‘There may be some teachers in rural areas who have not even held a laptop in their hands’

Jerome Morrissey

The Global E-Schools and Communities Initiative is working with schools in Africa to harness the power of technology to improve educational standards. Limited access to broadband and – sometimes – a lack of electricity are just two of the hurdles to be overcome

Within a couple of decades, computers have transformed learning in many Western schools. Teachers are throwing away chalk in favour of interactive whiteboards or PowerPoint presentations and students are able to do schoolwork on laptops, tablets and even mobile phones. In developing countries, though, the story is a little different. Until a few years ago, the cost of information and communications technology (ICT) equipment put it beyond the reach of all but the richest schools, but a combination of falling costs, wider availability of broadband, international funding and government enthusiasm for improving education has seen technology make its debut in some Third World schools. 

The most limiting factors to the wider use of technology in African schools are lack of access to a power source and lack of connectivity, says Jerome Morrissey, CEO of the Global E-Schools and Communities Initiative (GESCI – pronounced ‘jessy’). “There are many rural areas that have nothing. You might have one per cent of rural Africa with the internet and 70 or 80 per cent in Nairobi and other cities. And of course there are rural schools that don’t have electricity.” 

But where technology is available in African schools, it is appreciated by students and teachers even more than it is in schools in the West. Education as a whole is so sought after by African children, says Morrissey, that ICT for learning is a natural extension of this. And with free high-quality content now available online from a wide range of sources, schools no longer have to pay for digital teaching material. 

“I don’t think we should be talking about buying content anymore, unless it’s reference content,” says Morrissey. “We bought a subscription to the Encyclopaedia Britannica when I was working in Ireland. There is a great value to having that and there is an educational version. But there is no point in buying a package on how to teach physics. The definition of a teacher using ICT well is that they can find free content, break it down, chop it up and line it directly with key objectives in the curriculum.” 

GESCI was established in 2003 as a result of work done by the United Nations ICT Task Force, which identified education as an area in need of development and one that could benefit from greater use of ICT. Morrissey, a former teacher, joined the organisation when it was established in Dublin, relocating to Nairobi when GESCI moved to Kenya in 2011. Before that he was the founding director of Ireland’s National Centre for Technology in Education. 

GESCI was initially funded by Ireland and Sweden and is now paid for primarily by Sweden and Finland with other donors, including IT companies, providing funding for specific projects. The MasterCard Foundation, for example, has funded some work in Kenya and Tanzania. 

Morrissey believes that science can benefit most from the use of ICT in the classroom, but that all subject teaching can potentially be improved by the use of technology. 

“Years ago you’d say the easiest subjects to work with would be the hard scientific subjects and it’s still true. But the liberal subjects are coming through now. It took a long time before there was any significant content for English. I mean, how do you produce a piece of interactive material around a Shakespeare play, for example? You can show it, but so can the BBC and they’re wonderful interpretations. But how do you turn that experience into an interactive activity in the English classroom? 

“I still say that in areas like science – chemistry, for example – experimentation with different chemicals can all be described so well in animation. The same goes for physics and biology. Think about the dynamics in physics – speed, sound, electricity. It’s not even about proprietary software, it’s about what’s out there. If you and I went onto the NASA website, for example, and spent a week on it, we’d pass A level physics no problem!” 

He points to a project in Tanzania that has been particularly effective. GESCI has worked with teacher training colleges to get newly qualified teachers geared up to use ICT in their lessons right from the start of their careers. “It’s funded by the ministry itself and spans science, mathematics and English in secondary schools. We’re about to go into year two and we’re just doing an evaluation of year one. The feedback from that is that teachers are using it for biology, chemistry, physics and English fairly intensively. 

“But again we’ve had the proviso that we’ve had to pick schools where there is an element of electricity guaranteed. It’s the skilling of teachers that’s important, so you can be reasonably sure that the teachers who are leaving college have that capability, belief and knowledge of how to incorporate technology in their schools. They’re not going to be sent out imagining that when they go into schools there’s going to be lots of everything there, they’re learning how to source content. This is a scheme that has been funded by Sweden.” 

Perhaps unsurprisingly GESCI’s trainers have encountered varying levels of computer literacy from teachers themselves. “There may be some teachers in rural areas who have not even held a laptop in their hands, but you can get over that quickly. People make too much of that: ‘Oh my god, they’d never seen a computer or a mouse, we had to start from the beginning.’ But if a three-year-old can work out how to use a computer with no one showing them, it’s not that hard, you know?” 

GESCI will be participating in this year’s eLearning Africa conference in Uganda at the end of May. One of the themes at the conference will be finding sustainable funding, something that Morrissey admits is a constant challenge. 

“We in the West haven’t found a sustainable model either. Throughout 2007-08 in Europe there were specific bits of funding coming from governments to their schools – that’s the usual model. Then governments began to take refuge in that classic phrase, ‘Your ICT funding is reflected in your overall budget.’ I hated that phrase! That’s effectively what’s happened throughout Europe. But if organisations had instigated a good ICT culture in the school, then it became a dimension of fundraising as well. 

“One finance-related response to sustainability would be that laptops and tablets are getting cheaper and cheaper, the $100 laptop is fast approaching, if not the $100 tablet.” 

Government support for ICT in schools varies from country to country, but many African governments are keen to help provide equipment for schools. When Uhuru Kenyatta came to power in Kenya, he promised to provide a laptop for each child starting primary school – an initiative that is now underway. However, most ICT initiatives in African schools have been supported by outside funding, which is difficult to guarantee in the long term. 

“Donor policies can be short term,” says Morrrissey, “and changes of government can bring changes overnight. Having said that, big donors like the World Bank and the African Development Bank do provide consistent funding, but that goes directly to the ministry; then you have to see how much ministries will allocate for equipment.” 

Broadband availability varies greatly throughout Africa and the cost is a great deal higher than it is in the West, which means it is often only affordable if it’s sponsored. “Unfortunately, it is still multiples of European costs even where it is available, and that’s a shame. 

“To give you an example, for a 5 Mb line, you’re probably paying up to €1,000 a month,” says Morrissey. 

Cities close to the coast are often best served with broadband because the cables come from Europe and the USA through pipelines under the sea. Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Ghana have good broadband links in most urban areas, but rural parts of Africa, and cities that are too far inland, fare least well. 

And, of course, some schools have a much more fundamental problem when it comes to accessing ICT – no electricity. For schools that are without power, there could be a solution around the corner that will enable them to use laptops. “There have been a few little attempts by Samsung and Safari.com to introduce solar, but I haven’t yet seen a decent, long-term sustainable solution where you could say to schools, ‘Well if you buy 20 laptops with their solar cells, you’ll be fine,'” says Morrissey. 

“There’s no real demonstration model that’s genuinely scaleable with a low cost yet. But I would love to see a solar answer.”

Interview by Katie Silvester


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Amnesty International