Similarly, the pandemic has prompted Ethiopian schools and universities to resort to technology supported delivery of courses following order of closure of all schools and higher education institutions on March 16th, 2020. To stave off the specter of a wasted academic year for tens of millions of students, the Ethiopian government moved quickly in developing a COVID-19 response plan which prioritized the continuation of education delivery and engagement using technology. For tertiary level students, the plan envisions to promote digital technology to ensure the continuity of teaching and learning during this global health crisis.
In view of that, the Ministry of Science & Higher Education (MoSHE) developed a digital learning platform for university lecturers to upload courses and recordings, and an online digital library platform for both public and private institutions. The Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency (HERQA) that is under MoSHE, also issued a directive to regulate delivery of online courses by colleges and universities of the country. The directive sets out basic principles for online education governance and requirements that license applicants must meet.
Online classes however, are just the beginning of a long overdue digital revolution of higher education. Beyond the pandemic prompted urgent and vital need to build capacity for distance learning, the digitization of higher education is foundational to the government's recent strategy to digitally transform the Ethiopian economy. The benefits are far reaching for students, teachers, higher education institutions and it can play a pivotal role in addressing the problem of graduate unemployment by bridging the education-to-industry gap.
Digital learning offers immense opportunities for improving access to higher learning in Ethiopia where the national higher education and vocational training enrollment rate currently stands at less than 20%. Even though this represents a significant achievement in the last two decades, Ethiopia is still a long way from making tertiary education available to the majority of its burgeoning youth. Digital technology allows higher education institutions to expand their reach by promoting open learning and distance education with the added value of allowing students to study online from any place, eliminating physical location as an obstacle for accessing higher education.
Beyond access, digital learning is distinctively suited for implementing learning approaches that prioritize students’ interests and needs that a wide range of research in education has established to be far more effective. Digital technology opens avenues for targeted and personalized learning approaches that takes into account each student’s strengths and weaknesses. Big Data analytics and Artificial Intelligence enable higher education institutions to collect, measure, analyze and report data about students’ preferences and provide insights that can be used to optimize learning outcome. Professors can leverage data to gain greater insight into their students’ progress and customize their teaching methods accordingly. Learning analytics can also help institutions of higher learning design early warning systems to identify students at-risk of academic failure and offer interventions that improve retention and graduation rates.
On the other hand, Ethiopian higher education institutions face infrastructural challenges such as lack of laboratories to offer their students practical and learning experiences especially in subjects that require students to not only have theoretical knowledge but also practical experience. Our resource constrained institutions of higher learning should look to leverage the unique opportunities offered by digital technology to augment their educational resources and bridge this resource gap. Immersive technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies are increasingly being used to enable students achieve experiential learning objectives. VR and AR offer viable alternatives to the expensive physical resources and infrastructure needed for students to put theory into practice in many fields. Beyond bridging the resource gap, such technologies also provide a more dynamic approach to learning and is more attuned to the demands of a more tech-savvy student body. They provide new ways of interacting with reality and can be used to create immersive learning environments that incorporate both the real and virtual worlds (mixed reality) enabling students to experience occurrences that do not exist in the real world thereby preparing them for even the rarest eventualities.
Furthermore, digitization enables higher education institutions to effectively respond to the increasing pressure they face to enhance career outcomes for their students and create better linkages with industry. Performing this task effectively requires to design systems that can accurately predict career outcomes of students based on their skills and provide the necessary support towards the future they aspire. This is an enormous undertaking that requires constant monitoring of employer needs and market opportunities for entrepreneurship, and designing data-driven interventions to help students pursue their dream careers upon graduation. Higher education institutions must ensure that the education they provide exposes students to current industry practices, processes, tools and challenges. This necessitates that their curriculums incorporate project-based learning that engages students to investigate and solve challenges facing businesses and industries mirroring what entrepreneurs and professionals do every day. Graduates should also possess cross-sector skills such as critical thinking, creativity, communication and teamwork. Machine learning and A.I. are of enormous use in this regard enabling the collection and analysis of massive amounts of data to accurately predict post graduate employability and entrepreneurship opportunities. Such technologies have proven to be effective in supporting higher education institutions' efforts to integrate emerging business challenges in to their curriculums and align their learning objectives with the needs of the local economy. Imbedded in the curricula and facilitated by university instructors, these challenges empower students to transfer their skills into practical competencies in real-work environments. Furthermore, a variety of digital platforms can be used to connect students with companies in different industries based on students’ skills and project experience. They also enable companies to effectively scout for graduates with sought after skills.
Digital learning offers so many undeniable benefits to students, teachers, educational institutions and the overall Ethiopian economy that it is fast becoming an integral part of educational system. All this can only be accomplished through strong and sustainable public-private partnerships and continuous collaboration between higher education institutions and technology platform providers. The active involvement of the Jobs Creation Commission and institutions that foster entrepreneurship such as centers of excellence, startup incubators and accelerators, can also create the necessary linkage with the Ethiopian economy. The pandemic has exposed deficiencies in the world's educational system and has accelerated the move towards effective and decentralized learning. In this ever-growing digital age, we can ill-afford to exploit digital technology to expand the reach of our educational systems to more young citizens who need tertiary level education to drive our much delayed integration into the global economy. The time to start is now for digital learning is way of the future.
Author Michael Tesfaye Hiruy