Digital literacy has become an increasingly important competitive differentiator in today’s globalised landscape. The digital environment offers opportunities to take part in wide spectrum of activities that make learning sociable and fun. Sadly, however, despite substantial investment in ICT for school education, issues relating to the quantity, quality and use of technology remain. In this interview, Mba-Uzoukwu, Managing Partner at GrandCentral Africa, discusses the challenges of integrating technology with education in Nigeria and the MTN Foundation Restructured Schools Connect Project attempt to bridge the gaps in education.
My name is Chinenye Mba-Uzokwu. I am the Managing Director / Chief Executive Officer of Infographics Nigeria, a software solutions company. I also run a strategy and project management consultancy firm, Grand Central which works in three key areas that pivot transformation– Health, Education and Governance. We believe that working in those three key areas and creating frameworks for how technology can actually transform these areas, we can have the maximum impact on our world. Infographics is a recognised expert in delivering technology around digital interfaces. We have spent the last eighteen years building competencies in that space where we literally help organizations to define how technology can be used to interface their products and services with internal and external markets. In that sense, we refer to ourselves as architects of the digital world. This is because increasingly, it’s a digital interface that makes the difference in the way we interact with products and services. Our goal is to help organizations define the pathways for consumer interactions in the digital space. That’s the expertise which we have brought to the education space and the MTN Restructured Schools Connect Project.
You have won several prestigious awards for pioneering innovative solutions, especially around multimedia technology and allied services. How have these solutions affected the way businesses are run in Nigeria?
Our philosophy is taken from historical antecedents. Generally speaking, Africa has missed out on the second and third waves of civilization and economic development. We missed out on the agrarian revolution as well as the industrial revolution. The IT revolution has started and we are still trying to figure it all out. The implication is that we can either try to go back and build those old economies around the agrarian and industrial, or we accept that we have missed those waves and if we really want to compete and be part of the global economy, we have to leap over those two – figure out in retrospect but actually engage the future, which means that we must embrace IT and figure out how technology plays across everything that we do and leverage that. That’s the philosophy which has led us into the kind of work that we do. From the onset of our organization, the vision that we had didn’t match the available resources on ground. And so we started with young people. We had our internship program that allowed university undergraduates to work with us. We realized that we needed new thinking and our clients expected us to provide a direction. So we took the young kids in and coached them. We understood that age wasn’t important, the real deal was what value are you bringing to the table? So we exposed these bright young minds to technology from an early age and they would take our ideas and run. We placed ourselves at the cusp of change and we believe that it is only technology that can change the outcomes and potentials of our country and its people. We asked our young people to challenge the environment, pick up on the technology and change regardless of what people say. And one value we picked up is around the question of the first time someone says something to you and they say it’s impossible. And then you think about it, apply the available tools to it and then you say, wow, it is possible and then you go and do it. This is the spirit behind many of the things we have been able to do. It’s been a fantastic journey. Every space that we have been into, we pioneered. An entire industry was built around the work that we did. We were two guys, in one room with a small generator in a two bedroom flat in Opebi, Lagos – Pius Okigbo and I. And the work we’ve been able to do from that partnership has spawn about four different companies. It’s not about our achievements as individuals but it’s about what people can actually do when you give them the environment and the incentive to drive for the best within them. It’s always nice winning awards. We were the first company in Microsoft partnership history in Africa to win the worldwide partner award twice – it’s just an amazing thing that when it happens you think back and remember it happened because of the people you have working with you in this environment and their ability to express themselves – they take the impossible and make it possible. And so, we have over hundred and thirty exceptional people who are now leaders in their various spheres who have passed through this place and are creating change on their own.
How has it being working in the technology space in Nigeria.
When people say it’s not possible, you then need to commit to the journey of making them see that it is possible. From our perspective, nothing is impossible. We just think, how do we solve it. Our first difficulty was in finding the right client who are ready to partner with us to make the impossible possible and to commit to doing so. We may not get it right the first time but we keep at it till we get it right. What that means is that you can’t do it on a transactional basis; you need a partner that is ready to work with you. Every time a technology project fails, it makes it more difficult for the next person to pick it up and take it forward. It is gratifying to note that we do not have one single unsuccessful project in our corporate history because we stay with it. We once had a client whose culture clashed with our values. When we saw that the clash would make the project unsuccessful, we declined the job and re-wrote the check back to the customer after three months. This pretty much defines everything that we’ve done. We look for partners who are ready for the journey.
