Development 11 April 2017

Internet for Education in Africa: Helping Policy Makers to Meet the Global Education Agenda Sustainable Development Goal 4

Executive Summary

This report reviews the potential implications of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in general, and the Internet in particular, for education in Africa. The Internet is a crosscutting enabler for education. It provides unparalleled access to information, and facilitates connections to educational resources, virtual labs, ideas and people. However, access to the Internet is not distributed equitably around the world. The African region is one of those lagging very much behind in bringing Internet connectivity to schools, colleges and out of school learners.

The report assesses how the Internet is being used in the education sector in this region and elsewhere, and how it can be harnessed to address the pressing needs of the education sector in Africa within the framework of the Global Education Agenda (the Sustainable Development Goal 4) adopted by the United Nations. It provides recommendations on the roles of policy makers in encouraging learning powered by the Internet over the next decade.

Why Does the Internet Matter to Learning in Africa?

Education is the basis for social and economic development. For Africa, a skilled workforce that utilizes ICTs effectively is a key factor in determining its competitiveness in the global digital economy and for harnessing its natural resources for sustainable growth.

The region faces considerable challenges in education ranging from the absence of quality teachers, outdated or unavailable learning and teaching materials, and inadequate physical space (school infrastructure) for fast-growing learners. Over 110 million school children between 6-18 years of age are out of school in Africa. Thirty-seven million young people require technical and vocational training and/or other forms of education that facilitate paths to their employment. Only about 6 percent of secondary school graduates find places in higher education in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Sustainable Development Goal for Education (SDG4) commits countries to addressing these challenges and attaining universal pre-primary, primary and secondary education and gender equity, and promoting youth learning for employability. Such commitments require innovative approaches that go beyond simply building more educational institutions. One such innovative approach involves using educational technology in various ways.

The opportunities for using the Internet for learning are numerous in Africa. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), more than a quarter of the African population (341 million) had access to the Internet as of 2016, the majority of which are potential Internet learners. Over half the population has access to mobile phones. Countries have also seen improved broadband connectivity at national levels (through national backbone networks) and internationally through a variety of submarine cables that landed on the western and eastern coast of the continent over the last decade. There is enough broadband capacity that can be used to serve the countries’ efforts to meet Sustainable Development Goals in general, and to facilitate interactive and equitable learning in particular.

The full integration of ICTs and leveraging the Internet for education requires clear vision and strategy, and most importantly, commitment accompanied with investment in equipment, broadband connectivity, learning resources, and technical support.

Awareness of what is possible and what is already available for parents and teachers is also crucial for students to benefit from the vast learning resources already available on the Internet.

The Internet Society’s goal is to make the Internet available to everyone, everywhere, especially to those constrained by lack of access to infrastructure, due to high costs, limited skills and absence of locally relevant content. Internet Society has developed an Internet Enabling Environment Framework[1] that provides overall guidance to developing countries for addressing these challenges. The Framework highlights the necessity of encouraging infrastructure investment, fostering skills and entrepreneurship, and establishing supportive governance for the Internet ecosystem. This policy paper aims to contribute to Internet Society’s efforts in promoting access to the Internet, with a particular focus on clear and holistic policies for ICT in education in Africa.

Lessons from Global Practices in Integrating ICT in Learning

The last two decades have seen a variety of innovations in education delivered over the Internet. Many countries, including Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Dominica, Finland, Ghana, India, Kenya, Korea, Malaysia, Namibia, Nepal, Peru, the Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, Turkey, Tanzania, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay and Zambia have been making progress in drawing up comprehensive polices for ICT in education, providing students and teachers with necessary equipment (e.g. one-to-one computing), connecting schools to the Internet and supporting the development of National Research and Education Networks (NRENs). Progress with Open Educational Resources (OER), Massive Open Online Classes (Courses), cloud computing, and mobile learning has also created options for expanding learning opportunities anywhere and anytime.

The experience of these countries highlights the importance of a holistic and integrated approach to ICT introduction into the entire education system, the necessity for graduation from collective ICT access in schools through computer labs towards one-to-one computing, and the importance of blending online learning with face to face interaction with teachers. These experiences also stress the centrality of teachers’ professional development and incentives. The experience in Uruguay, detailed in this paper, for example, suggests that thousands of ICT volunteers can be mobilized to address the two fundamental challenges facing massive ICT introduction in schools: maintenance, and content creation and adaptation.

Furthermore, global experiences show that access to ICTs and adoption of learning materials should be paired with clear guidelines for measurement and assessment of ICT in education. The growing use of videos and interactive platforms available through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other forms of Open Educational Resources also means the lowbandwidth environments in many countries in Africa cannot support interactive (gamified) lessons; thus efforts should be made to improve broadband connectivity in the region.

