Landline Schools: Balancing Innovations in Educational Quality and Access
by Bradley Broder, Kenya Education Fund
The remote Kenyan village I called home from 1999-2001 had just one reliable phone line located in a Catholic Church. The Priest there allowed me to accept incoming calls from my parents in New York every other Sunday at 7 p.m. If I missed that call, which happened on occasion, two long weeks would pass before that phone would ring again. I would feel terrible knowing that my parents probably assumed I was dead, or worse! If only I could have updated my status or texted them a thumbs-up + smiley face from my cell phone, they would have know the reason I missed their call was that I got held up at the pub playing cards and eating goat meat. The most basic mobile phones, however, would take another five years to reach that part of Africa, and ten years for smartphones to enter the fray.
Today, 85 percent of Africans have mobile phones compared with 2 percent who had a fixed landline in their home prior to 2002. Imagine for a second that in the 125 years following Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone, virtually nobody on the African continent had access to one. And while the past decade of mobile technology has allowed Africa to leapfrog landlines altogether, the continent missed out on five generations of landline communication and the immeasurable contributions to social and economic development that came with it. But Africa has shown tremendous resilience. To its credit, Africa boasts seven of the world’s ten fastest growing economies since cellphones became ubiquitous on the continent fewer than ten years ago.
What can the example of phones in Africa teach us about the educational deficit in Africa? Much like landlines, schools across Africa have been reserved for the privileged few with widespread poverty preventing access for the rest. While 15 Africans countries have abolished school fees since 2000, the Africa-America Institute claims that no African country has achieved universal primary education (2015), leaving 38 million children of primary school age out of the classroom. Equally concerning is the state of learning for those who are in school. The Brookings Institution estimates that 61 million primary school students will reach adolescence not having achieved basic literacy and numeracy skills. For those fortunate enough to complete primary school, the chances of continuing on to high school are bleak. Africa has the world’s lowest high school enrollment rate at just 28 percent. Paradoxically, African governments devote a larger share of their budgets to education than other region (18.4 percent). Kenya, which offers free schooling only up to grade 8, ranks 28th in the world in education investment, spending 6.6 percent of GDP, ahead of UK (36th) and US (ranked 63rd).
Mobile phones became affordable for many Africans nearly a decade after every American was able to purchase one. Since then, mobile technology has not only connected more Africans with each other, it has also connected them with more information and services than ever before. Banks, hospitals and schools – all in short supply across Africa – have leveraged technology to provide more people with access to their services, leapfrogging traditional brick and mortar institutions that are too expensive to build or maintain. Take M-PESA, Kenya’s vanguard mobile banking platform, which has essentially obviated the need for traditional banks (and even cash), allows Kenyans to text money to each other, pay utility bills and take out loans. Thanks to M-PESA, the Global Findex Database estimates Kenya’s banked population to be 75 percent - well above the global average of 62 percent. Smartphone apps like Matitbabu, which helps diagnose Malaria, or MedAfrica, a mobile pocket clinic, probably save lives. Though none of these apps can completely replace the need for actual banks and hospitals, they have succeeded in eliminating many of the physical and economic impediments to accessing their basic, lower quality, services.
With education, however, the reverse seems to be true. Addressing Africa’s educational deficit requires improvements in both quality AND access, yet innovations in education have enhanced educational service while doing little to fill classrooms. For example, apps for basic phones and tablets like Eneza or eLimu, help students prepare for exams and improve literacy skills. Bridge International Academies, with more than 300 private primary schools in Kenya, delivers high quality curriculums on tablets to all their teachers while charging students the equivalent of $6 per month (in a country where primary school is “free”). In time, these value-added tools may improve test scores, but only for the lucky few already attending school.
My organization, Kenya Education Fund, has helped keep more than 2,300 Kenyan students in high school with scholarships and life skills coaching. Much more is needed across the continent. The World Bank estimates at least 10 million African students a year will drop out of school over the next decade. As technology and innovation continue to improve the quality of education happening in Africa, these efforts must be matched by broadening access to school if African countries expect to meet the growing demand for skilled labor over the next 20 years. Like landlines, Africa cannot afford to miss another five generations of school while it waits for an innovation that will allow it to skip schools altogether.
Bradley Broder is the Executive Director of Kenya Education Fund.