We have also paid the penalty for leadership. Because we are at the front end, trying new things, creating new value; we have found ourselves competing with our customers. We don’t compete with other technology companies because when you have travelled the distance, and gone far, you are the only ones who have the skills and the only one who can close the gap. So, what happens is that the other companies come in and take our people. As a small company, we feed an industry with talents. We have an internship program that takes young people in the first and second years in school, who then do their NYSC with us because we would not use and dump them after service year. And so, post graduation; these students have at least about three years work experience in the industry and they are ripe for all the banks, oil companies etc. After a while, people realized that if you had worked here, and took the name, Infographics, you were going to get a job and they would have to pay a premium to hire you since we had invested in training. Sadly, our system broke when the quality of graduates who were coming through couldn’t match the outgoing ones. However, we have started to creatively manage the Nigerian system that produces thousands of unemployable graduates.
Most public schools in Nigeria are not connected to ICT facilities. What are the main benefits of digitised schools and how can Nigeria get more schools, especially in the rural areas to take advantage of digital learning/education?
Firstly we need to recognise the problem. If you recall, when there was a global financial crisis, the entire world came together with all sorts of plans. When the problems were being addressed in Nigeria, they setup lots of things including AMCON that bought up the debts. There was a massive global effort to save the financial system from collapse. Has anybody ever felt why they did that for financial systems but they did not do it for education. This is a very key question. What is it about the educational system in our environment that allows us to believe that it can fail but the banks can’t? It’s just a fallacy which vectors into a certain number of things. First is the perception – a very short term kind of thinking that you want to stabilise as opposed to revolutionize the systems. Secondly, vested interests will always protect themselves first before they take care of those who are up and coming. Thirdly, the young people in Nigeria are not as important as those who are currently engaged and that is crystal clear in the way we treat our youth. Fourthly, it shows that we have no understanding of the way that societies are built – they are built on the foundation of knowledge before any other thing and that without knowledge the whole system would collapse. Fifth is that we have our priorities completely skewed as a result of the lack of understanding. Anything that you celebrate represents who you are. In these parts, we seem content more with the owambe parties than making sure that we can have our kids go through school successfully and also ensuring that we can pass them through an educational system that makes them competent and enables them make a living for themselves. The sum total of these represents where we are as a country and shows what we value and celebrate. The more we refuse to celebrate teachers, outstanding students; we will continue to build value around the wrong things. It is clear for the past thirty years or more, education has not being a priority and has not been understood as a fundamental building block for the kind of society that we want to build. We are in a war and ignorance is the biggest bomb that has been going off in our society. Because of a failed education system, mediocrity, lack of vision, capacity, and ignorance have become ingrained and until we fix the system, you cannot attempt to fix society. We have under invested in the most important resource and system that drive any country.
So how do we address this dysfunctional situation?
The first thing we have tried to do is to look at the reality supported by the statistics. Nigeria has over twenty-two million kids out of school. We have hundred and six universities with a carrying capacity of just over a million students. You contrast it with India with a population of one billion; they have twenty-two million students in eighteen thousand universities. Every year, about 1.5 million students take JAMB with the total admission of tertiary students at just over three hundred thousand. From the inception of JAMB till date, we only accommodate 15% of those who actually took the exams. What happens to the others? 86% of the students in JSS drop out of the educational system. Where do these kids fall into? They are supposed to be captured by the Technical and Vocational system which has been a failure for many years. It would surprise you to note that the results we had in JAMB this year are the worst that we have faced. Out of the over one million kids who took the exams, only forty seven scored over two hundred and fifty out of four hundred points. 99% of the people to be admitted in school this year would have scored less than fifty percent of the scores. Meanwhile, in the University of Delhi, the cut-off mark this year is 100%. So if you are a student in India and applied to the school, and scored 99%, you would not be admitted on merit. And here, we are admitting people who have scored forty percent. We haven’t fared better in WAEC and NECO exams either. So what do we do with these masses of failure?