State of Internet for Learning in Africa

There is no reliable data on the use of the Internet for learning in Africa. Investment in ICT in education to date involved the rollout of Schoolnet projects and the establishment of NRENs. Schoolnet projects typically begin with equipping selected “league schools” with computer labs, training teachers, and where possible, providing students and teachers with learning materials.

Despite efforts over the last two decades, there has been limited success in rollout of ICTs and the Internet in African schools, because of lack of resources and the absence of a holistic and integrated vision and strategy. There is a great need for governments to advance inclusive knowledge societies, taking into account the Internet universality principles adopted by the UNESCO’s General Assembly that advocate for a human rights-based open and accessible Internet to all.[2]

It should be noted that the progress varies from one country to another. The improved broadband connectivity in countries like Botswana, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia has already enhanced learners’ and teachers’ access to the Internet. In other countries, connections to the Internet are limited. Despite the promises and significant penetration of mobile phones across the continent, mobile learning did not take off in Africa, because of high communications costs, low bandwidth, low penetration of smart phones and the absence of locally relevant applications on mobile devices.

The situation in the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) institutions is not very much different. In the TVET environment, there is a tendency to treat ICTs as a vocation rather than an enabler for learning. Internet access is confined to computer labs or libraries of the TVET institutions.

Internet access has been improving in higher education institutions, thanks to efforts by champions in establishing National Research and Education Networks, and due to the funding from development partners such as the European Commission and the World Bank. However, the progress with NREN formation varies considerably, with only universities in Algeria, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia attaining acceptable degrees of access comparable to their peers in developing south (i.e. Asia and Latin America).

Governments’ lack of strategic vision and their limited capacity in terms of drafting holistic policies and strategies on learning powered by technology is one of the constraints to date. The efforts to bring gender equity as well as promoting equitable access to disabled people and ensuring child safety are very low in Africa. Efforts are underway in many countries to collect Educational Management Information Systems (EMIS) data; yet this has not been used effectively to monitor the progress in education in general, and to assess the impact of ICT use in particular.

Role of Policy Makers in Unlocking the Potential of the Internet for Learning

Policy makers have crucial roles in creating the necessary ecosystem for ICT integration in education. The improved connectivity in the region and the vast learning resources that are available over the Internet can be harnessed to advance access and quality of education in Africa. Policy makers primarily need to articulate a holistic vision for a blended form of learning by crafting and implementing an ICT for education policy that covers the entire spectrum of learning (pre-primary, primary, secondary, TVET, higher education, distance, on the job and lifelong learning). Through the ICT in education policy:

  • Policy makers need to address three interlinked areas proposed by the Internet Society Enabling Environment Framework – namely, promoting infrastructure investment, fostering entrepreneurship and skills, and promoting supportive governance.
  • Policy makers need to ensure affordable broadband connectivity is available to schools, colleges and universities to facilitate real time interaction. Efforts are also needed to extend access to electricity, that often constrains the use of Internet for learning. It is also essential policy makers advocate for and promote 21st-century buildings that make blended forms of learning a reality.
  • Regulators and decision makers need to create an enabling environment for private sector investment in infrastructure and content. They need to set the principles and rules that promote services, applications and human capacity development.
  • ICT in education initiatives should also ensure that teachers are given a prominent role, their skills upgraded, and incentives put in place to reward their efforts in ICT integration in teaching, learning and assessment processes.
  • Policy makers need to strive to participate in the global efforts for promotion and exchange of Open Educational Resources (OERs) as outlined in the Paris Declaration of OER. They need to support local efforts that promote creation, adaptation and exchange of learning resources.
  • To promote inclusion and attain the educational goals of SDGs, attention should be given to gender equity and unconstrained access to learning powered by technology to disabled people. Furthermore, there is a need for addressing digital safety issues, either through capacity building for youth, teachers and children and/or by creating legislative frameworks and enforcing them. Governments need to support all technical, legal and institutional means to reduce risks to children.
  • A significant gap exists in applying ICTs for job creation and using it for training youth to tap into global ICT Enabled Services. This requires initiatives that stimulate a blended form of learning that combines traditional and online education in TVET institutions, for example by encouraging access to state of the art education available through MOOCs and other Open Educational Resources.
  • Policy makers need to stimulate NRENs by supporting access to broadband infrastructure, and ensuring that budgets for NRENs are allocated centrally. Regulators can also play a great role by ensuring that NRENs and schools have access to high bandwidth under favourable commercial terms, allocating a portion of the Universal Service Funds and providing them with preferential access to the radio frequency spectrum.
  • Data and research are key to assess the impact of the investment of ICTs in education. Policy makers need to invest in data gathering on ICT access and use by students and teachers, and support centers of excellence that undertake research and disseminate it to improve learning from previous experiences.


[1] Internet Society, A Policy Framework for Enabling Internet Access
[2] Unesco, Outcome Documents of the “Connecting the Dots: Options for Future Actions” Conference 

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