Closing the classroom technology gap across the Middle East and Africa

South African school girl smiles and laughs with her classmates

One of the biggest challenges in global education is a lack of internet access in many urban and rural schools, as well as the technology hardware to access those services where available. Students who lack broadband access at home or school are placed at a significant disadvantage, not being able to complete assignments and keep up with their peers, creating educational inequality that may impact them throughout their lives.

This challenge is a point of focus in countries across the Middle East and Africa. Areas contained within are currently among the most under-represented in the world when it comes to per capita internet connectivity. According to the GSMA, mobile internet adoption currently sits at just 24 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, with the region accounting for a significant 40 percent of the global population not covered by a mobile broadband network.

Microsoft has been investing in addressing this problem for years with initiatives like Airband, which aims to expand broadband access to underserved regions around the world.

A new milestone for education in the region

High cost of data is a major hurdle when it comes to increasing access to internet across the region. Research shows that affordable internet is still out of reach for many Africans. The result if we look at South Africa, for example, is that more than 9 000 primary schools and over 5 000 high schools lack internet connectivity.

Paving the way for greater connectivity in classrooms will take significant investment in innovative solutions to help address this challenge.

With this in mind, Microsoft has been working with its wide range of PC manufacturers to bring this access as affordably as possible. At a recent event, Microsoft partners introduced two new “Connected PCs”, built and priced especially for education: the JP.IK Turn T101 and Positivo Wise N1212S. Both devices are powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 7c, and are built for fast and battery friendly cellular internet connectivity.

The Connected PCs are the most affordable yet. With all the capabilities of Windows and Office, they’re able to be used anywhere there is cellular service. These new devices are expected to save schools a fortune in server infrastructure, as these PCs can quickly and effectively connect to cloud based internet services, and help the more than a billion students in rural and emerging markets around the world connect to the internet, many for the first time.

To provide users of the PCs with education-specific cellular connectivity plans, Microsoft has partnered with Vodafone in markets across Africa. As part of its Connected Education programme, Vodafone aims to digitalise school infrastructure and accelerate adoption of fast, secure internet access to schools and students around the world. Through the collaboration Microsoft hopes to learn how these new devices and alliances could reshape the education landscape and reduce the broadband gap.

Pilot projects are underway

As work is underway to extend these services and devices to more rural settings, trials of the connected devices are already beginning in the region through a pilot programme at Curro Krugersdorp. Curro Schools is the largest independent school network in South Africa and has a long history of purpose-driven collaboration with Microsoft to create real-world solutions to educational challenges in the country.

In 2011, Curro became one of the first adopters of the cloud version of Microsoft Office, Office 365. “Before adopting Office 365, we had e-learning platforms available to students. But for the most part, these simply enabled students to access resources and content. With Office 365 however, students have the ability to become more productive and collaborative and start creating. When you move from passive to active learning, these tools become essential,” says Riaan Vlok, Head of IT at Curro.

Now through this most recent pilot, Curro hopes to investigate ways of circumventing challenges around broadband access so that it might be able to offer the same standard of education to students of all income levels.

“The cost of bandwidth is prohibitive,” says Vlok. “We’ve seen parents that struggle to afford even very low-cost bandwidth solutions.” He explains that through the pilot, devices will be given to a group of six children from families that face these challenges. Curro hopes to not only trial the effectiveness of the devices themselves, but also to gain helpful information around how pilot participants choose to make use of the devices.

These new Connected PCs will help in bringing equitable educational opportunities to students across the region. Through thoughtful collaboration between technology and education companies, innovations like these will take MEA closer to more equal education for all.

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