The role of technology would be to close the gap in a number of areas. Firstly, we have to give access to quality education to as many people as possible because no one knows where that genius is. So if we want to transform our country on the basis of knowledge, intellectual capacity and power, we would have to widen the pool by going to the rural areas. Hence, technology must take access to places where quality education can’t be delivered.
Technology must also be able to provide equity so that you don’t have a dichotomy – where it’s only in the cities that you get good teachers and quality education. It means that everywhere across the country, we must be able to deliver an acceptable standard so that all children have equal opportunities to be the best.
Technology can help close the gap in terms of infrastructure – both teaching and learning. Where we find that the rural areas have a deficit in terms of the kind of infrastructure, which isn’t limited to classrooms but the quality of the teachers, access to teaching aids and materials, technology has to be able to close that gap.
Technology also has to be able to create the opportunities to deal with people who are disadvantaged and have difficulties accessing education – in terms of physical challenges, learning disabilities, nomadic kids and those living in purdah who should never be excluded from the system.
One of MTN Foundation’s initiatives is the restructured SchoolsConnect project. In what capacity is Infographic’s contribution to the success of the project?
Through the MTN restructured SchoolsConnect project, we want to demonstrate that technology can be delivered in an affordable manner in areas that you would normally not expect it to be, and this is critical, without necessarily having access to the internet. When people talk about e-learning, the assumption is that you must have connectivity. Grandcentro’s framework is called ATTAIN, which we designed to showcase how technology and transform education. It tries to take three core elements or gears that must be enabled to create the possibilities and the potentials for transformation to happen. It deals with Policy, Technology and Capability / Culture and without driving these gears; you can’t get transformation to happen. For a system to move, the engines must be enabled. Implementing technology in schools is like parachuting computer into schools but computers don’t teach on their own as they are like blackboards. We believe that the transformation must start with the teacher – move the teacher from analogue to digital, in this way, we can proliferate access. The teacher is further empowered by creating digital classrooms, like what MTNF is doing. So we can now bring the teacher and the student into an environment that is digital and enable them enjoy the benefits of an enlarged capacity that comes from not doing it analogue anymore. There are simple examples – how do you teach global warming to a child who is in the village who doesn’t have English or the concepts? The only way you can do it is by showing – video or animation and exercises linked to that. The teacher must possess the tools and capacity to explain while the student must be able to use the tools themselves to practice and learn.
We believe that policy has to say that every teacher must be digitally literate. If we don’t set this as a policy, then it means we are leaving it to the market to drive that as a goal. The market will only drive it in areas where it is economically viable. They would not go to the villages where there is no network; they will stay in the cities. So you have to create policy that provides the incentive as well as the targets and aspirations to drive the change that you are looking for. I was in Abuja recently and I met a school principal who was frustrated with the fact that even though there are computers there, a teacher that was recruited brought a lesson plan in a book. Does the ministry of education recognise lesson plans that are digital? When the inspectors come they don’t ask the teacher to open the computer, rather they ask for the books. When people operate outside of policy, they can’t get the full benefits on whatever improvements they are looking for, so policy has got to change. We must change the policy environment to setup a digital teacher. When the policy changes it leverages technology and the wheels begin to turn which moves the lever of capacity, capability and culture.
