By Howard Lewis
Over the last two years, the pace of Africa’s digital transformation has accelerated. During the pandemic, demand for online access naturally increased while initiatives like the World Economic Forum’s Africa Growth Platform brought business and government together to speed up the continent’s digitisation.
Investment in technology will be pivotal to Africa’s long-term economic growth, and EdTech is a key component of this as it can help young African students develop the skills they need to participate in the global economy. The widespread digitisation of learning in Africa presents clear challenges, not least in terms of infrastructure. But many African schools are already successfully embracing education technology, with one country leading the way.
With a population of over 104 million, Egypt has one of the biggest public education systems in MENA (Middle Eastern and North African). It also has the largest cohort of students who regularly engage with technology thanks to a ground-breaking, government-backed project known as the Egyptian Knowledge Bank (EKB).
Launched in 2015 by President Abdel El-Fattah El-Sisi, EKB is the world’s largest digital library providing learning resources and tools for educators, researchers, students, and the general public of Egypt. A part of Egypt’s widespread educational reforms, President El-Sisi’s goal for the EKB was to create an Egyptian Society that “learns, thinks and innovates.”
Available free of charge to the entire Egyptian population, EKB offers videos, articles, and other learning objects to help citizens of all ages develop knowledge and skills relevant to the 21st century. Over 25 of the world’s leading publishers have contributed videos, articles, images, audio files, interactive files and learning guides to create a library numbering in the millions. And in 2015 Discovery Education was delighted to be selected as a key founding partner, working alongside the likes of Britannica, Springer, and Oxford University Press.
Discovery Education was tasked with providing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) focused digital content to the EKB for Egypt’s primary, preparatory and secondary schools. Working in partnership with Dr Tarek Shawki – Egypt’s former Education Minister – we established a team in Cairo composed of experts from MENA, the United States, and the United Kingdom to create engaging content for over 23 million Egyptian students.
As one of the world’s leading EdTech companies, Discovery Education was able to bring our experience to the table in a valuable way. Giving educators innovative new opportunities to design and deliver engaging learning experiences is what motivates us. So, it was hugely rewarding to be part of such a transformative project and to see first-hand the difference that technology – and in particular, digital media – can make for learning.
We began by creating digital assets which could easily be integrated into STEM lessons across Egypt. These included thousands of educational videos, in English and Arabic, which students and teachers could access via an exclusive web portal. We also devised a range of interactive resources aligned to the national curriculum including audio, text articles, images and interactives to boost student engagement and bring learning to life.
Initially, internet access was a challenge. But we were lucky that our work coincided with a push by the Egyptian Government to improve the country’s digital infrastructure. Within a short time of the project beginning, digital whiteboards and tablets gradually became available in schools. And with at least 70% of homes having at least one smartphone, many teachers and students were also able to access our new digital learning content from home
One of our biggest goals was to make learning fun, which would in turn encourage students to become lifelong learners. In today’s information economy this is something we take for granted, but in the developing world it is less well established. To reach its goal of becoming a ‘Learning Society,’ Egyptian society needed to experiment with new ways of learning with a focus on excitement and enjoyment.
At Discovery Education, we know from our experience in schools around the world that high-quality digital content makes learning fun. Technology is a natural draw for students, but the right digital media can transform teaching and learning and deliver a host of benefits for learners.
Firstly, technology makes learning hands-on so that students can fully participate in the process. When students are immersed, they are far more likely to learn. There is growing evidence that attention-grabbing digital content aids retention as well.
Digital content can also appeal to a variety of different learning styles. Videos, for example, provide visual cues which can engage students of all abilities and support those with additional language needs.
And most importantly, digital media can open doors to real world learning, helping students explore different places and igniting their curiosity in other cultures. By bringing the real world into the classroom, Egypt is helping the newest generation to fully participate in the future global economy.
Within a year of launching the Egyptian Knowledge Bank (EKB), the initiative delivered amazing results. In our first year of 2016 we saw users conduct over 70 million searches resulting in 40 million files being downloaded and 250 thousand users registering for an EKB account. This early success – and the high uptake of our own digital content in schools – led the Government to ask Discovery Education to extend our partnership further and work with them to extend student access across the country.
