The global e-learning market is set to exceed $375bn by 2026, according to a report by Global Market Insights, with Africa’s e-learning market expanding 14% between 2011 to 2018. It’s now expected to reach $1.8bn by 2024. As the “edTech” sector steps up to provide solutions to closed schools and universities amid restricted government budgets, Nigeria’s minister of education Mallam Adamu Adamu has directed universities to reopen virtually. In the private sector, First Bank of Nigeria presented 20,000 e-learning devices to the Lagos state government, and MTN has granted free access to online learning platforms for all university students across Africa.
The e-learning method is simple: teachers run virtual discussion among the students, assigns homework, and follows up with individual students. Sometimes these courses happen at a fixed time and sometimes each student can learn at their own time. In both cases, the teacher is supposed to provide opportunities for students to engage thoughtfully with the subject-matter, and students are expected to interact with each other virtually. The simplicity and ease of learning of this method is its greatest benefit, however, it is not without challenges.
Firstly, student bodies and teaching unions are split over the effectiveness of e-learning. The Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU) argues that e-learning is unaffordable, elitist, and dependent on reliable electricity and connectivity. The president of Nigeria’s Academic Staff Union of Universities said digital courses run the risk of being “watered down”. However, the World Economic Forum posits that e-learning requires 40-60% less time to learn than classroom settings, and it allows students to move at their own pace.
On the issue of time, there is an unexpected difference between school time and e-learning time. Students who formerly spent 8 hours in school can no longer stomach a two-hour virtual lecture. The disparity is the absence of the school’s “controlled environment”. Likewise, being in person with teachers and other students creates social pressures and benefits that can help motivate students to engage in learning activities. A Stanford study of college students found very little difference in learning for high-performing students in the online and in-person settings. On the other hand, lower-performing students performed meaningfully worse in online courses than in in-person courses.
For teachers, maintaining engagement with pupils and ensuring compliance with work and sustaining contact with students can be difficult. Schools also have to take up the burden of retraining teachers in new software and technologies. Students who struggle in in-person classes are even more likely to struggle online. Therefore, online teachers have to pay special attention, consider the needs of less-engaged students and work to engage them.
Regardless, these challenges do not nullify the benefit of e-learning as a cost-effective solution to future education provision. More importantly, it presents a unique opportunity for Africa to achieve its goal of delivering high-quality education to every African child. eLearning has the overwhelming potential to improve education systems in African countries. However, to maximize effectiveness, proper implementation along with strategies that focus on overcoming these key challenges is necessary. Once the potential of e-learning is tapped, the radical transformation of the African education system is possible.