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 Thursday, May 30, 2013
In Sub-Saharan Africa, innovative approaches are constantly being developed to address the region’s acute education challenges. Low literacy levels, inadequate school facilities, and high dropout rates are felt acutely, particularly in rural areas. Despite government initiatives to tackle these issues, accessing education remains difficult for some, especially those who have abandoned their studies and find it difficult to re-join school or gain employment in a competitive job market that favours the best qualified. But through a pioneering eLearning for Youth project, which utilizes social media and mobile learning, positive changes are taking place.

The project is currently being tested in Namibia, and addresses the large number of learners who abandon their studies at a young age. The reasons for dropping out of school vary from person to person and throughout Africa – while poverty, pregnancy, family or social commitments and the hidden costs of education constantly present obstacles, short-term events can also critically interrupt the progress of a child’s education – such as the recent drought in the Kunene region of Namibia, which forced many families to move to more fertile pastures, away from schools. What is certain is that returning to formal education after dropping out is doubly difficult. Schools in Namibia are frequently understaffed and overstretched, with class sizes often between 70 and 80 pupils, and the personal touch erratically educated children need simply cannot be provided.

Maurice Nkusi of the Centre for Teaching and Learning Polytechnic of Namibia, explains the dire situation facing school dropouts in Namibia, and the essential lifeline m- and eLearning offer them.

“The unemployed – and perhaps almost unemployable – millions of African youth, on the street without the required skills, seemingly condemned to [a life of] poverty and violence, can find mobile learning and social networking very valuable as tools to go through academic programmes for skills development… [and] experience sharing and collaboration”.

Maurice Nkusi’s eLearning for out-of-school youth project aids school dropouts by using ICTs to assist them in continuing to develop their skills and obtain an education, despite their having left the formal classroom setting. It uses cheap mobile phones with Internet access and a built-in slot for a memory card containing multimedia resources, which allow the students to get access to quality learning materials hosted on an mLearning platform, complete their assignments, and successfully pass mLearning courses. The idea is to re-create a productive learning environment in a mobile setting, where access to content, learning participation, and effective assessment implementation are all components of the teaching theories used. In this way, young people out of school are given the necessary skills to generate their own employment, and are also given access to a platform allowing them to network, share information and collaborate.

The initial trials of the project have so far demonstrated that the young students it reaches can do tests and assignments, participate in online educational discussion threads, and learn from home, using small portable devices – that is, with none of the “hidden” costs (travel, equipment) that in many cases obstruct their classroom education. This enables them to gain the same skills taught in formal educational institutions at low expense, and to a flexible timetable that can fit round their other commitments.

Courses offered in this type of mLearning are often more practical than theoretical, and generally use multimedia resources to assist in skill development. One, for example, taught students how to grow mushrooms, with participants learning to duplicate the techniques shown in videos. At the end of the course, the students were able to grow their own mushrooms and sell them at the local market.

In Africa, there are many innovative ICT education projects that fail owing to poor ICT infrastructure, and also because the technical capabilities to maintain the equipment are unavailable. Further, ICT deployment in African schools requires the training of staff in basic computer skills and the effective integration of technology in teaching. Mobile learning has no such restrictions and can be easily integrated into the classroom environment: and the reaction, in this case, has been extremely positive. It has helped many out-of-school youths to gain confidence in their skills and provide a service to their communities, proving that a considerable number of young people can be trained from their homes in various skills-development programmes, giving hope to many for whom the rigidity of traditional education has become a stumbling-block.

Maurice Nkusi is involved in several other socially conscious initiatives which use the latest in ICT innovation: such as the “Join Us” multimedia campaign on Gender and Power Relations, seeking to address gender imbalances in Namibia through printed, online, mobile and social media campaigns, and the Education for Social Development Online Portal, a social network and electronic portfolio hybrid which supports the development of online eLearning communities. He is also a speaker at the upcoming eLearning Africa Conference 2013 in Namibia, where he will share some of his considerable wealth of findings from these and other projects.
For more information on the programme, or to register for the conference, see here.

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