Distance learning via the internet, or e-learning, is on the rise – not just in Europe and North America but also in sparsely populated areas in sub-Saharan Africa. This is particularly true in Ethiopia where there have been big investments in its telecommunications infrastructure in the past decade.
With more than 100m people, Ethiopia has shown high and steady economic growth rates. The average age of the Ethiopian population is around 19 years, but there is also a very high rate of illiteracy. The increasing relevance of Education Technology (EdTech) for sub-Saharan Africa, particularly via mobile phones, is set to bring access to education where it is needed: rural areas.
Mobile penetration throughout the country is still relatively limited. The Ethiopian government’s Growth and Transformation Plan is expected to see the number of mobile subscribers rise to 100m by the year 2020, the equivalent of one smartphone per person. With the rising use of mobile phones and other electronic devices comes the opportunity for a huge percentage of the population having access to mobile learning (M-learning).
Edtech in Sub-Saharan Africa
Learning online on is nothing new per se, but M-learning means that students can now access courses on mobile phones, tablets, and other hand-held devices. It brings e-learning to a whole new audience that was previously unable to access it due to inadequate internet coverage or just a lack of available computers.
The increasing international bandwidth and big improvements in fibre optic infrastructure have led to prices dropping, which makes mobile devices more affordable to more people.
M-learning and Massive Open Online Courses
As mobile devices have become faster, EdTech has raced to keep up with the technology, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) are growing both in number and in popularity. They provide the user with a choice of thousands of courses from the simplest spelling programmes to university degrees in medicine or electronics.
They were introduced in 2008 and are now the accepted standard in M-learning, and have been the most popular method of distance learning in Africa since 2012. Courses are available to anyone with a smartphone and internet connection and studying can be done at a time and in a place that suits the student best. Educational apps have the potential to provide interactive support from teachers and regular grading.
Advantages of M-learning
Probably the two biggest advantages of M-learning are the time and money saved. Students are not tied to attending a college or school as distance learning can be done at any time in any place. Quite apart from the freedom involved and travel time saved, Massive Open Online Courses are relatively inexpensive compared to formal school, college, or university courses.
The Future of M-Learning
Unfortunately, there will not yet be a dramatic rise in mobile based education applications in Ethiopia. The majority of the population simply cannot afford high education courses. First, basic education has to be established and the economic growth of the last few years needs to filter through into widely spread higher incomes.
Nevertheless, M-learning can be the needed sign of hope on the horizon. According to the World Bank, the country’s annual per capita income was $590 in 2015. Given the minimum investment of $20 for a starter online course, it is obvious that there is a big gap in disposable income that needs to be filled.
Finally, even if all this succeeds, there is still need for a substantial improvement of the higher education system with regards to low access hurdles and certified knowledge.