Monday, November 22, 2010

Africa is in need of "appropriate" education

People often speak about the need for "appropriate" technology in developing nations. Appropriate technology is "technology that is designed with special consideration to the environmental, ethical, cultural, social, political, and economical aspects of the community it is intended for". (Wikipedia). Appropriate is also about the need to adapt technology to the receiving nation instead of imposing technology that was developed in the industrialized word, thinking that it will automatically function in developing countries.

In this posting, I would like to discuss the need for "appropriate"education, in particular higher education (post secondary school) in Africa. I discussed the ICT needs for primary and secondary education in my posting of November1, 2010. When introducing education in developing countries, we should take the country's social, political and economical aspects into consideration, the same way we do when we adapt technology to the receiving nation.

Until recently higher education in countries of Africa was primarily provided by public universities. Those universities are "funded" by the governments, but in reality they were often under-funded. The professors' salaries were largely insufficient pushing them to have an additional job in the private sector to compensate for their lack of revenue. I observed this first hand during my three years as a professor at the National University of Zaire (1982-1985). My African colleagues had a secondary (in fact primary) job in addition to their professorship. Their salary level was shamefully low compared to my expatriate salary. (In 1958, my father published a paper explaining that there was no justification for that difference. To read more find the paper as REF17 in my father's bibliography posted on his website.). The situation for native university professors was difficult as they often needed to sacrifice their teaching and research profession for their higher paid job and no one could blame them for that.  This combined with inadequate university infrastructure resulted in a poor quality of education and graduating students did not match even the basic skill requirements to work in the private sector.

Fortunately, the situation is changing. Governments in Africa understand the importance of a good education system for the development of their country. However, the gap is significant and one needs to start improving education from the primary school level all the way to higher education. It will take some time before the impact can be felt.

Over the last decade, Africa has seen a rise in the opening of private higher education institutions. These are often imported from Western countries by different organizations. While their goals are usually laudable, their impact is less obvious. The main reason is that they are delivering an education curriculum that is not "appropriate" for the particular country they are in. Curricula based on the needs of developed countries do not necessarily fit the needs of Africa. In addition, the cost for an education in a private institution is also usually much more expensive than in public universities. These private institutions label themselves "university" when they often don't have the research level and quality of academics to justify this denomination. As a result, they are "selling" more than what they can really deliver. The new middle class parents in the country who cannot afford to pay for higher education abroad send their sons and daughters in these Western imported "universities" with the hope that their "better" quality education will get them a job when they graduate. Unfortunately, more than often their student contributes to the statistics of unemployment after several years of studies.

 It is important that the curriculum of those institutions is adapted to the local needs. The curriculum should be developed in cooperation with the government based on its strategic plans for the country's development and with the private sector based on the type workforce it needs. Also, the private sector should offer internships to students during their studies to better integrate the education system with the job force.

A good example is the new Akilah Institute for Women in Rwanda. Co-founded by Elizabeth Dearborn Davis, this institute provides women with practical and market relevant training to find meaningful employment in the fastest growing sector of the economy. If you ever go to Rwanda, and in particular in the capital Kigali, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand that tourism is in full development in the country. The Gorilla treks north of the country are attracting thousands of tourists. In the capital you can see major hotels being build by Marriott, Hilton, and a convention center build by Radisson Hotel. They will need to find people to manage and to work in these hotels.

Having identified this need in collaboration with the government, the Akilah Institute started a hospitality curriculum, graduating 50 women this year. the Institute will have a hard time satisfying the growing demand in the country even with its plan to have 800 graduates per year in the near future. It takes a lot more to discourage Elizabeth, who I had the pleasure to meet during her last fundraising trip in the US. She is now looking into e-learning capabilities to extend the reach of the institute. Once again, this is the appropriate step to take as the Rwandan government made significant  investments in the country's ICT infrastructure which will allow institutes to deliver e-learning across the country (see my paper published in Next Billion).

It is also the responsibility of the governments to attract the appropriate education to their country based on their development plans. To support their goal of becoming an ICT center in East Africa, the Rwandan government has engaged with IBM and the East Carolina University to develop a software engineering curriculum at KIST, the Kigali Institute of Science & Technology. The government is also currently working with the Carnegie-Mellon University's School of Computer Science (recently ranked #1 Computer Science School in the US) to open a graduate campus in Kigali.

While many of these private higher education institutions are functioning with foreign development investments, it is also critical that they become self-sustainable sooner than later. Self-sustainability will be possible once they deliver appropriate education or in other words, once they provide immediate value to the country which can be monetized. No need to say that all these companies building hotels in Kigali are knocking at the door of the Akilah Institute. If they cannot not hire individuals with hospitality skills locally, they will need to import workers at a much higher cost from foreign countries. So, it should be in local hotels' interest to financially support the institute that will provide them a skilled work force.

Here different business models are possible. A model used in some countries has corporations pay for students' tuition in exchange for their commitment to work for the corporation  for a minimum amount of time (usually 3 to 5 years) after they graduate. In doing so, the students pay back the corporation for the sponsoring of their studies.

Another model is that once the institution is operational, it should be sustainable with the tuition of the students as donors pay for the tuition of the students based on their merit. This model establishes a personal relationship between the donor and the student that is often very valuable to donors who can act as mentor for the student.

In summary, "appropriate" education will better serve the needs of the developing country as it will ensure students get a job when they graduate and will make it possible for the education institution to be sustainable and even profitable.

