Deploying e-learning to developing countries might initially sound paradoxical. After all those are countries that lack the infrastructure found elsewhere, so how could they support the state of the art in learning?
It turns out that the state of the art might be more forgiving to the lack of certain infrastructures, than past methodologies. And, even more importantly for developing nations, much more cost effective.
It’s something that we’ve seen in play these past 20 years. Poor African countries that lacked a wired telecommunication infrastructure, for example, found it easier and cheaper to adopt mobile telephony, to the point that 80% of the population owns a cellphone and even has access to data services.
E-learning is like that, in that it reduces costs traditionally associated with education (such as for classrooms and educational material), to the point that it becomes affordable to a developing nation. A connection to the internet, an LMS deployment and a few cheap PCs are all that is needed to give kids access to a vast array of educational material.
E-learning is also uniquely suited to some other challenges those nations face, such as deficient highway systems which make transporting kids from remote rural areas difficult (let’s not forget that some of the earlier uses of e-learning in the 20th century was to educate kids living in remote areas in the vast Australian expanses).
Besides basic education, developing nations can leverage e-learning for skills acquisition, something extremely important for countries that seek to increase competitiveness and employment, making them more attractive to foreign investments but also fostering a business and entrepreneurial culture adapted and catering to local needs.
In fact the sharp rise of e-learning adoption seen in African countries (which we’ll discuss below) can be partly attributed to the increased needs of their corporate sector, and the resulting need for skilled employees.
It’s not all roses though.
E-learning strategies used in Western countries cannot be adopted wholesale by developing countries, as the latter lack high speed internet access, cheap bandwidth, trained IT personnel, and, depending on the country or the area, even stable access to electrical power.
The initial cost of an e-learning deployment, too, while much reduced compared to building a traditional school and equipping it with schoolbooks and learning material, can still be quite substantial for a developing country, a poor prefecture or even war-stricken zones. In this case, international organizations (such as UNESCO) and NGO efforts, like the One Laptop Per Child initiative, can help tremendously.
Another challenge is in motivating students, which can be problematic in traditionally rural areas that weren’t open to education before.
E-learning might be an asset in this regard, as students have been reported to get especially engaged with their computers, to the point of being able to hack them in a short time (without anybody teaching them how to) in order to expand their capabilities.
The revolution has started
Market research already reveals Africa as the leader in e-learning growth, with a forecasted 15% annual growth rate for the next 4 years, and individual countries such as Senegal and Zambia exhibiting up to 30% growth in e-learning reach and deployments.
There are several recent developments that helped facilitate this growth, the major one being state investments in the internet infrastructure, and especially fiber optic connectivity between regions, that lowered internet access costs to reasonable levels (previously satellite access, which is prohibitively expensive, was the primary connectivity medium).
Other factors that we see play out in Africa and other developing regions, in Asia and Latin America, is increased competition between telecoms and ISPs that lower prices to attract customers, resulting in increased adoption of internet and mobile technologies. Especially the latter is expected to play a large role in advancing e-learning in developing nations.
Despite initial hurdles and challenges, the future looks promising for e-learning adoption in the developing world. In fact, if the current growth rates continue, some developing countries might soon pass Western countries in e-learning adoption.
Decreasing internet costs and access to cheaper, more sophisticated, computers and tablets, will only help in this regard. And the new, better educated generation that will emerge, will help bootstrap an even more advanced system for the next one.