Posted by: crudbasher | June 15, 2012

How The Crucible Of Africa Could Change The World Of Education

I’ve been assembling the pieces of a huge puzzle the last few years. As I look at the way we learn in our education systems, I can see that they are inadequate. Despite the best efforts of teachers, the students aren’t learning what they actually need to know to thrive in an ever changing world. Determining where learning goes from here is of course the $64 question isn’t it? It might lead to some conclusions that the reader might think are impossible, but we have already seen impossible things happen in our lifetimes. With this in mind, let me lay out the pieces of my reasoning and show you what I think will happen in Africa, and then the rest of the world.


In recent weeks I have been laying out the ground work for this post.

  • In SpaceX and Whom The Internet Empowers I laid out the case that the main transformative power of the Internet is to empower individuals, not companies and not governments. These individuals can use this new power for both good and evil but that is usually the nature of technology. It is morally agnostic. A person like Elon Musk sees problems in the world and more than any time in human history, can do something about them.
  • In A Great Video Series About Creativity I wrote about a video series by James Burke where he traces the creation of the modern world though a series of chance events throughout history. What is important to note is the vast majority of these chance connections were unintended. There was no grand plan, just people doing what they thought was the right thing.
  • In my series of posts called Searching for a New Model For Learning I talked about what I see as the characteristics of the way we will learn in the future. This idea is still evolving of course but I have enough of a working model to apply it to current events.
  • Finally, I have been working on a theory to explain the effect of the Internet on society itself. I call this The Theory Of Disaggregation. I most recently wrote about it in this post called The Ties That Bind Us (To School). Basically, I think society was structured based on physical proximity to resources but that is changing rapidly and self reorganizing along information access. This should dramatically affect everything that has to do with information, including education. The governing principle is “once the teacher and student aren’t in the same room, it doesn’t matter how far away they are.

Ok so that sets the table.

(cc) angela7dreams

Initial Premise

Most recently I wrote about how the following conditions will soon exist in Africa.

  1. Solar energy based electricity at the source (meaning you don’t need powerplants and transmission infrastructure).
  2. Internet infrastructure based on mobile technology. (meaning you don’t need wire all the way to a house, just a neighborhood or village)
  3. In-situ manufacturing based on 3d printing. (this drastically reduces transportation costs)

Add to that one very important factor: nobody cares about them. What I mean is that governments in the first world have other things to worry about and so tend not to think much about Africa. This lack of governance will allow individuals and NGOs to have an outsized influence and Necessity is the Mother of Invention. We are about to see what a 21st century society looks like without the baggage of the 20th. So here is a scenario I think might very well happen in the next 20 years.

The Scenario

Solar panels drop in price a lot more. Villages in Africa get solar cells for daylight power. This can happen quickly because you don’t need to build a whole infrastructure of power stations and transmission lines. Once you have power, you can run electronics. This will allow a much higher standard of living and longer life spans as you can preserve medicines better.

A continent wide wireless based Internet can be created with mesh style technology. This doesn’t rely on stringing miles of expensive wire. It’s all satellite node based. This will allow villages to power and connect a system of smartphones. In 5 more years a smartphone of today’s capacity will cost essentially zero because of Moore’s Law. (see Why Bring Your Own Device To School Is Inevitable)

So what will these people do with Internet enabled smartphones besides look at lolcats? I think a clue lies in the work of Sugata Mitra. (see his TED talk) He is a researcher in India who conducted an experiment. He placed a computer outside in a poor, rural neighborhood and walked away. He found that children would come and start to play with it and in a short period of time would begin learning. This is learning in it’s most pure; learning for the sake of knowing. People in Africa have all sorts of problems in their lives. If you connect them to the world of the Internet, they will start to use that resource to solve problems. If you couple this with 3d printing, they will be able to download designs for machines and devices and print them out. All you need to do this is a supply of raw materials which Africa has in abundance. For the adults in a typical African village this technology won’t affect them too much, but it will completely transform the next generation. Sir Ken Robinson talks about how children are naturally creative until they go to mass public education. We school creativity out of them. Imagine a whole generation of kids who have grown up with access to the world’s information and nothing but curiosity to drive them.

Education Ramifications

Finally, how will then affect education in the US?  In two ways.

First, these kids in Africa will be wanting to learn things. They won’t want a degree in the traditional sense, but they will want to learn skills. This means an entire continent of kids online wanting to take classes on every topic you can imagine. Somebody will step up to provide these classes. Imagine someone like Elon Musk who want to change the world. Wouldn’t teaching an entire continent of kids qualify? Somebody will step up to do this. What this will demonstrate to the whole world is that mass public education isn’t working and there is a better way.

The second way this will transform learning is because this Internet generation of very creative Africans will start to give back to the world. If the society of the future will be based on creativity, then the world will beat a path to Africa to hire these free thinkers. Some will inevitably become teachers themselves. I have written about how education will truly become global once you have realtime voice translation. (see Realtime Voice Translation Gets A Step Closer To Schools ) If knowledge is power, Africa could be a creative world superpower.

Our traditional way of looking at the world is being upended. I’m not Buddist but this quote seems particularly appropriate.

“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: Our life is the creation of our mind.” – Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C. (source)

Thank you for reading this far and bearing with me this week. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!





  1. (Warning: Realist (and by association pessimist) viewpoint ahead)

    Unfortunately, I believe people with guns will stop all of this. (i.e. this tech revolution does not guarantee human rights)

    Also, religions will continue control and manipulate Africans to western gain (i.e. this tech revolution does not guarantee human rights)

    Maybe if the rest of the world got out of Africa, the vector might head in the direction you describe.

    But the resources there are too much needed and desired by the rest of the developed world, and thus it will continue to be exploited and then to exploit it’s own people.

    Knowledge of that won’t be enough to undo it.

    • Shawn you may very well be right however that would have been a much shorter post. 🙂 Even so, there have been other industries where the established players have seen to have a lock on things only to see things slip away. We will see. Thanks very much for commenting though!

  2. Hi Andrew,
    Your vision of solar power and satellite node based Internet access is of particular interest to me and my research in Nepal. I keep trying to explain to people that mobile learning does not mean writing an essay on a cell phone, but the mobile technology that will enable people in these isolated locations to access the Internet and all the knowledge it holds, anytime and anywhere.
    The Hole in the Wall project of Sugata Mitra is of particular interest as it demonstrates the democratization of knowledge and (as you mentioned above) the empowerment of individuals through this new approach.
    These are certainly interesting times!

    • Writing an essay on a cell phone is a classic case of mistaking the wrong kind of form factor for the efficacy of cell phones at all. Pretty soon we will have flexible screens for cell phones that can be unrolled. Voice recognition is improving very quickly too. Besides, as I’m sure you would agree, writing essays is not the only way to demonstrate mastery. It is a cardinal mistake to try to apply old forms of pedagogy to new technology. That is like replacing a horse drawn carriage with a car and then complaining that the car won’t keep the field trimmed.

      I completely agree with you that these are interesting times. Thank you so much for commenting Susan and good luck with your research!!

  3. […] I have also maintained that teachers will be replaced by machines in a lot of learning contexts, and I also said we might start to see this effect in Africa and places where there isn’t an existing education machine infrastructure. (see How The Crucible Of Africa Could Change The World Of Education) […]

  4. […] wrote a series of posts last year about learning in Africa. I was curious how new technologies could transform a continent that isn’t encumbered by […]

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