Nairobi (KE), May 2010 - In his role as Africa Regional Director for the Global eSchools and Communities Initiative (GeSCI), Alex Twinomugisha helps to empower African countries to develop strategies for the proper use of ICT in education to promote their overall development. In the following interview, Nairobi-based Twinomugisha talks about the challenges his organisation has to overcome when deploying ICT in Africa and what effect technology continues to have on the Continent.
How does GeSCI achieve its objective? In which African countries are you most active?
Alex Twinomugisha: GeSCI's approach to providing support, primarily technical and strategic advice, as well as capacity building to our partner countries is usually through a system-wide procedure. Our strategy is based on the rationale that for ICT in education to be effective, competence has to be built or strengthened, coordinated and aligned across the whole education sector. As such, our method is holistic and comprehensive.
In Africa, we have worked with the Ministries of Education in Ghana, Rwanda and Namibia in crafting all-embracing and integrated ICT in educational policies and strategies, in planning large scale deployments, in selecting appropriate technologies, in addressing challenges related to curriculum integration and teacher training, in designing comprehensive maintenance and technical support systems as well as monitoring and evaluation systems, among others. We have also worked with the Ministry of Education in Tanzania on ICT for Teacher Education issues.
Besides these four above-mentioned countries, GeSCI also periodically brings together Ministry of Education officials from up to 15 African countries from East, West and Southern Africa to share experiences and learn from each other under a programme we call the Africa Knowledge Exchange or AKE. This is a powerful form of peer learning among the participating countries and we hope eventually to broaden participation to all countries in Africa.
What challenges do you face when you advise clients regarding ICT deployment and how do you overcome such obstacles?
Alex Twinomugisha: One of the things that we are often surprised to learn is that money is not the problem but rather mindsets and capabilities. The biggest challenge we face is making sure that our partners or clients, the Ministries of Education, understand what ICT can and cannot do and that deployment is actually simply the start of a long journey and not the end of it! Most Ministries of Education focus only on purchasing and getting ICT into the schools. But if ICT is to be useful, one needs to train the teachers, provide regular maintenance and even find space in the curriculum for its use.
Otherwise, ICT is a wasted investment. This then leads to another even bigger challenge: successful use of ICT requires systematic planning and systemic change. Human and organisational capacities to plan and the (political) will to challenge and sometimes change the system are often lacking in many countries.
This is why we at GeSCI look at capacity building holistically by strengthening know-how at the individual, organisational and institutional level. Sometimes, the emphasis needs to be on organisational possibilities, e.g. having the proper structures and processes in place without which the skilled and trained human resources cannot be put to productive use. Sometimes, it is necessary to address the wider system and environment, e.g. by ensuring that policies at national level are supportive of ICT in Education.
This approach for creating new talents and capabilities, however, creates challenges for us. As GeSCI we can address only some of the constraints at the individual and organisational level. We need to partner with other players such as other government departments, donors, NGOs, universities and research institutions to address such constraints at the institutional environment level. As a result, GeSCI's approach is also based on the principle of multi-stakeholder partnerships where we encourage the Ministry of Education to work closely and coordinate with the various other stakeholders.
With your many years of experience in the ICT sector in and beyond Africa, what impact do you think technology has had on the African education system so far?
Alex Twinomugisha: I believe that technology is broadly one of the main factors driving the reform of education in Africa. This is both direct and indirect. Indirectly, many countries have now realised that we live in a society based on knowledge and that we need to reform the education system to align it with the demands of today's society. It has been recognised that technology has a big part to play and so the education system must produce the required human resources to use this technology and to further the adoption of technology.
Directly, the deployment of ICTs in schools challenges many traditional notions of teaching and learning practice. ICT with its potent and immediate application to access, create, store and share information, has revealed the practical possibilities of student-centered learning and constructivist approaches to teaching. Through ICT, education management and administration can be improved and even increased. Access to education and lifelong learning through long-distance education can also be promoted.
As technology in African society becomes all-pervading (which it is, through the explosive growth in mobile telephones), the educational system will be forced to change if it is to remain relevant. I cannot imagine that my children and the younger generation will tolerate today's education system. I use the word "tolerate" quite intentionally, for I think that there is such a growing mismatch between kids growing up with this ubiquitous technology the way they use it every day - and the current "teacher-is-god", rigid, inflexible education system, that something must give. I think that the kids will win out. I cannot imagine any other force with the potential to transform education at the speed that technology is likely to. This will be technology's major impact.
Aside from education, what other fields have been affected by the spread of technological devices?
Alex Twinomugisha: Two obvious fields are democracy and human rights. I read so much about Barack Obama's use of technology during his campaigns and I think that the world has probably missed the quiet revolution in Africa's (and other developing regions of the world) democracy that technology has cultivated. It is becoming almost impossible to -œsteal- an election in Africa these days or to cover up human rights abuses.
The widespread use of technological devices is finally forcing our politicians to be accountable, to try to deliver on their promises, etc. Just think of the recent Iranian election and the role technology played in shaping the pre- and post-election debates. One can imagine that the world will not be the same again.
Aside from this, I think the other field that is ripe for revolution is the health sector. There are increasing investments in e-health services and I think that these investments could pay great dividends in the years to come.
And of course, the spread of technology has changed the economic landscape with ICT becoming quite an important sector in its own right in most countries, providing employment and tremendous opportunity for growth.
Which recent developments and technological innovations strike you as most significant for Africa and what is your prognosis for the future?
Alex Twinomugisha: I certainly think that the wide-spread use of mobile telephones, lower prices for handsets and services, coupled with recent innovations in mobile banking and increasingly decent data transfer speeds is going to change the socio-economic landscape in Africa. Mobile commerce (or m-commerce) is the next big thing. I think this will be to Africa what the Internet and e-commerce was to the developed world a decade ago and possibly even more.
I often muse that Africa is the one place where it seems that there is every conceivable roadblock to doing business and I think that the growing adoption of m-commerce is going to smash these barriers. The lessons in mobile banking and other mobile applications and strategies developed in Africa have proven that this continent is capable of developing home-grown solutions and innovations and that it can pay to do so.
As a result I believe that we are poised at the cusp of a technology-driven innovation tsunami in Africa. I think that technological innovation is going to extend to and influence other sectors like health, education and agriculture. Of course, all this sounds utopian and glosses over the real problems of poverty and inequality which many citizens of Africa face. Perhaps this is because I am a firm believer in economic development being the best way out of poverty for many Africans rather than a singular and, I think, often misguided focus on poverty reduction (ah, that phrase!).
As such, I am wont to celebrate when I see Africans unleash their creative powers and take the lead in technological innovation to solve some of our most pressing problems. While I am realistic and expect that it will not be a smooth or easy road ahead, I am quite optimistic that technological innovation could be the key to Africa's development.