By: Pearl Phoolo, Corporate Social Investment Manager at Standard Bank
The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the shift towards new ways of learning – a trend that could help Africa to bolster its education systems particularly as access to mobile devices and the internet becomes more widespread.
The development of a strong education sector that prepares learners for the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is critical to Africa’s long-term prosperity, especially when considering that the continent has the world’s youngest population. Education is the backbone of any economy, and this sector needs to be innovative and flexible to adapt to the fast-changing demands of the modern workplace.
While certainly no panacea on its own, given Africa’s limited access to connectivity, e-learning can become an important component of our collective efforts to strengthen the continent’s education system. We believe there are solid opportunities for African governments and purpose-driven companies to work together to make e-learning more accessible to children across the continent.
We are already seeing encouraging developments, including in South Africa, and Standard Bank is committed to playing its part. For instance, the bank has launched a free online Microsoft Digital Literacy course, which is available to all South Africans through a partnership with Pioneering Solutions Studio.
To facilitate access to online learning, the group is also providing student loans specifically aimed at helping learners buy equipment such as laptops, tablets and software. This loan is available to both full-time and part-time learners studying from home, and complements the group’s existing education programmes across Africa.
To ensure our own employees have the right skills for the future, we have given them access to an online learning platform, powered by Degreed, which offers thousands of courses and allows employees to upskill themselves.
Private schools group Curro is launching an online education service focused on 4IR subjects including mathematics, science, coding and robotics, for example. Vodacom’s free e-School platform, which is aligned to the Department of Basic Education’s national curriculum, has seen a surge in user numbers, reaching a million children by April this year. And Naspers has been investing in this space for some time, with interests in learning marketplace Udemy, social learning community Brainly, ed-tech giant Byju’s, and Codecademy.
Accompanying investments needed
The shift to online learning has the potential to offer high-quality education to all children across Africa – but only if we invest in the necessary infrastructure to ensure affordability and expand access. At present, data costs remain high and mobile penetration rates low. To overcome this, collaboration between stakeholders in the public and private sectors will be essential.
We will need investments in the telecommunications sector to improve connectivity rates and to significantly reduce communication costs. Such investment depends on sound and stable regulatory frameworks and attractive operating conditions. Access to affordable devices will also be important – mobile operators are starting to address this issue.
Meanwhile, education authorities will need to partner with the business sector to ensure that curriculums are more closely aligned to the skills required in the modern workplace. This will include greater emphasis on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as well as vocational training.
At the same time, there is a need for innovative solutions in student finance. Standard Bank South Africa’s Feenix crowd-funding platform, for example, has raised R35 million over three years, providing support for more than 1,000 students.
Standard Bank also partnered with the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT) to launch the 21st Century Sandbox Schools Initiative, an ambitious multi-year pilot project that involves setting up a ‘laboratory’ for trialling approaches aimed at developing future skills in South African public schools.
The intention of the sandbox is to test these teaching and learning practices within the context of a ‘typical’ public school, along with existing resource constraints and challenges, in order to gather substantial evidence on which practices and models are best suited to the South African schooling system. As the pilot progresses, the evidence collected will be made available to the Department of Basic Education and other sector stakeholders with the aim of influencing evidence-based shifts in policy and practice towards a more future-fit public education system.
Employers are looking for critical non-technical skills such as problem solving, adaptability, and collaboration – many of which are not a focus of mainstream education systems.
Africa’s prosperity depends on all her people having access to quality education, skills training and lifelong learning opportunities. Working together, across business sectors and in collaboration with government and the education sector, we can significantly improve access to e-learning and quality education in general. These efforts will yield benefits long into the future.