Is a 21st Century Education even possible in Africa?

Recently, ICS hosted Jeff Utecht for a week-long inaugural COETAIL course. Teachers and staff members discussed connected learning, web tools, student engagement, etc. They created blog sites, collaborated on online documents, and more. It was a week of thought-provoking and engaging materials – a successful start to an exciting program here in Addis Ababa.

There were a few hiccups. Our connection to the internet is good, but can be subject to slow-downs and interruptions. We live with that & work around it. We use locally-hosted services and tools and have backup plans for when we need to use cloud-based services. It works for us, and we do some great work with our students. It can be problematical for a visitor, however. Jeff no doubt experienced that and showed his frustrations with a tweet: “Question: Can you be a ’21st Century School’ without a stable internet connection?”

He got a few responses, all a hearty “no!” All the respondents were from the United States. (Comically, one of them was saying “no” while complaining about his own connectivity frustrations in the US.) Connectivity in the US – as in Europe and much of Asia – is pretty much a given for many people. It’s so widespread that it is pretty much taken for granted and assumed – like the air, clean drinking water, or the presence of a nearby Starbucks.

Here in Ethiopia – like much of Africa – it is not so much a given. Connectivity here is definitely growing and improving, but it is a long way from being omnipresent. People do get on to the internet and get access to online tools, but it is not always reliable. If you depend on getting connected at a specific time and date, you might be disappointed.

technology & tradition

So does this mean that Africa is doomed to be forever behind the rest of the world? Is the hope to provide a 21st Century Education to our students a quixotic one?

I say, emphatically, “No.” And I disagree with the underlying assumptions of the people who think otherwise.

What is a 21st Century education? Does it mean an always-on connection? Does it require 24/7 access to Twitter, Facebook, GMail, etc.? Or is it something different? Something more?

There are varying definitions for “21st Century Education” – there are almost as many different definitions as there are educators. There are plenty of sites and organizations that will give you a definition, a list of skills, a set of teacher tools, and a curriculum – sometimes for a very reasonable fee! 🙂 In the absence of a definitive explanation, here’s one typical list from 21st Century Schools :

21st century skills learned through our curriculum, which is interdisciplinary, integrated, project-based, and more, include and are learned within a project-based curriculum by utilizing the seven survival skills advocated by Tony Wagner in his book, The Global Achievement Gap:

  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Collaboration across Networks and Leading by Influence
  • Agility and Adaptability
  • Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  • Effective Oral and Written Communication
  • Accessing and Analyzing Information
  • Curiosity and Imagination

Funny, nowhere does that say “constant connectivity.” Sure, “Accessing Information” implies a good connection, as does “Collaboration” But what about “Adaptability” or “Initiative”? Don’t those almost imply an unreliable connection? Or how about “Problem Solving”? If everything just works smoothly all the time, then what problems does one solve?

I’m being too flippant. That’s really unfair to Jeff (who I admire and respect) and other high-quality educators. (Sorry, Jeff! Chalk it up to my decades living on this continent. I love the places & I love the people and I put up with the frustrations because the joys of living here far outweigh them.)

When people talk about a “21st Century Education,” they’re not really talking about getting online. They’re talking about a more creative approach to education, one that people have experimented with for the past century but have never been able to make mainstream. Maria Montessori was a 21st Century Educator. So was Seymour Papert. So was Piaget and Dewey, if you think about it. When we talk about 21st Century Education, we’re really talking about constructivism, inquiry, collaboration, problem-based learning and the like. The nemesis of 21st Century Education is not an unreliable connection to the internet. It’s lecturing. Teaching to the test. Multiple-choice quizzes.

So if you want to offer a 21st Century Education in Africa, you may have to problem-solve and be adaptable. The web-based tools that served you well in New York City may fail you in Nairobi. What is effective in London may be unavailable in Lusaka. A technique that succeeds in Beijing may be unworkable in Brazzaville. Instead, you may have to show your agility and try some other tools. Funnily enough, you may find these other tools to be just as useful …perhaps even more so. (We don’t have Starbucks in Addis Ababa, but I think you’ll find that a good cup of local bunna is infinitely better than anything you’ll find in Starbucks any day!)

researched, written and posted in Africa!

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