It is important and urgent to debate and discuss the issue of ‘development’ in relation to e-learning and the issue of 'appropriate' technology in relation to e-learning, and especially to debate and discuss these issues in relation to each other.
One specific reason for this debate and discussion is that we need much greater clarity about the perceived tension between those e-learning strategies based on near-universal ownership of mobile devices amongst potential learners on the one hand and those e-learning strategies based expensive large-scale installations of static institutional networked desktop computers on the other. This discussion is also important because it is also a discussion about the balance between the individual and the institution, the community and the corporate, the bottom-up and the top-down and it is vitally important to the issue of sustainability.
There are of course many competing and confused ideas about what could constitute 'appropriate' learning technologies and systems for Africa, and about what would be the ‘appropriate’ forms of e-learning in Africa. There are also many competing and confused ideas about ‘development’ and much emotive rhetoric about ‘catching up’ and ‘leap-frogging’. This contribution aims to discuss these but, of course, any discussion of education, and any discussion of education in Africa is always in danger of simplifying Africa or simplifying education or both.
Firstly, the idea of a technology system, especially a socio-technical system such as an e-learning technology system, is complex and many definitions of systems and technologies emphasise their human and social components, alongside the technical and tangible components, and also emphasise how understanding or designing a technological system crucially depends on identifying its purpose and the nature of its interactions with its environment. With anything other than the simplest system, these are complicated, unclear and often contested.
Secondly, Africa is composed of widely different countries and cultures; many of the institutions and structures of formal education in Africa are still strongly influenced by the legacy of contact, most likely colonisation, with different European countries each with its own different educational traditions. This is apparent in ideas about instruction, curricula, assessment, organisation and management and may cut across national boundaries. These institutions and structures may however now be influenced by the growing globalisation of educational thinking and by the pressure of global educational technology developers and vendors. Furthermore, as in countries in other continents, the institutions and structures of education may however not be sympathetic to the practices of community and to the ideas of informal learning in the different local cultures across Africa, or even conducted in the same languages. There can sometimes also be vagueness in defining in practical terms the ‘African-ness’ that ‘appropriate’ technologies and systems are supposed to be addressing: is it sparsity, rurality and distance? Is it infrastructure, capacity and organisation? Is it national, cultural and linguistic diversity? Or is it something else? There is always a risk of making superficial generalisations but there is always a practical need to learn what can be transferred or replicated too, and a need to formulate policy.
Thirdly, education systems and institutions have seldom developed their own sustainable, scalable technologies anywhere in the world. It is unlikely that any parts of Africa will be any different. Instead, education systems have appropriated or co-opt technologies, that is, they have used technologies for purposes for which those technologies were not intended or designed or sold. There are a variety of reasons for this but one must be perceptions amongst vendors and developers that education is only a small market compared to commercial and industrial markets. Nevertheless some technologies have been developed for purely educational markets – VLEs and e-portfolios are the obvious ones currently.
Education systems in most parts of the world have appropriated the desktop computers and the software systems designed for the American and European corporate markets. Financial constraints make this practice virtually essential but this has clearly been problematic for the development of ‘appropriate’ educational technologies anywhere in the world. This is perhaps more problematic for education systems in the 'developing' regions of the world since they are doubly distant from the original intended designs. Dedicated educational hardware is practically non-existent and dedicated educational software is miniscule compared to the volume of commercial and industrial software; furthermore the vast majority of this dedicated educational software originates outside the world’s developing regions so its ‘appropriate-ness’ is suspect too.
Fourthly, looking at ‘appropriate’ technologies from outside Africa raises the issues of designing for ‘appropriate-ness’ rather than procuring it. Participative design and user-centred design both seem at first sight to be the tools for developing ‘appropriate’ local or indigenous technologies. However community preferences may differ from the preferences of trained or professional educators and they may also differ from the ideas of ‘progressive’ developers and theorists from the ‘developed’ regions. Furthermore, raising the issue of design implicitly raises the issue of evaluation, or perhaps M&E in an African or ‘development’ context. Evaluation methods must be aligned to design practices in order to feedback meaningfully into iterative design. And if we are concerned about sustainability, then the outputs of evaluation must be appropriate to the developer community and perhaps also to the policy and business communities in order to generate the type of evidence that will either change policy and thus secure public funding or establish a business case and thus encourage commercial activity.
Seeing sustainability at a national level in these terms is by no means easy because it probably implies the kind of 'big government' that would characterise the UK or Sweden but not the US or South Africa, the kind of 'big government' prepared to commission and then evaluate evidence and then change policy and allocate resources. In countries with 'small government', sustainable educational technology is in the hands of businesses or social enterprises, and the mechanisms to support and sustain initiatives are different and less obvious.
Fifthly, sustainability is also an organisational and a cultural issue. It is easy to see any discussion of educational technology in Africa in terms of physical challenges and physical deficits, to see the problem (or rather to define the problem) in terms of infrastructure, in terms for example of reliable mains electricity, broadband connectivity, secure clean buildings, modern computer hardware, up-to-date licenses and software installations. And this simple analysis suggests that once a range of these physical pre-conditions have been met, that successful e-learning will take place. We must however recognise that no technology is culturally neutral, either as it is originally designed or deployed or as it is subsequently appropriated. Every technology embodies an ideology. In the case of educational technology and of e-learning, the ideology is in part the implied pedagogy. So when institutions or countries procure and install a particular educational technology, they also install the ideology including the pedagogy that comes with it. Of course the technology and its ideology may not be aligned to their new learners or their institutions and culture. The misalignment could be at a number of levels. The educational technology may not be aligned its host institution and its ideas about teaching and learning, it may not be aligned to popular, informal or cultural expectations about learning (of course, the educational institutions may not be aligned to popular or informal expectations about what constitutes learning and how to learn either).
Another dimension to the discussion of sustainability and ‘appropriateness’ is the lifecycle of projects and innovations in e-learning in both the ‘developing’ and the ‘developed’ regions of the world. In most cases and in most places, these are small-scale and fixed-term; they are usually funded, staffed, implemented and evaluated in ways that keep them isolated from their host communities and host organisations and almost inevitably they fail to embed and endure; they are evidently ‘inappropriate’.
And lastly, to return to the issue of appropriation, of course people generally appropriate technologies anyway; the 'missed call' or the 'please call me' is the obvious example - the network operators and the handset vendors clearly did not set out to provide the world with free messaging. However there is a tension between those technologies appropriated by educational institutions, such as PCs, and those appropriated by the community, for example for informal mobile learning. Implicitly the idea of appropriation is linked to the idea of sustainability; those technologies appropriated by the community must evidently have some attributes of sustainability; those technologies appropriated by the educational institutions may not be sustainable.
Any attempt to analyse educational technologies in Africa may be simplistic. Our concern is to question whether the rhetoric of ‘catching up’ or ‘leap-frogging’ in e-learning is not taking place at the expense of a discussion about what is ‘appropriate’.