AFRICA-EDUCATION: WOMEN FIND A SHORTER ROUTE TO CLASSROOM
by Asare Kofi
ACCRA, Apr. 30 (IPS) -- African women, long deprived of
information, education, and training can look to advances in
information technology to bring learning to their doorsteps.
By tailoring programs to meet the needs of women, distance
learning could help them acquire relevant skills to become better
informed on issues and well equipped to do their jobs, according
to participants at the April 27-29 International Conference on
Technology and Distance Education.
The conference, held here, was organized by the U.S.-based
Worldspace, Inc., which plans to launch a program for disseminating
distance learning materials in Africa via a satellite radio system.
Academics and educational administrators who spoke to IPS noted
that many of the students already on distance learning programs
are female, including married women.
"Distance education is for the disadvantaged in the first place,
those who are looking for a second chance in education," says Mary
Ngechu of the Department of Distance Studies, College of Education
at the University of Nairobi, Kenya. "And women are the most
disadvantaged educationally since many of them do not complete
The University of Nairobi, which has 14,000 regular students,
currently has about 1,600 students registered for its distance
learning program. And thanks to distance education, women farmers
in a remote Kenyan village can now learn about virtually any topic
This program started as a means of getting farmers research
findings from the university, which they previously had no access
to. Unlike in formal education programs, says Ngechu, the students
decide what topics to listen to, based on their immediate needs.
Participants also say that distance learning offers
opportunities for many of Africa's working middle-level
professionals to upgrade their skills and hence improve their
"It is an empowering tool for those who drop out of the schools
or do not even start," Ngechu says. Also, distance education caters
for women who are in seclusion, such as Muslim women, since with
the help of technology, the lectures can be delivered in their
Women also face the problem of lack of access to information,
which the University of Nairobi program also seeks to address.
Because they lacked access to the radio (which is monopolized by
the men), women farmers were unable to access information on
research findings which have bearings on their agricultural work.
To overcome this difficulty, designers of the Farmers Program
created a radio program which was broadcast on a frequency known
only to group members. According to Ngechu, members listened to the
broadcasts, which were on topics selected by the farmers
themselves, and members of the group ensured that each member
applied on her farm the methods discussed on each broadcast.
The results have been quite impressive, says Ngechu. "After a
year, we found that 70 percent of the farmers had adopted the
technologies in agriculture and in health (such as for treating
malaria), and the success rate was very high."
The women chose to start from agriculture, moving on from there
to health and other issues relevant to their needs. "It's a way of
reaching women (who constitute about 80 percent of the farmers in
Kenya) and giving them information which is important to our
agriculture, health and government so that they can understand
these thing and be able to make decisions for themselves," she
At both the University of Lagos, Nigeria and the University of
Namibia, Windhoek, women constitute a majority of the students in
the distance learning programs.
"It's a great opportunity for women, particularly the married
ones, since they do not have to leave their homes," says Professor
Joshua Ojo, the director of the Correspondence Open Studies
Institute (COSIT) of the University of Lagos. The program has run
for about 20 years, turning out graduates in various fields,
At the University of Namibia, women constitute between 90-95
percent of the students in a distance learning bachelor degree
program in nursing, says Dr. Tonny Dodds, director, College of
External Studies at the university.
"I think that there is evidence worldwide that distance learning
offers women more chances for higher education, from which they
have been isolated," he says.
The college also runs a teacher-education distance learning
program, under which teachers who were previously trained in the
Afrikaans language under apartheid South African rule are being
retrained. Dodds says that in both programs women constitute the
Despite the appeal of distance education, especially with the
technological innovations taking place, there are still many
difficulties with delivery. It has the advantage of reaching a
large number of students, but, as the Namibian program
administrators found out, the dispersion of students over a wide
area creates an additional problem for its effective running.
With nine learning centers scattered around the country, and
only about 30 percent of the external students living in Windhoek,
a majority of the students are scattered about the country, some
more than 200 kilometers away from the centers.
Worldspace's delivery system is expected to address the problems
of distance learning programs, including those created by such a
wide dispersal of students.
Many of the participants at this week's conference say the
radio, because of its pervasive influence on the listeners, remains
an effective medium of communication. Besides, they point out, it's
more widely distributed in Africa.
According to the 1996 United Nations Development Program (UNDP)
Human Development Report, based on 1992 estimates, there were 144
radios per 1000 people in sub-Saharan Africa, compared to 23
televisions per 1000.
Yet, Worldspace's radio system has one feature that limits its
appeal: it's not interactive. Because it retains the one-way
communication feature of the existing radio sets, in addition to
the costs (about $150 per set), it may mean that more face-to-face
meetings between teachers and students will be needed on the
This is a feature of distance learning that many of the
administrators have already taken into consideration. With the
majority of the students being women, says Dodds, arrangement for
learning centers have to be made in such a way that women who are
working can attend.