|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East I 2002|
|Topic:||E-Learning in Africa: Key Trends|
|Author:||James Lundy and Debra Logan|
|Title:||Vice-President and Research Director|
E-learning, in one form or another, is on the agenda for many enterprises and governments. There are a number of key trends that will shape the future of e-learning in emerging economies and elsewhere. E-learning is an important technology category for emerging economies. The following are the key trends that those who are interested in using e-learning in the developing world should be aware of.
Global interest in e-learning is growing E-learning is being adopted more quickly and more universally than many other ‘e’ efforts. Unlike many other e-initiatives, e-learning can be applied in every country in the world, as the need for education and training is universal. E-learning is not dependent on a strong business infrastructure or even a strong economy. Interest is growing in government, educational and commercial organizations everywhere. Governments in emerging economies see e-learning as an attractive option for delivering the skills of the developed world to the developing one. An early global development in e-learning will be access to higher education by foreign students. Universities located in one country will offer education to students located in another. The university is better able to reach new students and to leverage its teachers. Students who normally could not attend or reside at a college can ‘attend’ a virtual university from their home or local community. These shifts will benefit the student’s home country by increasing the education and skills of its workforce, but may adversely affect enterprises in education-rich countries that might have attracted these students to their workforce. An early global development in e-learning will be access to higher education by foreign students. Universities located in one country will offer education to students located in another. The university is better able to reach new students and to leverage its teachers. Countries that lack ‘mass’ university education can now gain access to the world’s best universities – at a far lower cost than building a university infrastructure themselves. Gartner predicts that by 2004, 80 per cent of the leading US and European universities (the top-rated 25 in each region) will offer global higher education courses. Two Southern African universities currently offer e-learning programmes. Globally, enterprises face a common issue that not all knowledge requirements can be filled through recruiting or contracting. Recruiting in key competencies (e.g., Internet and e-business) is too competitive for most enterprises to hire the number or the quality of needed employees. The rate of business and technology change makes it impractical to develop, upgrade and transfer knowledge with traditional training classes. Increased connections and bandwidth, though, make it more practical to deliver good-quality training via networks. Enterprises in emerging economies confront a significant issue, given that job-related tutorials and training courses simply cannot be delivered cost-effectively. A shortage of instructors and difficult travel are among the obvious issues. Less obvious challenges are that emerging economies replace technologies less often or acquire older (less-costly) technology. Expertise pertaining to ageing technologies is often in short supply from original vendors or resellers. Digital capture of training materials will preserve dated expertise, and digital capture plus new technology, such as Webcasting, will leverage existing expert knowledge. By 2004, web-accessible e-learning will be a routine way to provide training in new technologies. Government interest and investment is increasing Government initiatives to raise the level of education exist on national, state and local levels. E-learning can help transform developing countries by raising the level of education, literacy and economic development. In these countries, technical education is expensive, education opportunities are limited and the gaps are wide. E-learning can help close these gaps more quickly than traditional approaches by expanding the number of students existing teachers can reach, bringing education to the ‘edges’ of the population. The quality of teaching can be improved by efforts that combine programmes aimed at educating and improving the skills of teachers, together with programmes that supplement the education resources available to students. Other initiatives include enabling Internet access, building online universities and providing e-learning resources for primary and secondary school students. The Africa One undersea fibre-optic cable is an effort by African countries to improve direct connections to the Internet backbone; it will be used, among others, to provide access to e-learning programmes. Progressive governments in emerging African economies support online universities and other learning programmes as a part of their initiatives to raise the educational standards and economic prosperity of their populations. In public services, e-learning will help develop or supplement skills and practices in areas such as medicine, public health and agriculture. The South African Aids Council (SANAC) is using an e-learning programme to educate healthcare workers and volunteers about the latest techniques for AIDS prevention education. On the downside, it is expected that governments will repeat the mistakes of businesses – by underestimating the cultural impact and cost, and by overestimating the capabilities of networks and of e-learning technology. African governments have an exceptional opportunity to draw upon the lessons learned in the developed world to not make these same mistakes. E-learning technology must offer simpler implementation, lower unit cost and better content As is always the case with technology, vendors will try first to capture the North American and European markets. Where does this leave Africa? The problems that corporations in the developed world are facing with e-learning technologies will have a positive impact on the development of e-learning in emerging economies. As things stand now, e-learning suffers from several problems, including