Trapped in my office at dusk, yet another heavy rainstorm sweeps over Harare. I make a start on this post, until the electricity fails and the room is plunged into darkness. Travel is risky: last week, trying to get to a meeting during a storm, I passed two vehicle shunts; and the large gum trees have a habit of falling when you least expect – I almost crashed into one, driving in the darkness late last year.
The rain reminded me of being trapped at Kano airport in Nigeria described in my stormy weather post in 2010, where both dust and rain storms combined with erratic transport to make travel very unpredictable. Kano has been in the news for all the wrong reasons over the last month. The rise of Boko Haram always made me uneasy: the name roughly translates as 'Western education is forbidden' and I was DFID's man promoting exactly that! The tragic death of so many people in Kano and from the bomb at the UN headquarters in Abuja last year (I used to visit frequently) really puts into perspective the 'flip side' of the overseas development work that has been my passion for over 16 years.
'Flipping the classroom' has become a buzz phrase in education, as people explore how best to exploit advances in ICT and online knowledge. The Khan academy has recently emerged as a hot site: Sal Khan's low tech 'video voiceover' - with black screen and magic marker, guides students of any age through maths and science at their own pace online. Two million users a month now follow this self-study method and teachers can now track how their students progress. This has led to the some classes 'flipping': kids follow the 'theory' videos at home online and then in the class do 'homework', working collaboratively on problem sets with teacher support.
The potential is clear in well-resourced communities - awash with iPads and broadband - but in many parts of Africa the prohibitive costs of internet access, and computer hardware makes it a complex choice on how to invest. The Zimbabwean minister of education cited last year that after paying teachers, there was only around US$2 a month left to spend on students (and not all of that was released). The Education Transition Fund was roughly able to provide each primary student in the country with a set of core textbooks and stationery for US$5 - the economics around this 'digital divide' are evident.
An impressive array of African education ministers and major commercial representatives have gathered at Victoria Falls to debate and showcase the latest technologies at the African Brains Southern Africa ICT for Education Summit. Can Africa leapfrog some of the steps taken to digitise the classroom and roll out affordable solutions beyond the elite schools?
As mass production drives down costs - Indian made tablets devices are being cited at around $30 - this decade will inevitably see a major influx of technology into African schools, just as mobile telephony is revolutionising communications and banking. The challenge in Africa is to effectively exploit the digital world in ways from which all children can benefit.