Digital education can be a powerful purveyor of equality, personal development and peace, especially in conflict regions. We interviewed the teams behind two international cooperation programmes with impressive achievements in e-learning, showcased during the 2022 European Development Days.
Ensuring access to education
Digital technology has great potential to ensure access to education during health crises or conflict. It allows learners to benefit from distance education and gives them the freedom to decide the pace of their learning. By providing access to short- and mid-term courses, digital education offers alternative learning pathways to employment and can contribute to peacebuilding and strengthening resilience.
Digital education is a priority under the Global Gateway, an EU strategy that aims to promote (among other things) inclusive, quality education for women, girls and other vulnerable groups with low school attendance and tackle the global digital divide. The Global Gateway connects partners with major investments in infrastructure development, mobilising up to €300 billion by 2027 to create jobs, skills and better living conditions for people around the world. In addition, the EU has announced its 2021−2027 Digital Education Action Plan which recognises that the COVID-19 pandemic has widened inequality in education and training, exposing a global digital divide. The action plan aims to strengthen international cooperation on digital education, further solidifying the EU’s role as a global partner on education.
One example of how digital education can remove barriers to learning and has mitigated the impact of COVID and a security crisis is the Digital Innovation and Skills Hub (DISH). The international project1 is based in East Africa and provides an innovative e-learning platform for certificate courses that can be taken online or offline on a variety of devices. During the conflict in Tigray, which cut off the local population’s access to electricity and the internet, DISH enabled vulnerable young people in the region to participate in offline e-learning courses in their mother tongue.
Lessons learnt from the DISH project
The objective of DISH is to increase enrolment in certificate education among youth and women to boost their employability. The key for the project’s success can be found in the lessons learnt below.
There are three important factors that make DISH stand out as an educational platform in East Africa: its curricula are digital (i.e. they can be followed anytime, anywhere), adapted to learners’ local context, and designed to fit students’ needs. For example, to ensure student engagement in war-torn Tigray, DISH partner Mekelle University adapted the courses to the region’s culture, social and political history, as well as language and traditions. Based on a needs assessment, the courses cover relevant topics for local youth and women, such as community mental health, entrepreneurship, and peacebuilding and conflict resolution. DISH’s hybrid teaching approach allows students in Tigray to download and follow courses at their own pace, which is essential as they have limited and unreliable access to electricity and the internet.
“One shoe cannot fit all. You have to address the needs of your community, which means that you have to develop the course content based on the context. We have very good collaboration and communication between the team, the universities and the partners. We address all challenges collectively.” Dr Jamal Mohamed Warsame, Dean, East African University
The DISH project also owes its success to its network of motivated partners. Among the 4 600 students registered through the programme, 80 % are women thanks to collaboration with different non-governmental and civil society organisations. Meanwhile, the African university partners are responsible for adapting courses to the local context.
Through two DISH partners, namely Kampala International University (Uganda) and Tilburg University (the Netherlands), DISH also works closely with another project – the Virus Outbreak Data Network Africa (VODAN-Africa). VODAN-Africa allows clinical and research data to be generated, curated and held on-site at health facilities in Africa, making them both the owners and beneficiaries of their clinical data. This is instrumental in the fight against highly contagious viral diseases like Ebola and COVID-19, as it increases the international traceability of outbreaks and genetic mutations.
As part of this collaboration, experts from VODAN-Africa have developed a course in FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable) data management, which is included in DISH’s computer science curriculum. By doing this in partnership with the DISH project, VODAN-Africa further develops African expertise in FAIR digital health data management, which is one of its main objectives.
“We felt there’s an opportunity to reach a greater community by building the data stewardship curriculum and targeting it at youth in East African countries. As we can see from the statistics, there’s been a large wave of interest in the computer science courses. This reinforces our belief that one of the easiest ways to reach young people and ensure peace in the Horn of Africa is to introduce them to computing and ICT through the curriculum.” Francisca Oladipo, Executive Coordinator for VODAN-Africa
Computer science modules are DISH’s most popular courses, especially among young people. In the current digital age, this comes as no surprise, as the ICT sector offers high prospects of employment. In addition, the increased interest in computer science, even from students based in regions with limited internet connection, shows these young people’s dedication to be part of today’s world. By focusing their curricula on computing and ICT, DISH partners are creating employment in areas that many young people are interested in, such as digital marketing, app development, management of IT projects, and provision of IT services.
“Students are excited and eager to test this new means of accessing knowledge and skills and hopeful for whatever opportunities this might bring in the future. In the context of Tigray, the DISH project has given hope to many young people that they can learn and educate themselves at their own pace and convenience even at times of crisis when life seems full of darkness.” Kokob Gebru, DISH Co-Lead, Mekelle University
Education provides a fertile ground for innovation and research, which are the very tools that we need to face, address and, ultimately, solve global challenges. From the examples above, we can see that it is essential to make use of technological innovations to make education more inclusive, especially for girls, women and vulnerable youth, if we want to reach equality. It is also important to make education relevant and practical for learners and the context they are in. This will ensure their engagement and consequent integration into the labour market, allowing them a better quality of life.
Digital technology is not a magical solution, but it can be an effective tool to make education more accessible, especially when partners work together and share their knowledge and expertise. In the words of Mouhamad Mpezamihigo, Vice Chancellor at Kampala International University, “A lot can be achieved if we can combine our efforts and also align and harmonise whatever we are doing for the good of the youth who hold the future for our continents.”
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1 DISH is funded under the Orange Knowledge Programme, which is managed by Nuffic and funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.