high cost, complex and time-consuming implementation, and a shortage of high-quality course content. These problems are particularly evident in countries with inadequate ICT infrastructure or computing resources, but they are also experienced by enterprises and governments in Europe and America. Today’s e-learning is technology-centred and many ‘technical’ products, such as those for authoring, content management and course delivery, are available. Despite this, implementing the technical infrastructure for e-learning can be costly and complex, but hope is in sight for those who have limited financial and technical resources at their command. Vendors are packaging technology into software suites that tightly integrate many of the components required for full-function, enterprise-wide e-learning initiatives. Suite packaging will reduce the costs per student or course as well as the complexity and time for implementation. Critical to the wide adoption of e-learning is the availability of courseware, especially outside the mainstream focus areas of IT education, English language content and tutorial-like courses. For global adoption and leverage of e-learning, education must move far beyond these current boundaries. New professions will emerge as skills in developing diverse, multi-discipline, multilingual courseware are acquired and as the distribution of this material through the web increases. These professionals will be in particular demand by supra-national government bodies such as the European Union, the United Nations and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). Bodies like COMESA are particularly well positioned to disseminate courseware to its members and might consider e-learning as key to their strategy for the economic development of eastern and southern Africa. Hosted e-learning will offer alternative infrastructure Progressive organizations and governments will need a well-designed, strategic e-learning programme. This will take time to plan, design, build and implement. Meanwhile, developing economies need employee and citizen training and reskilling now – a lot of training for a lot of students at a reasonable cost. Planning must accommodate a dual focus that responds both to tactical needs and strategic initiatives. Hosted e-learning is an ideal alternative for enterprises and governments that lack robust technical infrastructure. Hosted e-learning is developing in three forms: o ‘skeletal’ web sites where an enterprise can contract and self-brand the infrastructure to deliver simple browser-based courseware on a pay-as-you-go basis o web sites that package and deliver the most-popular vendor- or industry-specific courseware (IT-vendor training; regulatory or certification courseware such as health and safety courses) o full-function LMS (learning management systems) hosting web sites that provide all aspects of LMS, except ownership. There is an erroneous view that ‘e-learning depends on bandwidth’. There are perfectly acceptable e-learning paradigms that do not depend on high bandwidth connections or other scarce infrastructure components. Further, the infrastructure in telecommunications is improving all the time. Fifty per cent of African countries have deregulated their telecommunications industries and this should lead to more infrastructure investment and better service. Further, projects such as Africa One seek to improve the African continent’s connectivity between African countries and to the rest of the world. E-learning opportunities need not depend on these changes or wait for them. Much of the infrastructure to deploy basic e-learning – sometimes only a stand-alone PC is required – exists in Africa right now. Collaborative commerce and virtualization will expand the employee base of global corporations into Africa. Business goes where labour costs are lowest and the right skills and infrastructure exist. There are already several examples of call centres being located in African countries. This is a trend that will continue, given the right conditions. Developed countries are now struggling with the problems of virtual teams working in global organizations. African nations that seek to join the global economy can do so if they develop and maintain the appropriate skills. E-learning can and will play a crucial role in developing these basic skills and in creating the industry-specific skills that enterprises need to move jobs offshore to emerging nations. Wireless e-learning will flourish where no wires exist. Wireless delivery of e-learning is not yet cost-effective in the United States and Europe. By contrast, where no wired infrastructure exists, wireless may be lowest cost for networking and the best path to e-learning. In a report on e-learning in Africa, the World Bank’s WorldLink suggests that ‘wireless technologies enable 24-hour connectivity with virtually no marginal costs (unlike high-cost, low-performance phone lines), enabling school connectivity to be shared with the community’ and that ‘wireless Internet connectivity and e-learning offer not just improved education but community-development opportunities.’ We concur with these observations. Conclusion: There will never be enough of the ‘right’ skills. Technologies and business practices are changing rapidly. Some skills are outdated within a few months of introduction, and new skills are continually emerging. Thus, training and education will remain a necessity for enterprise progress and advancement. If the rate of technological change of the past five years continues, then most enterprises will be forced, at any given time, to reskill a significant percentage of their workforce. Added to the reskilling problem is the increasing number and diversity of skills the average employee needs. E-learning will become an imperative for enterprises and governments to reskill, retool and, generally, keep pace with the changing technological and business environment. This is true for all economies, both emerging and developed. Beyond the hype of e-learning is a powerful opportunity that will be a part of Africa’s future. Access to the Internet and e-learning will make the universal goal of educating the general population and the workforce more achievable. This has particularly positive implications in the African context.