eLearn Africa – Day 3

Friday was the last day of eLearn Africa. Rather than going to the parallel sessions where paper were being presented, I decided to try out a couple of sessions that were less conventional. I went to the Fail Faire (an opportunity for people to share their experiences with failure in eLearning projects) and a roleplaying session on mobile learning. In addition, I ended my conference experience by attending the closing plenary, which was a debate regarding mobile learning and the future role of teachers.

The Fail Faire was fascinating as I learned about many aspects of projects which were not successful. I found the session re-inforced what I had been hearing in other sessions, but there were also a few new lessons. Here are my notes:

  • One laptop per child costs $2600 / per device. That is, the $150 laptop did not account for total cost of ownership. This was a theme in the sustainability presentation I went to yesterday as well. The total cost of ownership needs to include project management, teacher training, infrastructure, etc. The cost to deliver computers to schools goes well beyond the cost of the devices themselves.
  • Projects need to assess the reality of the environment. Plans to deliver desktops to schools that do not have desks are not good plans (yes this does happen).
  • Issues with access to reliable power. Even when you can connect to the national “grid” often the power provided is unreliable. The issue goes beyond power outages, as the power is often is not strong enough. After the conference, we got to see this first hand when we visited Marianne in her village. When she turned on her laptop computer, the lights in her house dimmed and flickered. She didn’t have enough power to run her computer and charge the computer battery at the same time, and forget about having enough power to run a fridge! More about our visit with Marianne will be posted on our travel blog at Going East.
  • Politics plays a role and local ownership is important. One NGO found themselves pressured to provide services of renovating and installing a classroom (what they normally do) in a specific school, where the school principal was not that interested in their project. In the end, it turned out to be a political campaign stunt. They had been used to bolster a local politician’s image during an election year. There was a secondary message in their presentation: if the receiving party does not take ownership in the solution (if they are not interested in participating in building the solution) then the effort is largely wasted. In order for projects to be successful and worth the time, effort, and money, both the giving and recieving parties need to be involved. As one of the speakers yesterday said, there needs to be both a need and a demand. In this case, the demand was not there. The project failed on several levels.
  • Solve real problems. One gentlemen spoke not of an elearning project, but rather of a kitchen renovation. He saw what he thought was a fire hazard, but also a kitchen that he believed would benefit from a renovation. The “stove” used for cooking was a naked element suspended by bricks over a wooden countertop. He knew that fixing the stove was futile (it would just break), so he went ahead and replaced the counter – with something that would not be harmed by the heat of the element (marble). The replaced counter lasted 24-hours. The next day, when he saw the kitchen, he noticed that the old wooden counter had been placed on top of the new marble one. The locals felt the new one was too nice, and they did not want to damage it. His message was “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but more to the point, check with the locals to see if it is actually broke!
  • University professors who “volunteer” to teach in Africa take away jobs from African Professors. One NGO built infrastructure and developed a course to be offered by an African university. The course was a well-designed online course that was facilitated by local professors. When it came time for the course to run, no students attended. When asked, the students said, “why would I take a course online with an African instructor, when I could take a face-to-face course with a western professor”? Universities in Africa, like those in western countries, look to ways in which they can reduce the cost of course delivery. One way is to use university professors who “volunteer” their time. This actually does harm to the local economy, as the local professors lose their jobs. My lesson in this is that western university professors should not “volunteer”, instead, they should negotiate a wage that is slightly higher than what would be paid to a local professor.

At lunch I sat with a gentleman who worked for the Ministry of Education in Mauritius, a small island nation approximately 40km x 60km near Madagascar. He had done a workshop on the first day regarding using open source and ICT in the classroom for a middle year curriculum. They chose a year mid-way through elementary (about grade 4), and created electronic localized curriculum elements that teachers could use. The elements, things like drag-and-drop activities, were integrated with the national curriculum, and ran as self-contained windows applications. The idea was that they could be displayed on SmartBoards in the classroom. The activities were designed to match the images and material provided in the national textbooks. To distribute the content to teachers, the Ministry of Education created CD-ROMs and mailed them (because the Internet is too slow to download). In Mauritius, power is not a problem, as all the schools have electricity. It was interesting to hear of a different flavour of initiative that didn’t involving giving students or teachers individual laptops.

The last parallel session that I attended involved a role-play regarding the use of mobile devices in the classroom, with different stakeholders involved in the discussion (a student who wants a mobile phone, a hesitant parent, a teacher who supports mobile learning, a reluctant teacher, a representative of a ministry of education). The role-play dealt with issues such as mobile devices as teaching tool versus mobile device as classroom distraction. This was especially topical, as South Africa just banned mobile phones in the classroom. Ghana has also banned mobiles in the classroom. After the role-play, the participants in the session re-arranged the room into a large circle and discussed various opinions regarding mobile learning. It became very clear to me as the session progressed that I have a strong pro-adoption bias for mobile learning!

The final session I attended was the closing plenary. It was a debate regarding the disruption of “teaching” and the role of mobile learning, with a question of whether the role of the teacher is made redudent by mobile learning. One issue with the question being debated was that it had multiple parts and most people focused on only a single aspect (are teachers redundant). The debate was punctuated by several power outages. The speakers did a wonderful job of projecting their voices and continuing even when the power was out. The only unfortunately thing with the lack of power was the lack of simultaneous translation. Fortunately, for me, all the speakers spoke English.

Overall, eLearn Africa was a great learning experience for me. I came here to help gain a better sense of the “African Context”. I know that there is no single context in Africa – each country is different, and the rural areas are very different from the urban ones – but I do have a better idea for what some of the challenges are. Going into the conference, I was also nervous about being a white person from North America (a developed western nation). I need not have been concerned, as everyone was very friendly. I talked with many people and learned a lot. In so many ways, the challenges and debates in eLearning Africa are similar to the ones at home. There are definitely some unversal truths when it comes to teaching practice :).

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