WHAT’S THE MISSING SUBJECT IN THE SCHOOLS?  

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MONDAY COMMENT

What’s missing is digital literacy, writes David Mba 

There’s an old saying in Nigeria, which roughly translates to this: you can’t plant okra and harvest cocoaIt’s a saying that could usefully be applied to Nigeria’s own education system.

An Education Act in 2004 resulted in the establishment of Nigeria’sUniversal Basic Education (UBE) Commission, which formulated policy guidelines and a minimum standard of basic education. A National Policy on Education then promised to give every Nigerian child free education from age five to 15; a quality education relevant to the needs of the Nigerian economy. It reiterated the commitment of the UBE to ensure teaching in literacy, numeracy, basic science and technology, communication and life skills. But even in 2004 – and certainly in 2019 – there was something vital missing from this well-meaning curriculum: digital literacy.

 

It has been widely supposed that the emergence of the 4th Industrial Revolution, powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI), will increase the technological dependency of African nations and widen the economic gap between them and developed countries. This new era is expected to revolutionise production and services worldwide, with disruptive consequences for both white and blue-collar workers. And what did McKinsey Global Institute identify as critical elements for sustaining and driving this revolution? Digital skills and computer programming.

 

Of course, AI can bring significant benefits to Nigeria and Africa. In the health sector, for example, this new technology can enhance access to medical expertise through Google’s DeepMind Health in regions where access to highly skilled doctors is difficult. In the agricultural sector, AI can improve yield performance from arable fields by optimising irrigation and fertilization, consequently ensuring more income for farmers. AI can even monitor and combat illicit financial flows, a hindrance on the economic and social development of Africa.

 

So where does Nigeria fit into this new evolving Industrial Revolution? How can it maximise the numerous opportunities offered by these new technologies and services? The answer lies in the nation’s Universal Basic Education. With the emergence of the 4th Industrial Revolution and the rapid expansion of the global digitised economy, it is now time to update the skills offered by Nigeria’s UBE and include digital literacy. It is vital to ensure the next generation of Nigerians are contributors to the national and global economy through their own digital expertise. It is vital that countries like Nigeria are not dependent on the western-driven economic machine that has for so long influenced the nation’s ability to sustain economic growth. It is vital that we give a generation of Nigerians the skills to adapt and compete in this new industrial era. After all, empowering our young people to contribute to the future national economy is exactly what the Act of 2004 intended. We cannot expect a harvest of digital experts in Nigeria if we do not plant the seeds in our schools.

 

We already know the potential is there. The recent Nigerian winners of the Junior Gold awards at the 2018 Technovation World Challenge showed the enormous contribution Nigeria’s young people could make to the digital economy. This particular group developed an app to identify fake drugs through barcodes. It is imperative that all young people are given similar opportunities to contribute to the emerging digital era. Looking beyond the 4th Industrial Revolution, it is conceivable that the 5th Industrial Revolution will to a large extent be dependent on a foundation of skills employed for the fourth. Failure to educate young people with coding skills now could set the nation back generations, particularly in terms of economic performance and prominence. Within this context, computer coding and a digital understanding is now just as important as literacy and numeracy, necessitating equal amounts of resourcing, rigour and expectation.

 

How would the government fund and support this new initiative, with its need for equipment and infrastructure to support computer programming?The answer is either by an increase in the Federal intervention fund for UBEor the creation of a new ‘digital tax’, specifically aimed at providing basic education in digital literacy for primary and junior secondary schools. Such an increase in funding and embedding of digital literacy into the UBEcurriculum can be phased, at least in the short term – we must, after all, start somewhere. Due cognisance must also be given to training of teachers, a critical element to ensure the subject’s sustainability. It should also be noted that the current levels of federal and state government funding for education (7.5% of the 2018 budget) are very low by international standards.

The question is whether digital literacy can be delivered while keeping infrastructure funding requirements to a minimum. The answer lies in the continent’s proven ability to leapfrog development – mobile banking and communication being the leading examples – and use mobile educational solutions to support the delivery of digital literacy. Africa is already, using SMS technology to deliver content to children and teachers. For example, Eneza Education uses such technology to provide students with mobile access to tests linked to the national curriculum in countries like Kenya and Tanzania. This innovative solution, along with other emerging technologies, can be tailored to support the delivery of digital literacy within a revised UBE curriculum. The infrastructure to support a SMS based system already exists.

 

Educating the next generation of Nigerians in digital coding skills will ultimately drive innovation. It will help create a new, wealth-generating digital industrial sector, at a time when the nation needs to pursue income diversification and alleviate unemployment. The consequences of inaction, on the other hand, will certainly result in the nation’s dependency on other countries for its technology, losing potential tax revenue and limiting social mobility for the next generation. It is time to declare a ‘state of emergency on education’ and revise the current Universal Basic Education curriculum. As with all education initiatives, we should do it not just for our children, but for our country, and ultimately for ourselves. Child, we will say, pass me the cocoa!