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JOHANNESBURG - Society is not as it was a generation ago, much less several years ago. 

People are working longer hours for less pay, and the proliferation of smartphones, social media, AI, and improvements in general access to the internet is influencing global workforce dynamics.

Looking back at my fairly recent schooling experience, I now realise that in certain ways the privileged education I received didn't adequately prepare me for the demands of today's working world. Given that most South Africans entering their thirties - I fall into that age bracket - haven’t had access to the same education as I did, they are in all likelihood even less prepared.

As a journalist, I routinely take for granted how difficult it has become to distinguish fake news from what is real, or forget how fortunate I am to be able to use online search tools effectively. The truth is, unless you constantly adapt and learn new skills, you will be left behind.

So, how does the future meet the present in the classroom, lecture theatre, or seminar room? How do we bridge the gap in education for today's world? While there is no magic wand, educational technology, or "edtech", seems to have tremendous potential to bridge the divide.

Integrated

I recently spoke to Kola Olajide, the Nigerian co-founder and chief executive of Johannesburg-based Clock Education, a start-up that focuses on integrated e-learning.

Olajide believes in the power of e-learning, because he feels it “has the potential to disrupt conventional training methodologies in learnings institutions and the workplace”.

There are three reasons for Olajide’s enthusiasm for edtech:

* Cost effectiveness.

* Ease of distribution.

* User accessibility.

“We are starting to see organisations across different sectors embrace a learning culture that encourages curiosity and knowledge sharing, and this trend will continue to grow,” Olajide said.

Clock Education emphasise the importance of a guided path for e-learning, and the need for e-learning to be dynamic and bespoke depending on the learner.

Each person has a learning style unique to them, absorbing knowledge and taking instruction differently. Being able to design an educational programme fit for purpose according the needs of the student can, from face value, make education more efficient and effective.

Even slight improvements in generational education would have a long-term economic and social benefit. Former president Nelson Mandela was not speaking in generalities when he said: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”. He was also referring to the real-world effects on society broad education can achieve.

Olajide further explained that e-learning allows for “learning dynamism”, where the learner sets goals, or what Olajide calls “target proficiency levels” for a particular month or time-period.

Blended

“We are just getting started. With artificial intelligence and the API economy on the rise, the potential for learning experiences to be blended into our day-to-day activities is phenomenal,” Olajide explained.

E-learning is also being changed by the increasing influence of Big Data and analytics. Clock Education make their own systems more efficient through leveraging such technology, and the learning process is made more efficient for pupils as well. Learning programmes will become increasingly adaptive and change the more the pupil uses them.

Another factor that suggests changes in education are inevitable is the investment money eagerly chasing profits within the sector. The success enjoyed by the likes of Curro Schools, the South African private school network, underscores the attractiveness of the sector in investment terms, and demonstrates how ripe for disruption it is. With the government struggling to meet its obligations in terms of providing citizens with affordable, high-quality education, the private sector has moved in to meet the need - albeit for the privileged elite.

Meanwhile, tech start-ups are keenly joining the edtech party. Snapplify for Education is a division of Cape Town-based start-up Snapplify.

Snapplify is an edtech company which is focused on content distribution, mobile publishing, and innovation for digital education. Lessons and lectures can be uploaded to the cloud, and because the platform allows off-line downloads, educational institutions can make significant savings in bandwidth costs when they opt-in to delivering learning materials via the channel.

Injini - another Cape Town-based start-up - aims to spur Africa’s future development via an edtech incubator which empowers teachers, entrepreneurs, and citizens to improve education through technology. The firm not only curates programming from across Africa that has the potential to raise educational standards, but also supplies direct funding and provides edtech support.

Commenting on the rise of edtech in June last year, Michael Goodman, group content development manager of the South African educational publishing house Via Afrika, wrote that while the country's edtech sector has been growing steadily over the past decade, not too many notable investors were taking notice. A notable exception is the venture arm of Johannesburg-based Naspers, given the $60million (R701.5m) the media giant invested in the Silicon Valley-headquartered online education marketplace, Udemy, in 2015.

According to Goodman, edtech attracts billions of dollars in funding, with the US being the biggest market. More revealing was Goodman’s assertion that about 28percent of public schools use computers and other devices to enhance learning.

Transform

“Too few use it to transform education into an experience that prepares learners for life in a future where artificial intelligence is predicted to take over jobs currently done by humans,” he said.

One aspect holding back e-learning is the perception that online courses have less merit compared to traditional teaching methods. Concerns about testing, grading, and assessment regarding e-learning and online courses are not wrong, and naturally prudent.

As Goodman notes, society as a whole needs to change its mindset about the transformative effects of e-learning.

“For example, students, accrediting institutions and companies need to be more willing to accept certificates and degrees obtained online as being as legitimate as those obtained through sitting in the same physical classroom as the instructor,” he says.

“Because, while poorly understood, digital education techniques can be more engaging and effective and therefore produce better outcomes than traditional methods.”

It is important to note that edtech isn't meant to replace other forms of education and will not have all the answers. The sector is incredibly nuanced, but as an additional tool that can potentially help those who can't access traditional education, its potential for effecting positive change is exciting.

If a teacher-less child can learn 90percent of what a teacher would have been able to teach them via an online program or course, that is 90percent more than that child would have learnt in the first place.

Even if that percentage is 50percent, or 30percent, or potentially 120percent, if e-learning creates the opportunity for a child to learn when they would not have learnt at all, that is transformative in itself.

Not too long after Goodman made this case last year, the New York-based Codeacademy - a free web and mobile-based platform that teaches employable digital skills to millions of users around the world - raised $30m in a Series C round of funding led by Naspers.

With all the home-grown start-up activity we’re seeing in the edtech space, one can’t help sensing that 2018 might well be a huge year for Africa’s e-learning industry.

Alan Watson is a contributing tech and innovation writer for AfricanTechRoundup.com. E-mail him on [email protected]

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

- BUSINESS REPORT