See you later alligator...

Monday, November 1, 2010

One laptop per child...but what "laptop"?

Most enterprises today could not operate anymore without the use of IT. Imagine an accountant without spreadsheet, or an airline company without a reservation system, or a bank without ATMs, or a retail store without cash registers. Enterprises are using IT to automate their business processes like accounting, sales management, procurement, supply chain management, etc. by using professional software (called business applications) to manage their business.

Business applications have been developed in the last 30 years since the PC became available. They have been designed for the traditional PC. Enterprise’s employees need a PC to access and use those business applications.

But the PC has evolved dramatically since the first bulky desktop PC announced by IBM in 1981. Over the years, technology miniaturization allowed for smaller PCs and the laptop (that you can hold on your laps) became more in use. It was possible due to the flat screen LCD technology, replacing the TV like screen. By attaching the flat screen to the keyboard, you had a more portable PC. All these PCs are not really mobile. They need power connection as the battery lifetime is short (a few hours) and would not allow for a day of work without reloading the battery. In addition they are heavy (more than 5-6 lbs) and big in size not making it easy to carry them with you.

In parallel to the PC evolution, GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), the second generation mobile technology which could carry data as well as voice traffic was developed in the early nineties. In 1992, the first GSM phone, the Nokia 1011 was launched. Over the years mobile phones' sizes got smaller and more portable.

As network bandwidth increased and technology evolved, smart phones like the Blackberry appeared that were offering more advanced computing capability. They where like a hand-held computer integrated with a mobile phone capable of running software applications.

Basically there is a convergence between PCs getting more mobile and mobile phones becoming more like a PC. In 2007 Apple announced the iPhone. It was really the first complete integration between both a mobile phone and a PC platform that was internet and multi-media enabled. The iPad tablet was the next device announced by Apple in that new category of devices called Mobile Internet Devices (MID).

The old business applications designed for the PC need to be redesigned to be used on those MIDs. It is probably easier and better to develop new applications designed directly for mobile devices. Already more than 300,000 such mobile applications have been developed for the iPhone/iPad. Those mobile applications are not really running on the device itself, but rather somewhere in a cloud data center accessed via Internet (see my posting of October 27, 2010). Broadband internet connection makes it possible for those devices to access and exchange data with sophisticated applications running in the cloud. This new paradigm is called cloud computing, a new delivery model for IT as a service.

An IBM survey (2,000 information-technology professionals in 87 countries) found that more than half believe that within the next five years, more developers will be working on mobile applications and cloud-based architecture than traditional computing platforms for enterprise. Ninety-one percent of IT professionals surveyed said cloud computing will overtake on-premise computing as the main way that businesses access data within the next five years. “The cell phone is no longer a gadget – it’s what IT is going to become.” said Jim Corgel, an IBM general manager of independent software vendors and developer relations.

In a future posting I will explain what mobile application really means, the potential of those applications and the requirements for them to succeed in emerging markets like Africa.

For now I want to stay focused on the new mobile internet devices. These new mobile devices will become the user access devices of choice in the next 5 years. Already today one in three devices is a smartphone, a MID, or a Netbook. These new devices that bring Internet access to mobile phones will help Africa bypass the need for computers when linking into networks to access applications. Africans are turning their late adoption of technology to their advantage by leapfrogging landlines and personal computers to mobile phones.

It is therefore important that schools in Africa that want to develop ICT awareness with their young students use these new mobile internet devices. In doing so, the children will get familiar with this new category of devices that will be in use by the majority of people in Africa in the coming years. They will experience mobile access to information and better understand the new innovations that such a mobility makes possible.

This should also benefits the schools as these devices are much less expansive than the traditional PCs. A traditional laptop PC still costs around 500-800 USD. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) PC's price is 100USD. It is really more a Netbook than a laptop because of its small size, its light weight and its 12 hours battery life.

Child using the OLPC Laptop at Kigali's airport where wireless Internet access is free
This OLPC PC in my opinion is one of the most admirable technical achievement when you look at all the technical challenges they addressed, not speaking about the "political" challenges. But even more, the OLPC team didn't rest on their laurels, and they are preparing a new tablet MID. Their XO-3 "crazy-thin tablet" will be priced at just 75USD!

The new OLPC XO-3 tablet

iPod touches, a portable device that can access Internet using wireless connection are now available for a starting price of 140USD.
At the Culbreth middle school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, students can carry iPod touches throughout their school day. They are allowed to bring their iPod touches from home and use these during the day as long as each student and parent(s) agrees to adhere to the restrictions explained in the use agreement. Students who do not bring an iPod touch can use iPods provided by the school for free. Those iPods can not be taken back home but are assigned to individual students and used throughout the school day. Students can then use these iPods from anywhere in the school and access Internet using a wireless network. They can use them to search for information relevant to their courses or to use applications performing the tasks required by their class assignments. The school is basically teaching them to become "mobile knowledge workers" that are capable of finding information needed to perform their tasks. But more than that, they can also collaborate with their friends students through the social networks available on the web.

So in addition to providing children with the next generation information access mobile devices, the school's cost can be dramatically reduced by using those versus expensive older laptops or they can serve more children for the same cost. Obviously, in Africa schools should still accept donations of the older laptops when offered, nothing beats free! It is certainly better than no PC at all.

See you later aligator....