Thursday, 27 May 2010

eLearning conferences: marketing vs realism

An open answer to the eLearning Team Africa 

Photo impressions eLearning Conference Zambia 
May 2010   © ICWE GmbH  German organisers

Thank you for letting us know about your appreciation of our blog and for the invitation to Tanzania in 2011.

Let me ask, after following your conferences for several years: is the first priority for the organizers of the e-Conference Africa to focus on how to use ICT to the max to improve education in Africa? Or is it to serve the IT community, whose obvious aim is to get hardware and software installed everywhere?

Let us set things out clearly for the better.
To me, it seems the main problem with the eLearning Conference Africa is that, as organizers, you are not yet separating the aim of integrating computer technology at best in education from the aim of improving teaching.  
There is hardly any serious attention given to the short-comings, complexities and extremely high costs of setting up and maintaining digital learning as evidenced by rich countries’ experience. Such experience should send a clear warning to less affluent countries about the over-optimism and problems associated with introducing computer technology into their educational systems. On top of this there is the issue of developing a new and effective pedagogy which teachers can use to maximize the benefits of e-learning approaches.

Experts selected to make presentations and contributions at your conferences should be noted for their realistic assessments and advice about what is really achievable and what the first priorities should be if value for money is to be achieved. Such experts should be able to elaborate on strategies to overcome the most critical barriers first, instead of - excusez le mot - marketing the launch of unproven technologies and new gadgets as if these will achieve miracles on their own.

It appears that your conference events are set up to demonstrate that success with digital technologies will be immediate. And your reports afterwards confirm this feeling. When I meet with policy-makers in Africa, or with educationalists who have visited your conference and refer to what they encountered, I am baffled by their unrealistic expectations – as if they have been lifted out of reality. Often the notion is lacking that a step by step approach is paramount. Your e-conferences so far have promoted that naive and potentially damaging optimism displayed by many in the international IT community and industry.

Let us get a taste of your 2009 report, written under the glowing title: "eLearning Africa Conference Shows How ICTs Empower Education for All in Africa":   ... after three days of “sessions with world-class experts” ... “about the use of the vast potential of ICT to empower future generations of African children” ... “A Brilliant Mix of People, Opinions and Solutions" ... “Highlighting eLearning: Africa's innovative approach and setting the tone for future conferences” ... "Birthplace of numerous fruitful collaborations.”
The message is breath-taking: everything will change soon - just sign up for technology.

No lessons seem to be learned from the past or anywhere outside Africa. The denial reaches a level where one starts to wonder if the opposite is true. Is it really your aim to battle against the bitter realism found among your visitors one year earlier - in 2008? On your eLearning Conference in Ghana, 66% of participants agreed with the statement: 'Over the past decade the eLearning situation in Africa has hardly changed for the better' (eLearning 2020. 32 issues checked by M. Trucano, InfoDev World Bank and H. Fraeters, GDLN).

Optimism rules again in your announcements for the eConference 2010 in Zambia (no report yet, just photographs). I hope that your 2010 conference evaluation this time will emphasize realistic views on what is needed prior to succes. There must have been at least some attention to the debatable impact todays' computer-learning has on students’ learning and to the debate on what steps in the African context urgently have to be taken one after the other to achieve computer literacy (and digital learning) and other benefitis of computers to schools. Unrealistic yet costly ambitions result from unreal expectations about the potential of today's digital technology for improving teaching and learning of almost all school subjects.

You invite me to the 2011 eConference. For me it would be interesting to come - as for most visitors - when you have swapped your priorities from "ICT because of ICT" to: getting ICT to work on African schools effectively.

Please address the bitter realism that visitors report and the disappointing results from eLearning over the last decade. I am sure that the audience will appreciate it when your 2011 Conference in Tanzania gives centre stage to - what so far was second on your conferences: “the challenges and obstacles that technology brings to daily routines in education”.
Start with the educational management on the ministry and service institutes as for curriculum development, examunation and inspection: arrange speakers who can give direction for change and who have practical solutions for the vast preparations that are needed to effect change by this means. Be down to earth about what is needed and what is achievable now on ministries of education where e-mail and network problems are persistent and where toilets rarely flush. Have specialists elaborate “comprehensively” about the minimum requirements needed for the infrastructure needed for Internet access at the national level and then as a reliable element in teacher training and school and classroom practice. And deal head-on with the financial limitations of African countries and how they can overcome these as you “reflect the great potential of learning with technology”.
This will not cut investment in ICT but put it where it is needed first.

I can advise you about some key-note speakers who really have a message to share.
Success with your work - make your eConference really exciting for real progress!

Jan Krol - Visual Teach achievable ICT.

Teachers in developing economies need in their classrooms robust and reliable tools.
The Nationwide Visualisation Project introduces on highschools simple to use teaching aids.
What water erosion and silt?  Below one of the 2500 visuals: "Put on - take off".

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