Unlocking Education – Open education as an intervention for socioeconomically weaker regions

In recent years, a clear trend towards online education has emerged in African and South Asian countries, even in the face of persistent technological obstacles. Many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and select areas of South Asia face socio-economic challenges marked by low income, housing disparities, and limited access to quality education and training. According to UNESCO estimates from 2016, one in five children worldwide, predominantly in developing countries, did not have access to education. This crisis could worsen as Africa’s youth population is projected to double to 830 million by 2050 and the situation is aggraving after the COVID-19-pandemic. Educational systems in these regions often struggle to accommodate this growth, with limited resources allocated for education. In this context, open and digital education is gaining traction as a means to provide more accessible quality education.

Building education – A matter of costs

Constructing schools and universities is futile in the long term if governments cannot sustain their operational costs. Many educational systems in developing regions suffer from chronic underfunding, a situation that may exacerbate as these systems expand and become more costly to manage. Despite relatively significant budget allocations for education compared to international standards, SSA governments are increasingly turning to open and digital education to address capacity gaps. Compared to traditional brick-and-mortar facilities, digital learning, facilitated by digital terminals and free applications, offers a flexible and cost-efficient alternative. While the pedagogical effectiveness remains to be fully assessed, digital and open education in developing countries holds promise from an educational economics perspective.

Bridging the Gap – The Promise of digital learning

What makes digital and open education appealing in SSA and South Asia is the adaptability of these educational systems. Unlike Western European systems with deeply ingrained traditions, these relatively young systems face the challenge of establishing schools as central hubs for compulsory education and improving educational attainment rates, which currently lag far behind those in Europe and North America. However, technological infrastructure barriers hinder participation in online education formats in many developing regions. The digital divide is particularly pronounced in Africa, where Internet penetration trails behind other regions globally. While urban areas see greater mobile device adoption and mobile broadband access, many remote rural areas still lack private access and rely on public facilities like schools, universities, and internet kiosks equipped with satellite terminals and often powered by solar energy. Nevertheless, the proliferation of smartphones in recent years has made digital learning more enticing. Mobile broadband technology is extending its reach into remote regions, making “m-learning” through cell phones a common form of instruction in socio-economically disadvantaged strata in SSA.

The Hybrid Approach – Blending Tradition and Technology

In developing countries, simply providing technology and digital content is insufficient to engage students in digital learning. Hybrid approaches that blend online and traditional methods may offer the most promising and highest quality model. Educators and policymakers must examine how to conceptualize and deploy online learning effectively, enhancing its delivery and content to align with local contexts and ensure interactivity. The generations growing up with mobile devices and online social interaction are likely to be more receptive to digital education.

Overcoming Technological Barriers

Open Distance Learning (ODL) has long been pursued as a means of expanding access to education. ODL universities offer inclusive, demand-driven education and are recognized as effective tools for social development. They typically have lower admission standards compared to traditional universities and offer a range of programs from short-term diplomas to full-fledged bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Many ODL institutions employ a blended learning model, combining various forms of distance learning with tutoring at study centers equipped with libraries, computers, and videoconferencing facilities. This flexibility caters to both first-time students and working adults, even in remote underserved regions. Furthermore, top research universities in Africa can collaborate, share costs, and pool resources through shared digital libraries and communication tools, fostering transnational research clusters.

Quality and Quantity of Distance Learning

ODL, while not originally intended to rival prestigious private universities in terms of academic excellence, serves a vital purpose in widening access to education, especially in regions facing economic challenges. While the quality of ODL institutions can vary significantly, dismissing them outright overlooks the substantial contributions they make to education accessibility. Many ODL universities have evolved over the years to offer rigorous and relevant educational programs that align with the needs of their students and industries. Accrediting bodies, although limited in number, play a key role in ensuring that ODL institutions maintain quality standards. These bodies can help evaluate and recognize the institutions that demonstrate a commitment to excellence in education. Ultimately, ODL represents a flexible and cost-effective means of expanding educational opportunities, particularly in regions with resource constraints. In this context, they have the potentail to complement traditional educational models and offer a pathway to learning for individuals who may otherwise be left behind.

Shaping the Future with Pioneer Projects

Many African governments are now actively promoting the adoption of information and communication technologies (ICT) and digital learning. For instance, the Kenyan government launched a digital learning program to digitize primary education, delivering over a million laptops and tablets with interactive digital content to public schools. OER Africa focuses on using Open Educational Resources (OER) to enhance teaching and learning across the continent. African Storybook offers free access to picture books in African languages to promote children’s literacy and imagination.

E-learning offers numerous advantages over traditional learning, from reduced costs to increased accessibility, flexibility, and scalability. As electricity and broadband access expand, online education becomes accessible to a broader audience, making it an attractive investment in human capital development for governments and academic institutions in SSA and South Asia. Overcoming persistent technological challenges needs to be addressed so that digital and open education can develop their full potential.

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