• Innovation in education has become a major priority due to COVID-19.
  • The recent technological influx in Africa needs to be capitalized upon by the education sector, which has been hit hard by the pandemic.
  • African governments need to invest in free, high-quality online education for all Africans.
  • Lindiwe Matlali is one of the Schwab Foundation's Social Innovators of the Year 2020.

This year, Kenya declared that its 2020 school year was considered lost and primary and secondary school pupils would return to class in January. Indeed, COVID-19 has left 250 million children in primary and secondary schools in Africa alone out of school.

Due to the pandemic, the topic of innovation in education has never been so crucial. While most developed countries moved their classes online with ease, many developing countries have been found wanting, due to a lack of infrastructure and the high cost of data.

South Africa is ranked as one of the countries with the most expensive data in the world, resulting in challenges with implementing digital learning, particularly in rural areas.

Discussions on the matter are urgently required on an Africa-wide level.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to champion social innovation?

Social innovators address the world’s most serious challenges ranging from inequality to girls’ education and disaster relief that affect all of us, but in particular vulnerable and excluded groups. To achieve maximum impact and start to address root causes, they need greater visibility, credibility, access to finance, favourable policy decisions, and in some cases a better understanding of global affairs and access to decision makers.

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship is supporting more than 400 late-stage social innovators. By providing an unparalleled global platform, the Foundation’s goal is to highlight and expand proven and impactful models of social innovation. It helps strengthen and grow the field by showcasing best-in-class examples, models for replication and cutting-edge research on social innovation.

Meet the World-changers: Social Innovators of the Year 2020. Our global network of experts, partner institutions, and World Economic Forum constituents and business members are invited to nominate outstanding social innovators. Get in touch to become a member or partner of the World Economic Forum.

Why good is not good enough

On 30 March 2020, three days after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced South Africa’s national lockdown, Africa Teen Geeks (ATG) launched the STEM Digital Lockdown school in partnership with the Department of Basic Education.

It has reached over 500,000 learners across the country through the MsZora platform – an artificial-intelligence based educational platform offering free live classes by qualified teachers. It is available to all South Africans with access to a computer and internet. Classes are recorded and shared on social media sites such as YouTube for future reference.

And yet if South Africa has over 12 million learners in its basic education system, how is it possible that only 500,000 children were able to access these classes? Inequality is the answer.

Many have put their faith in 'leapfrogging'. The best example of that has been Africa’s jump straight to mobile phones, almost entirely bypassing fixed-line technology.

—Lindiwe Matlali, Chief Executive Officer, Africa Teen Geeks

While online learning is playing a critical role in remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic, the implications of pivoting to online instructions are devastating for the poor.

Understanding why there is a digital divide

A House of Lords Report in 2017 declared that "Digital literacy should be the fourth pillar of a child's education alongside reading, writing and mathematics, and be resourced and taught accordingly".

There are four main reasons why so many African people remain offline, according to the World Economic Forum's Internet for All platform:

1. A reliable, fast connection is not available – 31% of the global population does not have 3G coverage, while 15% have no electricity. In sub-Saharan Africa, some 600 million people (almost two-thirds of the region's population) do not have regular electricity, and this applies to nearly a quarter of people living in South Asia.

2. The cost of devices and connectivity is not realistic – Another factor preventing many people from accessing the internet, particularly impacting the 13% of the world population living below the poverty line. Broadband is only affordable for 100% of the population in just 29 countries.

Image: World Economic Forum

3. Lack of skills, awareness and cultural acceptance – A key barrier for many skills is education, with 15% of adults globally considered illiterate. Cultural issues come into play, with women being up to 50% less likely to use the internet than men.

4. Local use either impossible or a hard sell – By its very nature, online learning creates barriers, with the vast majority (80%) of online content only available in 10 languages. By some estimates, Africa has approximately 2,000 different languages. There is still a general scepticism regarding the use of technology in some communities, with many trusting only what they can physically see and use themselves.

How can Africa pivot its education system in the COVID era?

The technological revolution sweeping the world is beginning to have a profound impact on the continent, presenting an opportunity to hit the reset button and reimagine the education landscape by addressing the challenge of exclusion, to achieve quality education for all.

Many have put their faith in 'leapfrogging'; the idea that Africa can escape its poverty and colonial heritage by skipping whole stages of development. The best example of that has been Africa’s jump straight to mobile phones, almost entirely bypassing fixed-line technology. While we are still working on getting the basics right, technology needs to be used as an accelerator.

How can this be achieved, practically speaking?

1. Internet and other infrastructure must be earmarked as a basic need

The pandemic has broken down borders, allowing us to focus on Pan-African programmes. In the context of education, infrastructure refers to both ICT infrastructure as well as the physical school infrastructure.

The cost of, and access to, the internet is a critical factor. African governments need to immediately understand that access to the internet has become an essential service and a basic need. The African Union should use this opportunity to lead an Africa-wide broadband infrastructure project funded jointly by African countries to accelerate access to broadband internet in Africa.

Education infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, is in crisis with many schools without access to clean water and sanitation facilities. Approximately 70% of schools in South Africa do not have a library, and 81% do not have a laboratory, according to a Pulitzer Centre project from 2018, "Upholding 29(1)(a) in South Africa: The Right to Basic Education".

There is also an urgent need to modernise the basic structure and resources provided to schools and teachers.

2. Prioritise remote learning

With uncertainty regarding when schools will fully reopen, attention must be given to remote, technology-based learning with classes provided through live sessions or by pre-recorded content.

African governments need to invest in free, high-quality online education for all Africans. While access to the internet and devices are a barrier, particularly in rural areas, higher education institutions such as the University of Witwatersrand have demonstrated that it is possible to distribute devices and data to those in need.

3. Revamp digital skills and education curriculums

The lack of digital skills in Africa can be addressed by investing in broadband infrastructure, partnerships and investment in digital education, access to funding led by the African Development Bank and education recovery.

There is a need for collaboration in education, especially with the introduction of computer science and robotics to boost 4IR skills in Africa, moving beyond basic computer literacy.

Education recovery involves the assessment and revision of the academic curriculum to be relevant and reflective of market demands and local realities, while catering to a non-physical environment. Fully aware that jobs of the future will require new skills, the Department of Basic Education in South Africa is currently developing the Coding & Robotics curriculum to close the digital skills gap between what we have and what the industry will be looking for. Revised education systems need to be able to produce both employees and entrepreneurs.

African youth is beaming with innovative tech ideas, and motivation – and necessity – is the mother of innovation. Imagine just what an African youth who could code and who had knowledge of emerging technology such as AI, VR could do. The time to pivot, and ensure that post-COVID-19 Africa is transformed, is now.