Ethiopia wired itself with the rest of the world in 1997 with the introduction of the Internet. Slowly but steadily the number of Internet users in the country is increasing parallel to the advancements in online education. But in a country like Ethiopia, where the government monopolises telecom services with its exorbitant prices, educational institutions find it harrowing to provide online education platforms to the populace. Amidst this, some youth are taking up the challenge to break free from the conventional schooling methods, reports HAYMANOT ASHENAFI, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER.
For Hiwot Kassu, an accountant working for a consultancy office, spending 13 hours a day, six days a week, according to her, has become the norm. But, neither her long working hours nor her degree from the Addis Abeba University School of Commerce has merited her a promotion.
For that, she needs to develop her computing skills, as her boss has advised, but that was almost unlikely to happen for she lacks the time in between caring for her three children and commuting to and from work.
Luckily, there was the online skill developing platform, Tibeb.net. Hiwot met Bezawit Worku, a young entrepreneur, when the latter was conducting a feasibility study for the digital platform, which is owned by Edmonia ICT Solutions Plc, a web developer company.
Bezawit, who believes that women’s empowerment can be fine-tuned if integrated with technology, was inspired to begin a digital platform where people can find training. She did this through Edmonia, where she is the CEO, after noticing international organisations in Ethiopia complain of the unskilled workforce in the country.
Thus, the first batch graduated four months ago from Tibeb.net, which gives courses in health, fashion, leadership, law and many other categories that anyone can register for through the internet. Hiwot was one of the 20 trainees on computing skills.
“Some of our students are in managerial positions for the organisations they work, and they didn’t know the fundamentals of computing,” Bezawit says, and goes on to argue that the main reason for the digital illiteracy in Ethiopia is that the Amharic language is not much utilised in the cyber world.
She also adds that the Ministry of Education (MoE) lacks the regulatory framework for online skill-developing courses.
“We are incorporating the courses into the current framework,” she mentions.
Habtamu Melse (PhD), CEO of Lucy Consulting Engineers, giving a lecture and explaining an issue raised by a student over the internet, in a studio.
This is timely since the Internet coverage in the country has reached 14.5pc, with Ethio telecom charging 0.35 Br for every megabyte of data that is used.
And public universities are not missing out on this. Jimma University, founded in 1952 as a college of agriculture, is the first public university to deliver this service in partnership with a private company, Lucy Consulting Engineers (LCE), a few months ago.
“The government is wasting money looking for teachers from overseas,” said Habtamu Melse (PhD), CEO of LCE, himself a guest lecturer in various universities. “The knowledge of the tens of thousands of Ethiopian diaspora could be mobilised without them having to leave their comfort zone,” he posits.
But another CEO, that of the Ethiopian Education & Research Network (EthERNet), Zelalem Assefa, takes a somewhat different stand on the issue.
“The telecom service has to be integrated to be affordable,” he warns.
Public universities invest between 50 to 60 million Br for ICT infrastructure annually. But for Zelalem, all of this money goes to waste if Ethio telecom, the country’s sole telecom provider, and MoE do not work together.
“Ethio telecom does provide discounted services for universities, but that’s like building a road for free without allowing cars to use it,” he quips.
Three-hundred lecturers from all over the country in the field of engineering were trained through teleconferencing, which was broadcasted from the Addis Abeba University (AAU). But, the high cost of 19,000 dollars a credit hour has hampered the project from travelling the additional path.
Aside from Jimma University, there are other efforts to engage digital distribution of content by other public universities. Gondar University and Arba Minch University are examples of using Tele-medicine, where health care is provided from a distance, for interns to attend live medical procedures. But here, again, for lack of limited resources, students were unable to participate in practice sessions properly.
Education through digital platforms does not stop at lectures, but online libraries and simulation models to demonstrate theoretical cases of the real world. And the Lomi Book, a mobile application, is of the former kind. It joined the market only two months ago with a starting capital of one million Birr.
It was able to sell 15,000 books, with a turnover of 50,000 Br, within only six weeks, according to one of its founder, Kiber Alemayehu. While Ethio telecom receives a 40pc commission from the gross revenues, up to 75pc of the net profit goes to the authors.
“Still, the return is not discouraging,” says Kiber, and with a partnership with Awash Bank in the pipeline, which will the company offset the mobile airtime cost, the return will be a bigger slice of the pie.
The profit such types of businesses make is actually expected to increase across the board for it is likely that the market will grow.
“The traditional model of acquiring knowledge is time-consuming, hence an anathema to productivity,” says Mesfin Manaze PhD candidate of the Addis Abeba University in Educational Policy and Leadership giving his support to online platforms that provide the service, and admiring their flexibility. “Online education will be great for the elderly that are usually discomforted to learn in classrooms”.
And people who had enrolled in distance education for various reasons will find online platforms convenient, according to him. Though he sees a shortcoming, in that they miss the social interactions between students, which is a major component of classroom learning.
“Students do not just get the academic experience in traditional schooling but the social life between classmates that serves as a major life lesson,” he asserts.
For countries, like Ethiopia with a youthful population, and where there is high demand for access to education, improving systems of delivery are a must. With the growth in the number of internet users, which has reached over 16 million, then the next avenue is likely to be digital platforms that offer training, books and similar knowledge-oriented services. Indeed, Hiwot agrees.
“For me, the medium of communication is the plus,” she says proudly, having recently received a promotion from the company she works in.