While around 70% of Egyptian households have access to internet coverage, usually via a single smartphone, in rural areas such as the Sinai Peninsula or the Sudanese border access is limited. So, we worked with the Education Ministry to develop video lessons that could be broadcast via their satellite television channel. The distribution of television programming in Egypt is nearly 100%, so this gave us a terrific opportunity to reach students everywhere.
In a big country like Egypt, having this existing satellite infrastructure really helped. It is a remote learning model that we believe can be replicated in a lot of countries across Africa. In Egypt, edtech and digital media became particularly invaluable during the pandemic. Today, we provide hours of originally produced online video programs which are broadcast daily.
Ensuring that our educational content is closely mapped to the curriculum is another key goal of our partnership with the Egyptian Government. Launched in February 2017, Curriculum ConnectTM is an innovative and exciting initiative providing teachers and students online and mobile access to thousands of vetted videos, articles, interactives, audio files, and images mapped to all Science and Math lessons for all grade levels. Connecting the Egyptian curriculum to engaging digital content means that teachers no longer need to search extensively for digital resources to support their lessons, and students can study in confidence.
In 2018, Ministry officials asked us if we could go further and develop curriculum for all students from Kindergarten through Grade 6 in collaboration with their curriculum department. Thinking of the enormous responsibility to lead curriculum development, we were keen to ensure equity of access so that students with limited connectivity – those who lived remotely, for example – could access learning in the same way as their peers. This drive to close the education gap underpinned much of the new curriculum and continues to motivate our work in Egypt today.
One of the other key elements we wanted to deliver was the teaching of life skills alongside more traditional academic learning. The UNICEF Life Skills Framework – which highlights the importance of behaviours such as respect, listening and perseverance – was a great inspiration to the curricular leaders in Egypt. Today, every lesson we create has a life skill built-in with the aim of preparing Egypt’s students to be fully rounded global citizens.
Professional development was another important facet of our partnership. Egypt has long been an educational powerhouse in terms of the quality of its teachers in the MENA region. We were proud to support Egypt’s teachers as they encountered digital learning tools for the first time. We created a bespoke online professional learning programme, which allows teachers to show their growth and become fully engaged in what learning should look like in the classroom.
We also set up a powerful online network, the Discovery Education Online PD (Professional Development) to connect teachers with their most valuable resource – each other. This gave Egypt’s teachers and administrators a supportive learning environment to improve their practice, network with each other, share ideas, and focus on the joy of teaching and learning! To date we have trained over 250,000 teachers both in-person and on our unique online platform, and our educator network continues to grow.
As our partnership with Egypt enters its 9th year, we are proud to say that we have helped over 20 million students unlock the joy of learning and build valuable life skills. And as these students move up through secondary school and out into the world, we will be able to more clearly evidence how the partnership has impacted their life chances and impacted the Egyptian economy.
There is no doubt that by embracing EdTech, Egypt is preparing these students for success beyond the schoolyard. By giving them a window to the world that helps them to understand how interconnected we all are, Egypt has seized the opportunity to reinvent its education system. We are proud to be part of their journey. Their passion for innovation serves as a model not just for MENA, but for developing countries across Africa and around the world.
About the author
An accomplished business leader with a deep understanding of the United Kingdom’s marketplace, Howard Lewis is the Managing Director, UK & International at Discovery Education.
Howard joined Discovery Education from Thomson Reuters, a global information, news and technology business where he was a member of an executive leadership team responsible for the go-to-market strategy for that company’s European enterprise. Prior to Thomson Reuters, Howard held various general management and leadership positions at Experian, including holding the position of Managing Director for Irish business. During his time at Experian, Howard was responsible for multiple business units, served both the B2B and B2C markets across the public and private sectors, and was involved in identifying and integrating a number of the company’s key acquisitions. Howard started his career at Dun & Bradstreet, where he held a number of sales and sales leadership positions, including Head of Sales UK.