Elevating skills development in Africa using digital technology
When I became a certified developer, I got a job that offered me ten times what I was earning. I kid you not, ten times! – Adaobi F.
At Google, we talk about moonshot thinking, 10X results. This is really about amplifying your goals, results and aspirations in the order of magnitude of 10X. Putting a man on the moon is a moonshot. Creating a self-driving car involves moonshot thinking. All around us, there are opportunities to create moonshots. What is the purpose of education if not to help you 10X the quality of your life and opportunities available to you; helping you go beyond limits?
Adaobi who is quoted above was able to 10X her earning power by leveraging eLearning and online modules to become an Android certified developer. She was an aspiring developer, writing code at home in Abuja. Her dream was to be a skilled developer. She got a job that required her to move to Lagos. There, she discovered the Google Africa scholarships program being run in collaboration with Udacity and Andela. She applied and to her joy was accepted into the program. She had to share her time between her work and her study and would study modules on her mobile phone in transit, sometimes in a keke maruwa. Her hard work paid off and she passed her exams and became Android certified. Following this she applied for a job as a developer. She was shocked at how smooth and easy the interview process was. Being a certified developer changed the game for her and she was offered the job which in her words, paid her ten times her previous salary. Her husband confirmed the impact of this opportunity on the family and Adaobi’s ability to support the family financially. Adaobi also basked in the confidence of now being able to assess her skills in the global scene. She said “I can actually say I’m a world class developer, not just that in my community I’m okay – in the world, I’m okay.”
Adaobi’s new found opportunities opened up to her because she took advantage of learning opportunities that were freely available via online teaching and learning resources on the internet. We live in exciting times where our daily lives are dominated by innovation. The education landscape is also gradually changing as new inventions and new ways of teaching become the norm. It’s worth noting that innovation does not only mean technology, but it encompasses any creative, new way of doing things. If it improves learning, processes and systems, or solves a real problem, then it is innovation. In Adaobi’s case, she learned how to be a developer, firstly by leveraging an informal, virtual classroom.
To what extent are we innovating our educational system at all levels? In countries where there are challenges of infrastructure, access to leading edge and up to date learning materials, high and unaffordable fees, some out of date curriculum, inadequate funding, it is imperative to lead the way in embracing innovative ways of developing capacity at scale. ICT enabled learning can be an effective tool for closing these gaps. ICT can bring world class teaching and learning resources literally to the fingertips of a young lady going to work, on a Keke Maruwa somewhere in Nigeria. ICT will not resolve all of Africa’s education problems, but it can help to fundamentally change the current paradigm of skills development systems.
There’s nothing more important for our success than to educate the next generation if we are to make Africa an economic powerhouse. However, looking at the current population and the explosive population growth expected in the next decades, we cannot rely only on traditional formal learning to build capacity at scale. Our youth need some key skills to thrive in today’s world – critical thinking, complex problem solving, and creativity. These are crucial in being able to develop local solutions to local problems; and sparking more home grown entrepreneurs which are key to economic growth.
There are three key trends that we can take advantage of. The first is mobile phone penetration, in particular smartphone penetration. There are currently over 45 million mobile internet users in Nigeria, and over 30 million smartphones. Smartphones are growing at 14% year on year. As device prices continue to drop, more people now have access to smartphones (even if low-end). The second useful trend is cloud computing. To access good quality educational content, it is no longer necessary to buy a thousand servers. One can subscribe to different services from different technology providers; and “rent infrastructure from the cloud”.
The third trend is big data. Big data is a term that describes the large volume of data – both structured and unstructured – generated by businesses on a day-to-day basis. But it’s not the amount of data that’s important. It’s what organizations do with the data that matters. Big data can be analyzed for insights that lead to better decisions and strategic business moves. More and more people are more comfortable with sharing personal information than ever before, and as a result there are lots of extremely large data sets that may be analysed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behaviour and interactions. The insights from the data can be used to customise content and make learning more relevant to users. These three trends have created an opportunity. Deploying and distributing technology, leveraging a low cost, scalable infrastructure, would make technology solutions accessible and affordable to educational institutions; and informal teaching and instructional platforms in Africa.
It is important that the educational curriculum is up to date and relevant in the 21st century. While some institutions grapple with the challenge of updating their educational curricula, we can be deliberate about harnessing relevant online tools and making them available to students at little to no cost. Schools and other educational bodies or the Ministry of Education can negotiate volume discounts and licenses to make these curricula available for faculty and students to enhance their knowledge. Teachers can be equipped to stay ahead and connected to the business environment; creating a better alignment between research and the needs of the business community. We have access to a world of information at our fingertips. All we need to do is teach people how and where to find it. Nationwide advocacy on the need and opportunities for skills development would be essential to drive adoption.
Content on the platforms should include basic, intermediate, and advanced learning modules in different fields; covering both academic and vocational studies. All these modules should be optimized for access via mobile phones. Deliberate interventions to reduce access barriers would also be necessary. For example free or discounted data bundles to access the online learning materials can be negotiated with Telecom operators by providing subsidies or other incentives.
The ability of these initiatives to raise productivity and build capacity at all levels is non-trivial. For example, a driver spending hours of idle time waiting between assignments, can use that time productively to upgrade himself by learning relevant modules on his phone. A lot of idle time exists in the course of each day – time spent in a taxi or on a bus sitting in traffic, time spent waiting in line for a service, or even waiting to get a job.
If we wonder about the scale of this task, I would assert that this is readily accomplished by organizations like the Ministry of Education, the Nigerian Universities Commission, relevant NGOs, and other institutions involved in capacity building if the will exists. The challenges may seem daunting but the opportunities are just as compelling. Collectively, we must work to transform challenges into opportunities by adequately – and proactively – exploring new innovative ways of creating results and impact. The world is fast changing, hyper-connected, ever more complex and becoming more fragmented. We can leverage these trends in a way that shapes our future to our sustained benefit. The window of opportunity for doing so is NOW.
• Juliet Ehimuan is Country Director at Google leading Google’s business strategy in W/Africa and Next Billion Users initiative in Africa. Named Forbes top 20 power women in Africa, and featured in BBC Africa Power Women series, Juliet is a thought leader on digital business strategy and leadership. She is the Founder of Beyond Limits Africa, a leadership and organizational capacity building initiative. Links to the stories highlighted in this article can be found online: @jehimuan. Juliet was also featured as a Guardian Woman.