Why Western Africa Is Investing In Digital Education

Overview of Dakar from the observation deck

In a recent trip to Dakar, Senegal,  I worked with a startup organization that was focused on bringing digital education to youth in sub Saharan Africa. As part of this assignment my team and I interviewed various schools, educators, administrators and parents in Senegal to understand the school systems in western Africa. What we found was that 65% of school children will eventually be employed in jobs that have yet to be created.

What was seen as a key struggle is that most of the growth in jobs were in science and math though most students in western Africa pursue degrees in art and literature. In addition, with current standards of education, students in these areas struggle to compete with international standards.

When we spoke with educators in the area we uncovered that there is a lack of focus in schools on developing the necessary soft skills in students such as problem solving, critical thinking and team building, coupled with hard skills like coding and robotics. Most schools still followed the traditional teaching method of, “teacher-student-blackboard,” which does not build the skills or the confidence in students that is needed to be competitive in the future job market. When we mentioned investments in digital education with them, the problem was that most school administrators did not have a clear understanding of what Digital Education was and how to implement it in their schools.

What is digital education?

Just by searching through the internet, it is hard to find a common definition for Digital Education. There are definitions offered for the more common term of digital literacy. The American Library association’s digital literacy task force defines digital literacy as the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.

Though Digital literacy is a crucial part of Digital Education, this definition does not describe digital education as a whole. The common understanding is that digital education only focuses on using and comprehending information from the internet and online applications and knowing how to leverage devices such as tablets. Digital education is much more than that. Digital education focuses on developing hard skills like programming and computing while increasing soft skills such as problem solving, teamwork, and critical thinking, all while fostering creativity within the individual.

For some reason, creativity has become a four-letter bad word that shouldn’t be spoken with math and science. The reality is, it does not have to be a choice on whether to invest in one area at the expense of another. Creativity and art have their place coupled with math and science. This is a popular reason why the term STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is being replaced with STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, ARTS, and Math).

The creative aspect cannot be forgotten. For youth to be truly competitive and capable of advancing in the future workforce, they need to have the full understanding of digital education: Fostering creativity and self-expression through the innovative use and understanding of digital tools and technologies.

How companies in Africa are investing in Digital Education

In western Africa, the need in investing in digital education initiatives is recognized, and organizations are rising to the occasion to fill this gap in skill sets. One such organization is Ateliers Des Genies. Ateliers Des Genies provides various learning programs to youth, mainly based on technological science. They also partner with schools to help to prepare youth in sub Saharan Africa for the jobs of the future as well as for everyday life interacting and consuming digital tools and technology. Many schools in western Africa are partnering with organizations such as these to fill the knowledge gap that is making African students less competitive compared to their international counterparts.

While talking to parents of students in Senegal, there is an understanding of the importance of developing these skills in their children, but there is not a great understanding of where to go to fill these needs if it’s not available directly in schools. That’s why more organizations who have the knowledge and understanding of digital education, like Ateliers Des Genies, are building extracurricular activities and partnering with schools to make digital education courses available. The need has also come to the attention of the government, as the Ministry of Education in Senegal is actively looking to invest in bringing digital education programs to public and private schools in the next three to five years with the goal to build more scientists in Senegal.

Support from the Developed World

When talking to different startups and social enterprises in western Africa who are invested in digital education, what we discovered is that the biggest need is not monetary. Those who are passionate in bringing digital education to Africa have the means or know how to fundraise to meet their financial goals. What they are lacking is the business acumen to execute. More companies in the developing areas of the world need the guidance and advice of organizations in the developed world to make their initiatives succeed.  With investments of time from organizations and communities who understand digital education in developed countries, youth in all areas of the world can have a fair chance in a future job market that is dependent on digital education.