02/05/2015 04:44 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2015

Technology and the Skills Gap in Africa

On the 19th of January, Ministers of Education and professionals from the public, private and civil society sectors converged on London for the Education World Forum, an internationally recognized ministerial forum for sharing and debating policy, to discuss the newest developments in education. Part of that discussion involved the debates put on by Education Fast Forward, an organization dedicated to growing a global movement of teachers, students, and policy makers who understand the educational challenges of today. I was invited to give the closing remarks of that debate alongside Andreas Schleicher (OECD) and Stephan Dercon (DFID), and to speak on "creativity and innovation in education" at the Ministerial Plenary the following day. Many of the speakers shared their thoughts on the disconnect between the skills students the world over are being taught and the difficulty they often have in putting those skills to use. In Sub-Saharan Africa -- where the education system is not broken, but obsolete -- this problem is very serious.

Evidence shows that students learn better when taught in their own languages, and that they retain information more effectively when it is put in a familiar sociocultural context. Too often, however, curricula in sub-Saharan countries like Nigeria are detached from local realities, biased towards Western knowledge, and do not emphasize African cultural heritage and history. Meanwhile, economic constraints and cultural norms keep some students, particularly girls, from attending school altogether, while inadequate school infrastructure ensures that many people who apply to universities do not get accepted. In Nigeria, where Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF) has worked for 15 years, most universities have a rejection rate of over 90%.

These problems result in a mismatch between what students learn in school and what is expected of them when they enter the labor market. Research shows that graduates in Nigeria do not have the kind of expertise employers are looking for, especially in areas like communication, information technology (IT), decision-making, critical thinking, and entrepreneurship.

There is no easy solution to this problem. Curricula must be updated so the material speaks to students in a way they will understand, teachers require more ways to reach more pupils, and the public and private sectors need to be incentivized to become invested in the education of the nation's youth. Achieving these goals will require a long, protracted effort, but it is clear that technology will play a key role in bridging the skills gap.

To start, technology can help provide access to education for multitudes of Africans who currently do not have it. Despite slow overall connection speeds, Nigeria ranks 5th among African countries in terms of actual internet access. This makes it well-positioned to take advantage of innovative approaches to learning utilizing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which will allow students in rural areas to learn remotely and should open up enrollment at higher educational institutions.

A group of Nigerian universities, in conjunction with private and public sector partners, is currently planning to incorporate MOOCs as the cornerstone of the first major e-learning degree in the country. To be truly effective, e-learning should be also be adopted in primary and secondary school, as remote learning would enable students at those levels to receive instruction even if unable to attend school because of a health crisis, weather disaster, or regional conflict. Still, the initiative is a promising step in the right direction.

Also, students must be instructed in the information and communications technology (ICT) subjects vital to being competitive in the labor market, whether that means finding a job or going into business for themselves. 3D Africa, one of YTF's programs, aims to help this process along by teaching youth about 3D printing technology. Learning how to operate this technology allows them to design, create and sell their inventions through online marketplaces. In short, the program inspires students to be technology entrepreneurs, another contribution creativity can make to education.

Ultimately, no one change will be enough to fix all of the issues with the obsolete education system in Sub-Saharan Africa. Instead, the educational ecosystem itself needs to change, a process that will require private, public, and nonprofit organizations to attack the problems from multiple angles. No matter where they come from, intelligent use of technology will play a vital role.