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Adaptive Learning and Education in Africa

Posted in Adaptive Learning on August 10, 2016 by

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This summer, I traveled to Nairobi to represent Knewton at Education Innovation Africa, a gathering of educators, businesspeople, and government officials from Kenya and other African nations working toward the fourth of 17 Sustainable Development Goals: providing “inclusive and quality education for all” by 2030.

Knewton is proud to be a part of a growing wave of education innovation in Africa, supporting students and teachers while working toward our mission of personalizing education for everyone. Knewton entered the African market through a partnership with Top Dog Education, which has launched adaptive learning products for students in South Africa studying math and science in grades 4–12. Top Dog Math and Top Dog Science are both powered by Knewton. Top Dog is looking to bring these adaptive learning applications to students in other English-speaking African countries, including Nigeria, Zambia, and Kenya.

When it comes to technology, Kenya is a hub of innovation that understands both the needs and constraints of its society. M-PESA, a digital currency transmitted over mobile phones, has become a standard way of doing business.

This spirit of innovation extends to the field of education. The Kenyan government is rolling out a digital literacy program, bringing laptops and tablets to cities and the countryside, and it is embracing cloud computing to lower costs while expanding access.

Kenya is at one end of the spectrum of a large and diverse continent. As a whole, sub-Saharan Africa is struggling to provide children with even the most basic education. The region has half of the world’s 60 million out-of-school children of primary school age, according to the World Bank, and nine of the ten lowest national enrollment rates in the world. In many places girls often lack the same opportunities as boys.

Going to school doesn’t necessarily mean children are learning, as qualified teachers are hard to find. Teacher absenteeism is rampant: On any given day, 30 percent of teachers in Kenya do not show up for school. Only one in four sub-Saharan children attend secondary school, which limits the ability to train more teachers who can educate future generations.

The promise of digital technology to improve education was a recurring theme at the Education Innovation Africa conference. In Africa, as anywhere, students can benefit from adaptive course materials that can meet their individual needs at any given moment. With learning analytics, teachers can better support their students. Any classroom will have students with a range of knowledge and skills, but the need to differentiate instruction is greater when class sizes are larger and several grades share one teacher and one room. Mozambique, for example, has 55 students per teacher, down from 65 a decade ago.

Adaptive learning has even more to offer Africa given the incomplete educational infrastructure and long-term teacher shortages. Places that never had roads or telephone lines have seen widespread adoption of mobile phones, which will allow the delivery of adaptive learning to places where textbooks are scarce. There is nothing like studying one-on-one with a teacher who understands you. But for students without access to a teacher, self-paced adaptive learning is far better than nothing. It’s a promising option for national education systems in Africa working toward Sustainable Development Goals.

Technology was only part of the agenda at the innovation conference, and it will be only part of the solution. As Knewton’s Jose Ferreira has written,  innovation that lowers barriers to education comes in many forms.

But as more classrooms and families in Africa get access to the internet and as the barriers to delivering quality course materials crumble, African students can access the educational resources they need. Publishers and content providers in the region will understand the needs of and constraints on their students, and Knewton stands ready to power the digital learning products that help every student in Africa achieve their full potential.

Eva-Maria Olbers works at Knewton in business development, focusing on Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.