COVID-19 continues to disrupt long-standing and little-questioned beliefs and practices related to every sphere of our lives – including how we educate our children.
Around the world, abrupt school closures affected hundreds of millions of children. Without the traditional in-person classroom experience to rely on, teachers, education officials, and parents have had to develop and promote new ways to keep students learning.
In Africa, that is accelerating the adoption of Information and communications technologies (ICT) which are sustaining learning for millions of students. These technologies are enabling, supporting, and supplementing the important work of teachers.
Subscribers double, lessons skyrocket
In Kenya, for example, two leading educational technology companies have seen a surge in demand for their products. Eneza Education is a company that offers revision and learning material via basic feature phones. The company has digitized the entire Kenyan curriculum from Grade 4 to high-school completion in order to offer it in “bite-sized” modules shared via SMS messages. In the wake of the pandemic, the number of subscribers to Eneza more than doubled to 1.2 million, which represents nearly 1 in 5 students in Eneza’s target demographic—those in Grade 4 through high-school. The total number of lessons taken through Eneza Education also rose dramatically, going from 360,000 to 4.3 million monthly.
The company has adapted to meet demand. One of their flagship features, Ask a Teacher, allows students to send a text with questions about what they are learning to teachers on standby who respond. Before the pandemic, Eneza received about 2,000 questions a day and answered 80 percent of them within five minutes or less. Now, they receive more than 10 times that number, over 20,000 questions a day, but they have maintained rapid response rates, attending to 60 percent of questions within five minutes. In the last weeks, the company has partnered with Safaricom, Kenya’s largest telecommunications provider, to make its content available free of charge, as a way to support students through this crisis.
Video lessons and student assessments at home
Litemore Kenya has undergone a similar journey. School closures in the country led to a dramatic increase in demand for its products available under the Zeraki brand. The number of downloads of its Zeraki Learning tool, which provides students with video lessons and assessment tests from top-rated Kenyan teachers, skyrocketed from 998 downloads in February to 100,000 downloads in the first month following closure of the country’s schools.
The platform, which was originally designed for those who have been out-of-school or were lagging behind the curriculum, is bridging a critical gap during this COVID period. What is encouraging, is that much of the surge downloads is attributable to schools promoting the product by sending messages to parents about the Zeraki Learning platform and asking students to complete assignments posted on the app. The company has also seen increased word-of-mouth recommendation by other students.
Serving all individually, including the least advantaged
The situation is the same outside of Kenya, in other African countries. In South Africa, Siyavula Education , a company devoted to furthering technology-empowered learning, has seen as much as a 400% increase in the number of questions its automated platform sends daily to students who have subscribed.
Access to the platform for individuals taking mathematics in Grades 10-12 has been free of charge since January, thanks to a partnership with telecommunications company MTN. The soaring usage, however, only occurred after schools in the country were shut down in March, forcing learning to go online.
Siyavula Education is a Cape Town-based company that offers school learners an adaptive practice service that guides them through math, physics, and chemistry courses in senior high school. The platform gives a student problems to solve at her or his education level, marks the responses, and chooses the next, more complex problem based on how the student performs, in effect providing a personalized learning journey.
The pandemic, and the conditions it has created, have expedited teachers’ exposure to EdTech platforms. Teachers who would previously have been skeptical about ICT as a supplement to their work are now seeing first-hand its benefits in real time.
Despite the challenges presented by the digital divide in Africa, Siyavula is managing to reach low-income communities. The platform reaches 18 percent of the young people who are most socio-economically disadvantaged.
Assessing the wider implications
Will this demand be sustained beyond COVID-19 and what does it mean for the education sector at large? Questions like these are top-of-mind for us at the Mastercard Foundation Centre for Innovative Teaching and Learning in ICT. The companies above are part of an inaugural cohort of EdTech Fellows and among the leading education technology companies on the continent. The huge increase in demand for their products shows that there is a real appetite for quality education that is cost-effective and delivered at scale to students that need it most.
It also shows the potential for educators and education technologies to operate synergistically, and that there is capacity for agile adaptation in the education sector if and when necessary. As the current crisis expedites the uptake of educational technologies, and as more parents, teachers, and students are exposed to the potential benefits of e-learning, it could represent a real turning point for education on the continent.