Africa’s education system for 21st Century

Artificial intelligence will play a big role in shaping Africa’s education system. PHOTO | POOL

The theme of this year's African Union Summit titled Empowering Africans for the 21st Century: Building Resilient Education Systems for Inclusive, Lifelong Learning, highlights the urgent need to prioritise education as a cornerstone of Africa's development agenda. It also resonates deeply with aspirations and challenges facing the continent.

Rooted in the Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA) developed in 2016, this theme underscores the critical importance of accessible, high-quality, and relevant education across the African continent. By building resilient education systems that are inclusive, lifelong, and of high quality, African countries can unlock the potential of their citizens and drive sustainable growth and prosperity across the continent.

At its core, CESA aims to transform education systems that can meet the evolving needs of African societies. By equipping individuals with the knowledge, skills, and competencies necessary for success in the modern world, this strategy is not just about education. It is about empowering individuals to fulfil their potential, driving economic growth, fostering social cohesion, and contributing to sustainable development.

CESA encompass a wide range of priorities, reflecting the complex nature of educational challenges and opportunities across Africa. This includes promoting equitable access to education, ensuring quality learning outcomes, fostering science and technology development, promoting education for sustainable development and global citizenship, addressing literacy challenges, improving teacher training and professional development, leveraging ICT in education, and enhancing education governance and partnerships.

Incorporating emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), into education systems promises to enhance learning outcomes and expand access to educational resources. This is because AI technology has the potential to personalise learning experiences, provide real-time feedback to students and teachers, and facilitate collaboration and knowledge sharing on a global scale.

Therefore, focusing on these critical areas, CESA seeks to address long-standing disparities in education access and quality while laying the groundwork for future innovation and prosperity. The strategy recognises that education is not just a means to an end but a fundamental human right and a powerful tool for social change.

However, realising the full potential of AI in education requires significant investment in digital infrastructure and teacher capacity building. It also necessitates a thoughtful approach to data privacy and security to ensure that AI technologies are used responsibly and ethically.

And the other most pressing challenge facing education in Africa is the disparity in access. Many children across the continent face barriers to enrolling in primary school, including poverty, distance from schools, cultural norms, and inadequate infrastructure. Addressing these disparities requires targeted interventions to ensure that all children, regardless of background or circumstance, have an opportunity to receive a quality education.

Language barriers also pose a significant challenge to learning in Africa. In most countries in the region, using foreign languages as the medium of instruction can hinder students' ability to engage with curriculum materials and interact effectively with teachers.

CESA needs to take advantage of AI's Large Language Models (LLMs), which can understand and interpret handwritten documents, unstructured text, and even regional languages or dialects to tackle language diversity.

Furthermore, quality and equity issues remain pervasive in the African education systems. Gender disparities, regional inequalities, and socioeconomic factors often result in unequal access to educational opportunities and poor learning outcomes. To address these challenges, CESA advocates for comprehensive reforms to improve teaching quality, upgrade educational facilities, and enhance the overall educational experience for all students.

Expanding Early Childhood Care and Education programmes is the way to go. Research has shown that investment in ECD can transform children's cognitive development, social skills, and academic achievement, setting them on a path to success later in life.

Additionally, efforts to expand access to primary education through initiatives like Education for All (EFA) and policies promoting free primary education have significantly increased enrollment rates across the continent. However, more needs to be done to ensure these gains translate into better learning outcomes.

The writer is Kenya’s Ambassador to Belgium, Mission to the European Union, Organization of African Caribbean and Pacific States and World Customs Organization. The article is written at a personal level.

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