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Costly connectivity, load-shedding constrain edutech

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 29 Jun 2023

While digital technologies have transformed education in SA and across Africa, inconsistent power supply and high data costs are among the key obstacles.

This is one of the findings highlighted in new research released this week by Vodacom Group, Vodafone and Safaricom, in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

The research paper, titled: Connected Education, unpacks the current state of education across the continent.

It also shows how digital technologies and connectivity, combined with the necessary regulatory frameworks and support from governments as well as industry stakeholders, can be leveraged to mitigate barriers to education across the continent.

According to the research report, many African countries experience significant barriers to digital access in the education space. These include unreliable and non-existent electricity supply, limited access to the technologies and technical support needed for digital education, as well as gender norms and language constraints.

The unaffordability of internet data, especially mobile broadband products, also puts internet access out of reach of many, it says.

“We have witnessed this first-hand via our ecosystem of education projects and initiatives, which seek to provide access to quality educational assets, support remote learning and seek to enhance the overall educational experience for teachers and learners in some of Africa’s most under-resourced communities,” says Shameel Joosub, CEO of Vodacom Group.

“When coupled with affordable and reliable connectivity, digital tools and technologies offer a cost-effective and scalable solution to this, by making it possible for young people to connect with highly-skilled educators, who can help them translate educational content into valuable knowledge.”

As SA continues to grapple with worsening load-shedding, the report points out that electricity supply remains a key enabler of digital technologies in the education sector.

Professor Jonathan Jansen, one of the authors of the research paper, comments: “While there is no doubt that these digital innovations have the potential to totally transform African education, there are a number of barriers to digital access that prevent African youth from making the most of them.

“Each of these hurdles can be overcome through the right partnerships, interventions and ecosystems. Importantly, addressing these obstacles demands political buy-in and support from governments to ensure the mechanisms put in place are appropriate in that they meet African learners and educators where they are.”

“But with the right policies, infrastructure and investments in place, digitalisation can provide new opportunities for Africa’s young people to enjoy a more equitable, sustainable and connected future.”

According the report, mobile data prices as a percentage of gross national income (GNI) per capita in Africa remain the highest in the world. In 2022, data-only mobile broadband basket prices as a percentage of GNI per capita in Africa stood at 5%, compared to 2.4% in the Americas and 0.4% in Europe.

“These issues are significant. But strategic interventions and innovative mind-sets can do a lot to lessen their impact on digital literacy. Interventions that are already boosting digital education success across the continent include different start-ups and initiatives that are leveraging solar power to address unreliable electricity, embracing satellites, wireless mesh networks and community networks to boost internet access and zero-rating digital learning platforms to make learning content available on mobile devices,” notes the report.

According to the Wireless Access Providers Association, the majority of South African schools have no internet connection for the purpose of teaching and learning, which ICT industry analysts fear will result in a national crisis due to the resultant unemployable youth.