eLearning Africa (eLA) bills itself as 'the premier annual event bringing together e-learning and ICT-supported education and training professionals from across the continent'. If you want a 'crash course' in what is happening in a variety of contexts related to ICT use in education in countries from Algeria to Zambia, you could do much worse than to attend this increasingly informative and useful event. This year the event was held in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and featured over 1700 participants (and over 300 speakers) from 90 countries around the world; it included daily plenary and 65 parallel sessions to share and debate emerging lessons from experiences in this fast-moving field.
As part of my work on the World Bank SABER-ICT initiative, I chaired a session at eLA 2011 dedicated to ICT/education policy development in Africa, which featured presentations by three of the leading groups involved in related advisory and research activities across the continent: UNECA (which has played an instrumental role in helping many Africa countries develop ICT policies); the PanAfrican Research Agenda on the Integration of ICT in Education ('PanAf', a research initiative of universities in 12 African countries, working with the University of Montreal); and the NEPAD e-Schools project. I was, to be honest, rather surprised by the strong attendance at this session (policy discussions can sometimes be rather dry), which was 'standing room only' over the lunch period on the final day of the conference — especially given the number of other interesting presenters and projects being showcased in adjacent conference rooms. The fact that the speakers were well known, and that session was presented in English and French, no doubt contributed to the competition for seats in the room (which held about 80 people). Presentations were deliberately short, leaving over an hour for discussion, but we did not have time to recognize all of the requests for comments/questions from the audience. I recognized lead ICT/education persons from at least nine different African ministries of education in the room, which suggests to me another potential reason why this session was so popular: this is now an area of tangible day-to-day relevance in many countries (most African countries still lack a specific policy related to ICT use in education — despite the growing presence of computers in many schools and increasing recognition of the potential strategic importance of this topic going forward).
It was both heartening and discomforting to hear World Bank analytical work related to ICT use in education in Africa (the country survey work, the evaluation of NEPAD e-schools pilot project, and related World Bank EduTech blog posts) mentioned so often and prominently by both speakers and audience members in 2011: "heartening" in that it was good to know that so many people were familiar with it; "discomforting" in that this work (largely sponsored by the Bank's infoDev program) is still cited so often despite it being 4-5 years old. There is clearly huge scope and growing demand for regular, systematic and rigorous analytical work to inform policymaking in this area across Africa. Even where such work exists today, it appears to be a challenge for some of it to find its intended audiences. (The excellent PanAf project was not well known by most who participated in the ICT/education policy session, for example.)
(Parenthetically, I note that one strong message that emerged from the Horizon Report Africa brainstorming meeting — more on that below — was that Twitter may well be the medium by which one is best able to stay on top of developments related to ICT use in education across Africa.)
For me, the tone, substance and nature of many of the discussions at this year's eLearning Africa stood in contrast to past events of this nature in which I have participated — in a good way. What was, only a few years ago, largely a general discussion about 'promise and potential', and about small and planned pilot projects, is clearly being transformed and enlarged to one about very practical concerns born of rich experience as well — not to mention the hard choices about policy and funding trade-offs that come into play when considerations are made for related investments at scale. This change can (presumably) be attributed to the fact that many countries now have dedicated professional staff focusing on the use of educational technologies, and have embarked on (or are soon planning to embark on) fairly substantial initiatives in this area, often in partnership with increasingly sophisticated local NGOs. The high level officials (i.e. ministers and deputy ministers) with whom I spoke all appeared to be quite ICT computer literate themselves — this stands in marked contrast to what I have observed anecdotally over the past decade, and this most likely also helped contribute to the greater fluency with which ICT-related topics were discussed, even at some of the highest levels. (Listening to one deputy minister talk about developing applications for Android, I couldn't think of a similar conversation I had had with a senior government official *anywhere*.)
Despite the sense of optimism that pervaded the event, and the clear sense that much was afoot across the continent at grassroots levels related to the use of ICTs in education, the fact that connectivity situation at the eLA conference centre itself was, well, not very good (to be diplomatic), was a small but constant reminder that many fundamental challenges remain. (Of course, it is not only at large e-learning events in Africa where wireless connectivity can be a challenge — I have been forcibly 'off-line' at similiar events in places like Seoul and Washington, DC as well.) At a conference focused on ICT use in education in 2011, with highly connected and tech-savvy participants, the symbolism here was quite potent, and points to both challenges and opportunities for the future.
That said, scratching under the surface a bit yielded a picture that was a bit more nuanced. In the 'early days' of eLA, it seemed to me that it was many of the people in attendance from outside Africa (NGOs, donor staff, vendors, academics) who seemed the most 'connected' during the event. In contrast, most of the Twitter and Facebook posts that emanated from this year's event seemed to me to be from East African participants using their phones to connect to local mobile networks; participants from other parts of Africa, and the rest of world, were for the most part largely un-connected during the course of the event sessions themselves, given the difficulties with the conference wi-fi network. One small scene I observed — of two representatives of a European NGO asking their government counterparts from Kenya if they could quickly use their mobile phones to update their Facebook pages — provided a small insight into one way in which the connectivity environment is transforming.
One exciting piece of news to emerge from eLA this year was the announcement that the well-regarded Horizon Report will put out its first African edition in 2012, with support from the the United Nations University (this first edition will focus largely on tertiary education). The Horizon Report (earlier EduTech blog post available here) is an influential annual publication that seeks to identify near term trends related to the use of educational technologies. Typically, 40-50 experts and leading 'influencers' and opinionmakers are engaged through a modified Delphi process to generate the content eventually published in each report. eLA provided a great opportunity for project sponsors to identify and connect with potential participants from across Africa in this process. It is expected that the final report will be produced by May 2012 — hopefully in time for it to be featured at next year's eLearning Africa event.
Whatever the eventual utility of the Horizon Africa Report (and it is certainly expected to be very useful for policymakers across the continent!), the mere fact that an influential publication like this known around the world is now preparing to put out a special edition devoted to African ICT, learning and developmental contexts will most likely be seen in many quarters as an important 'signal' that this both an area worthy of potential investment from the private sector, and that other policymakers, practitioners, academics and firms in other regions of the world may do well to include Africa in their scans of what is happening globally related to the use of ICTs in education. After visiting Dar Es Salaam this May, perhaps the same thing can be said for eLearning Africa itself.