Covid-19 boosts Africa’s e-learning market

With schools and universities forced to give lessons virtually during lockdown, user numbers for e-learning apps have surged across Africa. Will McBain looks at the future of a growing market


With schools and universities forced to give lessons virtually during lockdown, user numbers for e-learning apps have surged across Africa. Will McBain looks at the future of a growing market

When Tade Samson went to primary school in Lagos, he would pray for strikes so he wouldn’t have to go to school. “Learning can be very stressful and laborious in this part of the world, but learning should not be an affliction,” he says.

A decade later at university, Samson found his progress hampered by limited resources and uninspiring teaching. He decided to research new learning strategies, and found success with spaced repetition – a technique to boost memory across increasing intervals – and gamification, which teaches students by using video gaming elements via online apps.

Armed with a degree in computer science, Samson and three friends built Quizac, an e-learning app which provides course materials in physics, maths and chemistry and other subjects on the Nigerian curriculum, enabling students to study and test themselves against up to 100 of their peers at the same time. 

Quizac is one of a plethora of African-made e-learning apps with surging user numbers during the Covid-19 pandemic, as governments seek to curb the spread of the virus by shutting down schools, and confining students to their homes.

Africa’s governments can ill afford a prolonged impact on the life chances of hundreds of millions of young people, so companies like Quizac, which has gained over 10,000 subscribers since its launch in November 2018, will increasingly be part of the future education mix, as more of Africa’s economies become digitised.

Quizac charges users to play their online quizzes, but players can recuperate fees through achieving top scores and gaining “gems” – which can be converted into cash rewards or airtime credit. Nigerian public school teachers design Quizac’s courses and material, and the firm says it is in negotiations with the Ministry of Education to agree on a partnership. 

“We’ve also got the technology that allows us to show a student what they should be learning more of, and weaker areas are addressed through spaced repetition of questions that a student struggles with, helping them learn at their own pace and build confidence.”

The global e-learning market is set to exceed $375bn by 2026, according to a report by Global Market Insights, with Africa’s e-learning market expanding 14% between 2011 to 2018. It’s now expected to reach $1.8bn by 2024.

Redesigning teaching and learning 

As the “edTech” sector steps up to provide solutions to closed schools and universities amid restricted government budgets, Nigeria’s minister of education Mallam Adamu Adamu has directed universities to reopen virtually, while First Bank of Nigeria presented 20,000 e-learning devices to the Lagos state government, a measure of how the public and private levers of power are deploying technology to redesign the modes of teaching and learning. South African telecommunication giant MTN has granted free access to online learning platforms for all university students across Africa. 

Yet student bodies and teaching unions are pushing back. The Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU) argues that e-learning is unaffordable, elitist, and dependent on reliable electricity. The president of Nigeria’s Academic Staff Union of Universities said digital courses run the risk of being “watered down”.

Opinions are split over the effectiveness of e-learning, but some data suggests that e-learning requires 40-60% less time to learn than classroom settings, according to the World Economic Forum, as it allows students to move at their own pace. But maintaining engagement with pupils and ensuring compliance with work can be difficult.   

Retraining teachers in new software and technologies, and maintaining contact with students, will be critical to greater uptake, analysts say.

Big players eye African markets

The e-learning software market is thriving worldwide, and for hardware and electronics companies like Taiwanese multinational Acer – the world’s top seller of Chromebooks (laptops, detachables and tablets powered by Chrome OS) – the pandemic means they will now shift their focus back to the continent, says Paul Collins, Acer’s country manager for the Middle East and Africa.

“Covid-19 is going to reintroduce markets in Africa that companies like Acer walked away from. We’re definitely betting on education as it will be a great stimulus of growth for the next five to eight years. We’ve got a full Chrome solution which has a very strong education platform, and I think we’ll get back into 10 inch tablets, and 8 inch tablets, where you can start getting the price of a device down to $20, $30 or $40, which would make a big difference to put that device in the hands of a child. So I think those markets will now open up.”

Collins says that a lack of partners in Africa and a focus elsewhere led Acer to reconsider its initial African push. To effectively implement e-learning on a wider scale today, key challenges need overcoming. 

The UN Broadband commission reports eight of the 10 countries with the lowest internet access in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa. The average broadband penetration of those eight countries sits at just 2%. UNESCO says 89% of students in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to household computers, and 82% lack internet access.

South Africa is the strongest early adopter of e-learning, made possible because 63% of the population are online, according to Statista, a market research company. But its neighbour Zimbabwe said internet usage was down to 57% in 2019, a decline of 5% in less than a year.

The ensuing pandemic has forced Zimbabwe’s government to push for a data price review to promote e-learning, although many schools and tertiary institutions have complied with a government directive to introduce online lectures, through their various e-learning platforms.

Many education ministries will struggle to afford mass purchases of Chromebooks and other vital technology, meaning that e-learning could become confined to the privately educated. Government initiatives to supply technology have met with mixed success – Rwanda launched a One Child One Laptop programme to eventually provide 2.5m children in primary school with learning devices, but it is estimated only 100,000 have been delivered.   

Where government finance is lacking, the private sector continues to offer support. Microsoft has trained over 31,000 teachers on ICT integration in Africa, as part of the Microsoft Partners in Learning programme, while the Acer for Education initiative has created a remote learning page for teachers to understand how to run remote learning and edTech Apps. 

“The role of the teacher is changing from being a deliverer of content, to being more of a mediator, social worker and psychologist,” says Collins.

“In future children will have VR headsets to allow them to sit at the steps of the forum, and listen to Aristotle deliver his speeches. But for now, tiny little changes like changing the keyboard to a lowercase set-up have shown a 25% improvement in literacy. With the digital divide increasing, I really hope African governments have taken note, and will see e-learning as a benefit, and a cost-effective solution to future education provision.”

Bridging the funding gap

During strict lockdown measures enforced in Zimbabwe, Amanda Marufu co-founded an innovative app to that she hopes will bridge the funding divide and circumvent the education challenges faced by students. With two colleagues, she built SMBLO, an app that charges individuals $1 per month to use, and lets teachers log on for free to conduct their lessons via the app, send out homework, tests, and course materials for download. 

SMBLO have signed up 1,200 students since May, and are in talks with schools in rural areas, and publishers, to expand their platform.

“Because of the pandemic, people are going to embrace e-learning much faster than what we would have done before,” says Marufu. “And because people are getting the chance to see the beauty of having a digital library, each student can actually have access to these books for much cheaper, which is beneficial for everybody.” 

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