Holistic approach will transform education, Microsoft officials say

Last week, Kigali hosted a three-day conference on innovation in education and ICT dubbed; "Innovation Africa 2014" which brought together ministers of ICT and education from 26 countries as well as leading ICT corporations such as Google, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Huawei, Oracle, Pearson and Samsung, among others.
Warren La Fleur speaks during the interview on Friday. (Timothy Kisambira)
Warren La Fleur speaks during the interview on Friday. (Timothy Kisambira)

Last week, Kigali hosted a three-day conference on innovation in education and ICT dubbed; “Innovation Africa 2014” which brought together ministers of ICT and education from 26 countries as well as leading ICT corporations such as Google, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Huawei, Oracle, Pearson and Samsung, among others.

Deliberations centered on Education transformation and bringing investment into education and technology through building public-private partnerships. Among the participants was Microsoft which has an agreement with the government to transform learning and further innovation. The New TimesCollins Mwai spoke to Microsoft’s Regina Murray, the Director for education covering Europe, Middle East and Africa and Warren La Fleur the regional manager for education in Sub-Saharan Africa about education transformation. Excerpts:

ICT in education has been emphasised in the recent past and countries such as Rwanda have been urged to consider embracing the strategy to transform the education sector. What should governments put into consideration when adopting it?

It is important for countries to consider what problems they are out to solve during uptake of ICT in education. Governments need to look at the bigger picture taking into consideration the cost and the desired impact. They should look at the need when you decide on the way forward. It could be teacher training development to improve their preparation or improvement of equipments to access of education.

ICT in education has often been interpreted as buying gadgets and handing them out in classrooms, which going by some South American countries’ experience could turn out to be a waste of resources. How can we ensure return on investment in the long run?

We would never advocate for just dropping devices into classrooms. It needs to be looked at more holistically as the Rwandan Government is doing. There is need to consider what kinds of solutions are needed and the problems to be solved without looking at only provision of the devise. Before introduction devises, it is important to consider needs, impacts and monitoring processes.

Going by some examples in Africa, you can see that through holistic approaches, there is a connection between investment and return. There have been improvements in access and quality of education. These are examples that should be emulated; use of technology to develop content, development of teachers among others.

For Rwanda’s case, you will begin to see the return from this investment through the quality of students graduating.

Earlier this year, Microsoft and the Ministry of Education signed an agreement to transform learning, further innovation and develop employment skills among students and educators in the country, what are the expectations?

We are proud of that agreement and the fact that Rwanda has joining the education transformation initiative. We have been working on education transformation for about 10 years now in Africa. We have been involved in supporting a holistic multi-dimensional approach that ensures we support teachers, school leaders, access technology for students among others. During the conference, we discussed some of the areas that could be developed further such as teacher capacity building.

One of the projects that has received a lot of positive response during the conference is a partnership between Microsoft and British Council where we joined efforts to develop hubs within schools where we have so far trained about 18,000 teachers with about 100 hubs in place.

There are projects that we will jointly execute such as professional development of teachers. We want to ensure that teachers are part of the journey of development of education so that they are catalyst to the change we want to bring.

The second area is curriculum development support. We are looking at how we can support modern forms of curriculum and e-curriculum to meet the needs of Rwanda and to ensure that it has a role towards education development. Content is another area we are working to support. We support having local content that is relevant to student development.

Murray during the interview. She said it is important to consider the country’s desires while deciding on the curriculum. (Timothy Kisambira)

Speaking of curriculum development, Rwanda is currently changing the curriculum in use. As experts in education, what are some of the considerations to have in mind during the process?

While developing content for a curriculum, it is important to consider the endgame. You should begin by considering what the workforce requires in the 21st century and start from there to inform the contents of a curriculum under development. It is there that you look at and consider the main requirements in the job market.

The second thing you should have in mind is that curriculum development is not a static process, it is a constant motion to increase the relevance of what you are training. The constant motion in curriculum development is a way to ensure that you always get what you are looking for.

It should not be just in subjects; Math, English etc, it should also be in aspects such as collaborative problem solving and how technology can have a role in establishing that.

Lately there has been talk and criticism that the curriculum doesn’t engage students fully, that it doesn’t help develop problem solving skills and creativity. What is your take on this?

There are two components to it, whatever is being accessed is going to drive what is taught and how it is taught. It comes down to governments considering their transformational needs as well supporting and training teachers to deliver accordingly through a pedagogical approach.

How is ICT infrastructure linked to education transformation?

Our experience of Rwanda from a broadband perspective is that it is fantastic; the speed of the internet here is second to very few in the continent. There has been significant progress in terms of most ICT infrastructure. But even as we think of technology and what it is capable of doing, there is an alternative for us to think about where it starts. The start could actually be as simple as Smartphone in the hands of a teacher accessing online content and using it to create a worth experience for the students.

We should not be obsessed with the presence or lack of infrastructure; it should be about taking a holistic approach in education transformation. One should begin with what they have. If you have smart phones begin with them. The important thing is to ensure that the current generation gets a start with the advances in education.

Education transformation and ICT in education progress come at a cost and considering the education budgets for most African countries, they might not be very easy to foot. What strategy would be appropriate for countries like Rwanda to deliver at reduced costs?

We think of comprehensive approaches such as working through partnership, cloud storage, the cost aspects will improve in addition to achieving the outcomes that governments are looking for.

We also try through support like Office 365 Pro Plus which equips students with tools to build a high level of competence in communications, knowledge integration and presentation skills, that will translate to finding the best jobs. The benefit will see students receive all the benefits of Office 365 including Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. This aligns with country’s SMART Rwanda Initiative to transform the nation to a knowledge-based society.

Your thoughts on the conference?

It was an excellent conference, and well organised in that it brought together decision makers, and investment partners who were party to how we can work together to transform education.

The format of the meeting was very informative as it provided for question and answer sessions as well as one-on-one discussions.

It allowed us all to have a regular checkpoint on what progress and how much of it has been made, how we are improving in teacher development, curriculum development and learn from each other’s experiences. We were able to establish that Rwanda is among the few countries on the continent that have been able to make remarkable progress in transforming education. The ministries also got to learn from amongst themselves, share experiences and best practices.