Laptops in Africa’s classrooms; saviour or a waste of good money?

Africa’s tech boom has made many governments on the continent eager to incorporate e-learning into their education policies, to mixed success. Rwanda’s One Laptop per Child project has seen over 203,000 laptops distributed to primary school pupils, making it the third largest deployment of laptops to schools globally after Peru and Uruguay.
But laptop projects have stalled in other countries, as controversies over corruption and political opportunism, and as to whether laptops are a good educational investment in the first place, throw a spanner in the works. 
In Kenya, for example, one of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s incoming election pledges was to supply 1.2 million laptops to first year primary pupils. It was to be a $600 million project, with a $100 price tag per laptop. But the first round of tendering was cancelled, as the initial quotations were far above $100 for each device, and from then on, the project was dragged into the muck amid accusations of inflated costs and favouritism, with speculations that the whole thing was just a ruse for certain politicians and businessmen to be paid back for their “investment” during elections.
In Nigeria, the laptop idea was proposed as far back as 2006, and the government ordered one million laptops to be distributed to schools around the country – becoming the first country in the world to make such a large order. But with the election of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s administration in 2007, government priorities shifted, says this article, and the initiative was abandoned.
The new education minister at the time, is quoted to have said that he found the project questionable given the absence of basic infrastructure that students are faced with. “What is the sense of introducing one laptop per child when they don’t have seats to sit down and learn, when they don’t have uniforms to go to school in, when they don’t have facilities?” said Igwe Aja-Nawachuku.

Are critics right?
Critics of the laptop projects point to the chronic energy shortages as an indication that the idea is doomed to fail. One article calls it “media sexy, but completely out of touch with reality”. 
But this argument ignores the fact that the devices can be powered by solar, and – more importantly – rolling out the project even in the face of energy challenges can be the spark that drives the investment into electricity in long-neglected communities, where it has not made “business sense” even for governments to do so.
Most primary schools in Kenya are “day schools” and so have not had much demand for power at night. Thus there is a curious phenomenon in many rural communities, where households may be connected to the electricity grid or use solar power, but schools remain dark.
In June 2013, just under half of the country’s primary schools had power – 10,157 out of 21,222. But by November 2014, a statement from the country’s Rural Electrification Authority indicated an incredible acceleration of electricity access in schools, with 82% of schools now supplied with power and a target to have all 22,000 primary schools powered by the end of 2015, for the rollout of the laptop project.
It’s possibly the fastest electrification rate in Kenya’s history, and even if the laptops never come, at least the schools now have power where they didn’t before.

The other form of opposition to the laptops-in-schools idea is whether they have any impact on student achievement in the first place, and whether they were really a good strategy for development.
In 2012, it was announced that 25 million laptops later, the One Laptop Per Child project had failed to increase test scores; a headline from the Economist read “Error Message: A disappointing return from an investment in computing.”  
A study from Peru showed no improvement on achievement in mathematics or languages, as it had no effect on attendance, time allocated to school activities or quality of instruction in class.
It seemed to be a huge anti-climax for countries like Kenya and Rwanda that have embedded digital services in their country development strategies, and are looking to burnish their tech credentials through the laptop distribution.

Light at end of the tunnel
But the study prompting the gloomy headlines about the “disappointing” test results did find that the laptops did one thing – they improved students’ cognitive skills, that is, the ability to learn to learn – skills like reasoning, perception and attention. But because students tend to learn faster than teachers, especially when it comes to using gadgets, most teachers had turned the laptops into nothing more than digital notebooks – used only to copy what the teacher had written on the board.
The One Laptop Per Child project stresses that their vision is not to explicitly improve academic achievement in the traditional sense – it is to facilitate “collaborative, joyful, and self-empowered learning”, where “children are engaged in their own education, and learn, share and create together.”
So whether the project failed or not – and whether it makes “sense” for African governments to distribute laptops to children in remote places where learning under trees might be commonplace- depends on the definition of success, or sense, it seems.
In one school in Lesotho, at least, using a virtual interface between students and teachers reduced truancy, simply because students can ask questions without calling attention to themselves. “Children who are slow learners often feel embarrassed about asking questions in class and so they stop coming to school. Truancy has stopped being a problem since we deployed the solution because I don’t have to disrupt the rest of the class or call attention to the slowest learners,” said a teacher from Mamoeketsi School, Maseru, where the technology was tried out.

Uganda’s book burden
And having digital books could solve another, often overlooked problem of going to school in Africa – heavy school bags. One study in Uganda showed about 30.8% of pupils carry schoolbags that were more than 10% of their body weight. About 88.2% of pupils reported having body pain especially in the neck, shoulders and upper back, and 35.4% of the children reported that carrying the schoolbag was the cause of their pain. Just 19% of the pupils had lockers at school – and these were often too few to cater to all the pupils.
In the next few years, we could see a more aggressive rollout of Internet connectivity that would impact learning. Google is looking to expand Internet access via solar-powered balloons soaring through the stratosphere. Facebook is mulling something similar using drones, as part of Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to wire the world.
Closer to earth, Kenya’s telecom giant Safaricom is working on building ICT hubs in different parts of the country that would boost “networks of learning” powered by mobile broadband, says CEO Bob Collymore. “Through these networks, mobile companies could deliver educative content to teachers or students in remote areas and ensure that they receive the best in educational standards wherever there is a mobile signal. That would be the true start of education without borders,” he told Mail & Guardian Africa, adding that the company is already working on a solution of this kind in Daadab, Kenya’s – and East Africa’s – biggest refugee camp.

The BRCK solution
Another hugely promising initiative for learning is the BRCK, a portable, WiFi router chargeable by solar panel, car battery,  a computer USB connection or regular electricity connection, and seamlessly switches between Ethernet, WiFi, 3G or 4G connection depending on what’s available. It was developed in Kenya by non-profit technology company Ushahidi, and has the potential of solving the problem of connectivity for schools; it could even be moved from school to school, updating laptops, e-books and software for schools that cannot afford a continuous Internet connection.
But the ultimate innovation would be the development of a video game to replace exams, as African governments look to give students skills for the real world instead of the emphasis on rote learning. Through the game students could be faced with test scenarios that they might find in their future life, thus making test-taking both fun and practical.

It’s just a dream, but who knows, it could happen.


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