Children run at a school in Lagos. More African kids are finishing primary school, but that’s just the beginning
Benedicte Kurzen—New York Times/Redux
May 19, 2016 12:09 PM EDT

In January, Liberia’s education ministry announced it had outsourced the country’s failing primary-education system to a privately run American educational company called Bridge International Academies. The $11 million, one-year pilot program launched a fevered debate about whether outsiders should design a national curriculum—and what responsibility a government has to educate its own populace.

But lost amid the outrage was a more important question, at least for Liberian students: Could Bridge’s digital learning program achieve what an impoverished Education Ministry could not? Instead of replacing or retraining Liberia’s poorly performing teachers—a typical though costly and time-consuming­ response—Bridge’s solution was to furnish them with a tablet-based, highly structured and standardized teaching script designed to give students the best education possible under the circumstances. Though based on rote learning, such a system could be quickly scalable, promising better education opportunities for a continent in desperate need.

While the proportion of children finishing primary school in sub-Saharan Africa has improved in recent years, the quality of their schooling has not. Schools are often underfunded and badly equipped. Teachers perform poorly, if they show up at all. Only 59% of the population is literate, compared with a global average of 84%. And even if primary and secondary education were to improve, there are only enough university spaces in Africa to absorb a small fraction of graduates.

That matters for all of us. By 2050, half the world’s youth—nearly 1 billion—will be in Africa. Without the jobs that come with a solid education, they could be a force of instability on the continent, instead of a driver for prosperity.

As the annual World Economic Forum on Africa convened in Kigali this May, many attendees looked to the potential of online education as a way to close the continent’s education gap. Even advocates of online learning recognize its ­limitations—studies show that people tend to learn best where teaching is interactive. But Africa’s education challenge is simply too great. “We don’t have a choice,” says Temitope Ola, head of the Swiss Institute of Technology’s Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for Africa program. Digital platforms can reduce the time it takes to train teachers—a good way to get as many people a basic level of education as quickly as possible. “If you can transform someone who is not a teacher into someone who can get the job done, it’s still better than having nothing at all.”

A MOOC tailored for African students could, in theory, bring great teachers to a much wider audience through the Internet, reducing the need for expensive brick-and-mortar universities. But not everyone is convinced. “Digital education has tremendous potential, but I don’t like this idea of people sitting in a dark room by themselves studying,” says Fred Swaniker, CEO of the African Leadership Group and founder of the newly launched African Leadership University in Rwanda. “I don’t think that will produce the quality of people needed to transform Africa.”

Swaniker didn’t need to look far for an example. One of the stars at the forum was an innovative new company that has pioneered a cheap and efficient system for transporting vital medical goods like blood and vaccines via specially designed drones. The project could radically change health care in Rwanda and beyond when it launches later this summer.

Zipline co-founder Will Hetzler attended Harvard University, one of the many U.S. universities now offering online access to its lectures for a global student body. But Hetzler says that the most valuable part of his Harvard education wasn’t the lectures but the interaction with peers and professors outside of class. “For MOOCs to work for Africa, it needs to be done in a way where you have much more interaction with a peer group,” he says. “That’s the most important component of the educational experience.”

Africans like to point out that one of the world’s biggest and oldest universities was founded in the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu. What made Timbuktu a major center of learning wasn’t just its vast library, but the fact that it was also a major crossroads of commerce that enabled the free exchange of ideas. So while fixing education in Africa starts with putting digital content in the hands of schoolchildren and their teachers, the effort can’t stop there. It has to ensure that those students are learning from each other, whether they are sitting in the same classroom with an engaged teacher, or linked into a virtual crossroads of interaction and ideas. If Africa wants to create a generation that will move the continent forward, it will have to invest in technology and teachers

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