms that only provide easy questions for instance for slow learners.

The concept of MOOCs or Massive Open Online Course providers seek to liberate knowledge from legacy education institutions such as Universities that until now have established themselves as the ivory towers of learning. A massive open online class is usually a series of video lectures with associated written materials and self-scoring tests, open to anyone. MOOCs don’t necessarily take away the teacher or the educational institution, they simply enable educators do more with less.

Cousera, one of the MOOC providers reportedly has eight million users and earned $1 million in revenue last year after introducing the option to pay a fee between $30 and $100 to have course results certified according to The Economist. A combination of Apps and the vast ubiquitous internet is the only thing that could give you that sort of scale that traditional learning institutions can only dream of.

Open-source learning platforms like Moodle enable teachers to set up courses where students can engage in discussion when they’re away from the classroom. This tool is currently being used by Virtual University of Uganda which bills itself as the first paperless university in sub-Sahara Africa. Google recently joined the bandwagon with its Google classroom free product which was designed hand-in-hand with Google Apps for Education that saves teachers time, keeps classes organized, and improves communication with students.

Back home, a number of EdTech (Education Technology) solutions equally exist. Learning is social that is why Nigeria’s StudentCircle is scoring big.It avails resources for students in Universities, high schools to share knowledge and course material in a more social way. Also, Uganda’s BrainShare seeks to provide a fully-fledged online environment where most of the academic resources are provided at a freemium or subscription basis. Mxit’s bookly brings an e-book experience for its users to read and share content.StorySpaces empowers the youth in Kenya to use digital tools and social media to leverage empowerment. These among others are some of the early attempts to rethink education in Africa.

However, apps can’t just float by themselves. They need light-weight, inexpensive, portable, always-on devices that can serve as communication and distribution channels for this educational content. That’s is why Google has Chromebook – Google’s lightweight, inexpensive (as cheap as $199), and Internet-reliant laptops. Bundled with Google classroom and with a tap-away access to knowledge bowls like Wikipedia, Khan academy, Coursera, Udacity among others, the search engine hopes to disrupt the traditional paradigm of learning. But it’s not just Google taking this route. Apple too has been hailed as the education disruptor with its highly praised iPad tablet. Loaded with interactive text books specifically designed for the iPad and connected to iTunes U, a repository of high quality university courses on iTunes, the iPad is your teacher and you can’t ask more. Except, at a prohibitive price of $499, only a few privileged students can afford this including those in the developed world.

However, if cost is the issue, Zambia’s ZeduPad, a 7 inch, dual-core, 1GB RAM educational tablet loaded with thousands of lessons from the Zambian curriculum is your choice starting from just K1,200. E-book publishers such as eLimu and eKitabu are partnering with networks like Safaricom and device vendors like Samsung to transform the digital learning landscape in Kenya. Even global companies such as Amazon which has seen the sale of its ebook reader, the Kindle increase tenfold in Africa in the past one year according to The Economist are creating solutions with the African user in mind. Global chip maker Intel, has a well laid out strategy to transform e-learning on the content as we’ve previously covered.

Education continues to experience rapid disruption catalyzed by modern technology that defines new channels of distribution, creates new social connections and upsets old paradigms well known to incumbents. But will Apps bundled in shinny devices alone solve Africa’s severe education challenges? Only time will tell.