Social Development: Education must go on

The coronavirus pandemic has plunged the world into an education crisis. Is digitalisation the solution?

© GIZ/Thomas Imo

The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a global education crisis, with dramatic consequences for school students around the world. GIZ is assisting African countries with using digital solutions to crisis- and future-proof their education systems.

According to UNESCO, more than 1.6 billion children and young people, that is 94 per cent of all pupils, worldwide were unable to attend school at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in April 2020. Africa was hit particularly hard. ‘There was barely an African country that was prepared for the crisis,’ says Grant Kasowanjete. The 45-year-old works for the Global Campaign for Education (GCE). Headquartered in South Africa, the GCE is an umbrella organisation of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) around the world that are working to improve education provision in their respective countries.

While schools in other parts of the world were able to switch to at least some online teaching within a relatively short period of time, many areas of sub-Saharan Africa still lack alternatives to classroom-based learning. ‘If schools are closed, then education stops,’ says Kasowanjete bluntly.

This could have serious consequences for the future prospects of school students, who are forced to help their parents at work instead of learning. They end up missing classes and, in the worst cases, may fail to reintegrate into school education later on and drop out of the system completely. ‘Leave no one behind’ is the motto of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda,’ adds Kasowanjete, ‘and yet, we have left many students behind in the pandemic’.

© Pexels/Katerina Holmes

Education for all: digitalisation is the key

Grant Kasowanjete is not prepared to accept this situation. ‘Education must go on,’ stresses GCE’s Global Coordinator. He sees the digitalisation of Africa’s education systems as the solution. GCE intends to use e-learning to create an educational alternative for all, even in difficult times.

And Kasowanjete is not only talking about coronavirus. ‘Pandemics, natural disasters and civil wars could all prevent Africa’s children from attending school at some point in the future. But if learning content is digitalised and teachers can teach without being physically present with their pupils in the classroom, then education stands a chance.’

However, there is a long way to go in achieving this. He says a lack of communication infrastructure poses the greatest obstacle to virtual learning. In rural parts of Africa especially, there is often no internet and, in some cases, not even electricity for radio and TV. Kasowanjete grew up in Malawi and did not have any experience of computers until he started working for an international organisation as a young man. Options for mobile communication are also limited. ‘In some places people have to travel 15 kilometres to make a call on their mobile phone.’

While the problems are plain to see, Kasowanjete is unable to provide evidence of them, as there is barely any data available. It is precisely this data that NGOs need to convince governments of the need to roll out digitalisation programmes and develop new e-learning strategies.

© GIZ/Thomas Imo

GCE and GIZ are crisis-proofing education

Germany is providing support. Since 2011, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH has been assisting GCE through the BACKUP Initiative. Working on behalf of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), it supports giving African education NGOs a strong voice and ready them for negotiations with governments. This is a well-established partnership.

The cooperation arrangement was expanded thematically in 2020. GCE and BACKUP have also now teamed up to address the topic of digitalising education as part of a programme co-financed by the European Union in response to the coronavirus pandemic. GIZ is collaborating with the Belgian development organisation Enabel to implement the programme in eight African countries in cooperation with a range of local partners, including ministries and NGOs. The objective is to use digital solutions to make the education systems more crisis-proof.

‘Even pre-COVID, the digital transformation had radically changed the education landscape,’ explains Ronja Hölzer, who manages the programme at GIZ. She says that the roll-out of digital solutions in Africa, as elsewhere, is giving many more people access to education, affording them the opportunity to significantly improve their future prospects. ‘The pandemic has made this issue even more pressing.’

The first step in GCE’s plan has seen it draw on support from GIZ to commission a study to deliver the missing data on the current situation regarding communication infrastructure in countries with widely varying conditions, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Zambia. Regarding a key foundation of the programme’s work, Kasowanjete is adamant that, ‘Everything that we develop in future must be workable in the public education sector throughout Africa. If there is no internet, then perhaps things will work on the radio or via mobile communication. If there is no electricity, then maybe batteries, generators or solar power can be used.’

All players around the same table

GCE will make the study findings and recommendations for the roll-out of e-learning structures available to educational NGOs throughout Africa. GIZ and GCE intend to promote the digital transformation across the entire continent as part of a large-scale campaign, that will bring all key players around the same table: the responsible ministries, NGOs, international organisations, local telecommunications firms and local authorities. These players will work together to develop innovative and practicable solutions for virtual teaching and tailor these to the local context.

GIZ is supporting GCE by offering advice, sharing its decades of experience in the field of (digital) education, and providing financial resources and access to its international networks. ‘Without GIZ support, GCE would not be where we are today,’ says Kasowanjete succinctly.

When it comes to the timeframe, he is optimistic. ‘If coronavirus managed to destroy everything in two years, we should be able to rebuild everything in two years – and make it future-proof.’

Last update: September 2021

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