December 21, 2015; TakePart

Western countries often debate the value of online education and whether it stacks up to traditional learning modes. Polls have suggested that people equate this learning with less rigorous testing and less qualified instructors. NPQ has also looked at the broader perception of online education, as journalists, educators, and employers have been skeptical of this learning modality for various reasons. Yet some, like the residents of the continent of Africa, don’t have the luxury of turning up their noses at online learning and mobile technology, which can be lifelines to education and health care.

Recent increases in cellphone coverage in sub-Saharan Africa have let these populations surpass landline technology in a sizeable technical leap. This Pew Research article explains that “the proliferation of mobile phone networks has transformed communications in sub-Saharan Africa. It has also allowed Africans to skip the landline stage of development and jump right to the digital age.” In 2005, economist Jeffrey Sachs commented on how mobile phones in sub-Saharan Africa could combat the isolation of poverty. “Poverty results from the lack of access to markets, to emergency health services, access to education, the ability to take advantage of government services and so on,” Sachs said. “What the mobile phone—and more generally IT technology—is ending is that kind of isolation in all its different varieties.”

What mobile isn’t ideal for is general training. Healthcare professionals like pharmacists need other IT tools to deliver basic services, such as malaria testing. A nonprofit called TechChange provides online technology training for this very purpose to “public health and emergency response implementers” in such areas as Kampala, Uganda, to help healthcare staff diagnose and treat febrile diseases. As mentioned in this recent newswire on the social good of solar energy, many African countries deal with a lack of electricity, which has kept them on one side of the digital divide. In the case of Uganda, TechChange was able to overcome infrastructure challenges related to the e-learning format:

Among the biggest disadvantages were the possibility of power-outages, finding computers with adequate RAM and processing power to play the training, and also updating Adobe Flash (one of the requirements to run the training). However, with the help of an in-country technical setup team, these issues were controllable.

Also of note is that this training wasn’t only online but in fact a “hybrid learning experience with off-line e-learning modules and in-person trainings, created with local content to make the training as culturally-relevant as possible.”

Despite their limitations, smartphones could still help solve the problem of access to textbooks, and local entrepreneurs in Uganda have even developed a smartphone app to detect bacterial vaginosis, a major health problem in that country, especially in rural areas. In the end, the debate around online/smartphone learning is one that really only a privileged population can have. In many parts of the world, online education and smartphone use is the only choice for training, education and even better health. We also need to realize that a lack of resources does not equal a lack of technical creativity or ingenuity to solve a community’s most pressing problems. While the developed world debates the merits of smartphone and online education, the developing world continues to make strides out of necessity.—Amy Butcher