Under the ATTAIN framework, we can transform a school by providing one computer, one generator and a multimedia projector. If every school in Nigeria has one i-better-pass-my- neighbour generator, a laptop that has eight straight hours of battery life, and a projector, they can download the entire world to any classroom, in Nigeria. In schools where there are no teachers for specific subjects, the computers can effectively substitute for the teacher pending his or her arrival. Lessons on the computer are one hundred percent accurate all the times. It cannot be wrong. The teacher can’t teach nonsense because he has the tool to support them in their learning. We cheat ourselves by not availing ourselves of technology. The primary reason why children fail exams is because majority of the teachers and students don’t understand English which is embarrassing for a country whose official language is English. Sadly, no one wants to talk about it. All you need to do is to go back to your community and sit in the classroom with the teachers and listen. Without the language and the vocabulary, you can’t transmit knowledge. So cracking English alone either by way of translation or by generating new content along the lines that is culturally relevant – instead of talking about snow and apples, you talk of akara and harmattan, you localise what is possible. We believe that by a massive deployment of technology in education, we can create huge opportunities for the largest number in the fastest possible time. There is no other option to this because; there are 22million kids out of school, 40 children per classroom means that we need to build 5 million classrooms. Do you see Nigeria building 5 million classrooms in the next ten years? It’s absolutely impossible. The recent establishment of 6 new universities proves this point. The total carrying capacity of those new institutions is just eighteen thousand students when more than one million people take exams to get into university every year. We can’t meet up with this deficit except we go the way of technology. You look at most of the chibok girls that spoke to foreign reporters; most of them were unable to express themselves in simple articulate English. How were they going to pass the exams? It shows you what we have done with our most precious resources. Every child should have access to a laptop and a headset and do language lessons in English. It is the right of every single child.
The schools connect project demonstrate the reality. We took the ATTAIN framework, remodelled the schools in our consortium, did the physical works around the project. We built a consortium of partners – made the classroom student-friendly by replacing broken glass, flooring the rooms, putting ceiling fans and cooling systems and we replaced the desks. We created a structure around the desks that was intended to enable the students have better capacity in terms of optimal classroom utilization. We are going from the model of one computer to one classroom to where everyone has a computer. And this is the trajectory which we have to go through as a country. Some states spend up to twelve billion a year printing textbooks which end up being used to wrap boli and akara. In India, they have decided that a child must have access to a device. So they developed a product, Aakash, it cost 45 dollars; the government subsidizes it by 10 dollars. It is low and doesn’t have beautiful visuals but it does the job. At $35, every student in India can get access to a tablet. Let assume its cost $100, that’s 16,000 naira, you now divide that by 12billion which is being spent on textbooks, the result shows that if the government were to invest that money every year, for five years, every student in that state will have a device. On that device, would be everything that the student needs to learn and most of it would be for free and without internet. When you add the layer of internet and connectivity, you have enriched the environment. And there are local players providing rich e learning content. When you put it together, you find out that it is a lack of policy that has robbed us of the benefits of leveraging technology in education. People just say, it can’t be done, but truth is we can fix this mess today, this year. In cross river state, we implemented the ATTAIN framework, today out of a teacher population of about 20,000, more than half of that number have laptops of their own and have passed digital literacy exams. Infographics takes them through a digital literacy curriculum that Microsoft provides. We have taken teachers who didn’t know how to move a mouse and within forty hours of training provided by the state, we have converted them to digital teachers who have now become change agents in their communities. Cross rivers today has the broadest distribution and penetration of PCs of any state in this country based on those teachers alone. Their target is that by the end of 2014, hundred percent of all the teachers in the system – primary and secondary should have passed the internationally recognised digital literacy program. So think about a teacher in a community, the first person that the teacher uses the computer to teach is his/her children as their laptop becomes the new TV. It’s a resource inside their family and everyone is using it. The laptops come preloaded with content for the purpose of education at every level and become a device for change in that family. As the teachers then go on and help each other to solve problems using the devices, they build a community of support. The teachers must go back to being the most celebrated in our communities.
The MTNF Schools connect programme has given us the opportunity to present our framework, deploy it on a national scale so that we are clear at the end of the first one year, we can actually go and measure its impact as well as understand how technology is landing in different cultures, be sure that ecosystem is accepting of what we are trying to do and we take those learning and continue it. The journey towards transformation has begun. We needed to have a partner who had that belief as to where technology could actually take education as well as the sense of urgency that was involved to get into the program and MTNF allowed us to demonstrate the framework on that scale.
Investing in education as CSR?
I would like to say to anyone who is interested in investing in education as CSR or as business point of view is to be able to do proper diligence – understand clearly what it is you want to achieve and do the preliminary work of investing to find out who has succeeded, what is working, and then you put your funding into that.