All-inclusive education

Dr. Mor Seck

Increased investment in education is essential to give everyone equal access to education, whether they live in a rural area or in the capital city. The only way to achieve this under current conditions, is to use ICTs. Technology makes the distance between remote communities and urban centres negligible.

We cannot, however, rely on governments alone to provide the necessary investment. We have to involve all sectors: businesses, civil society, universities, NGOs and international organisations. We need a synergy of action in all these fields to speed up the process of delivering education to everyone.

One perceived disadvantage of e-learning is that learners cannot interact with other students or their trainers. Students find it helpful to work together with a trainer and fellow students — to ask questions, clarify points and discuss problems. For a long time, people ignored the collaborative aspect of e-learning, and that was a major disadvantage. But collaboration is now well-developed in most distance learning platforms. Students can get to know their trainers and can communicate with them almost as if they have face-to-face contact.

Cost was also previously considered to be a barrier to e-learning. But computers, cell phones and even broadband internet connections are becoming affordable for many more institutions and even individuals. E-learning can often be cheaper for students when compared to the expense of travelling regularly to attend training courses.

Institutions too can reduce costs by sharing resources. The Global Development Learning Network (GDLN), a World Bank initiative, encourages this kind of cooperation. There are more than 120 institutions involved in the network, with 18 operating in ACP countries.

At the moment, however, too many educational institutions see themselves as rivals in the same market, competing to attract the greatest number of course participants. But their priority should be to provide students with every opportunity to develop their skills. That means sharing resources, and ICTs provide the perfect means to do that.

If, for example, three institutions each attract only five students for one particular course, it is unlikely to be cost-effective for them to run that course for so few students. It is the students then, who would lose the most. But if those three institutions worked together to share resources and costs, then all 15 students could benefit from the course.

The other problem related to cost, is the availability of a reliable electricity supply, which is a major concern for many rural communities. Schools and universities often have to rely on generators for electricity, and fuel is expensive and its supply can be unpredictable. But nowadays, more communities have access to electricity and the supply is increasingly consistent. Through these developments, it is now possible to say that it is cost-effective to deliver training using ICTs.

Farmers first

To take my country Senegal as an example, only approximately 30% of the population currently receives a reasonable level of education. That leaves a lot of people without any access to education. For real, effective development, we need to make that 100% of the population, or as close to it as possible. The Senegal Distance Learning Centre goes some way to address that imbalance, as we now train 3,000 people a year using e-learning methods.

The other 13 institutes in the African regional section of the GDLN, known as the Association of African Distance Learning Centres, reach another 30,000 people on the continent. The network concentrates on providing courses on issues such as health, decentralisation, anti-corruption and agriculture. Agriculture is especially important, as the majority of people in ACP countries live in rural areas, and since many of them are farmers or rely on farming for their livelihoods, there cannot be effective development without improving agricultural skills.

Cell phones will play an increasingly important role in bringing education to even the most remote communities, as they are perfect tools for communication. You can send direct messages, e-mails, have conversations or even send photos. And communication is such an essential aspect of learning.

Cell phones are more accessible to people in rural communities than computers, especially while internet coverage is still poor in these areas. With cell phones, people can carry around the equivalent of several textbooks in their pockets. Delivering education in this way can give people the possibility to become more involved in the development of their communities.

I firmly believe that if we are to develop our countries further, we need to develop rural communities. If rural populations can have better access to information, they can make informed decisions that will improve their businesses and support their families. And using ICTs to deliver education will go a long way to achieving this.

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Dr. Mor Seck is director of the Senegal Distance Learning Centre, and president of the Association of African Distance Learning Centres.

31 January 2011

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