African information and communications technology (ICT) ministers have agreed to promote the zero rating of access to educational content to support university students confined at home during COVID-19 lockdowns on the continent.
The ministers forged the declaration after meeting via video conferencing on 5 May as the Bureau of the Specialized Technical Committee on Communication and ICT.
The meeting was organised by the African Union Commission to consider strategies and actions to support the continental strategy on the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ministers said they had taken into consideration the outcomes of meetings of the African Union Bureau of Heads of State and Government held on 26 March and 3 April respectively regarding Africa’s response to the pandemic, as well as the meeting of the Economic Commission for Africa with African ministers of finance, planning and economic development on 19 March.
Learner and student support
In their declaration, the ministers said they had agreed to “promote zero rating of access to health and educational content as a critical and urgent intervention, to counter the pandemic and to support learners and students confined to home due to the closure of schools, colleges and universities”.
They also agreed to pursue and expedite the implementation of the Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa.
The strategy seeks to build inclusive digital skills and human capacity across the digital sciences and education, both technical and vocational, to drive digital transformation, including coding, programming, analysis, security, block chain, machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotics, engineering, innovation, entrepreneurship, and technology policy and regulation.
As African universities started closing their higher education institutions due to the threat of COVID-19, Association of African Universities Secretary General Professor Etienne Ehouan Ehile appealed to African ministers of higher education in late March to prioritise ‘last-mile’ internet infrastructure investments and facilitate connectivity for all citizens.
He said his organisation had noted with concern that most African educational institutions are not able to continue their business of teaching, learning and research after the closure of the institutions. He said while most educational institutions in the Americas, Asia and Europe had quickly transferred all their business of teaching, learning and research to online platforms, educational institutions in Africa were grappling with how to move forward and continue teaching and learning activities.
Ehile said that strengthening the national research and education networks (NRENs) was a key starting point. “Most African countries have established NRENs, but these NRENs have not been supported to become mature so that they become effective service providers for educational and research institutions.”
He called on African governments to invest in strengthening their NRENs because they will help to address the connectivity challenges faced by African students, academics and researchers.
Ehile said students and staff need continuous training for the e-learning environment and said African governments must provide budgets and ongoing training programmes for the educational communities in their countries.
Ehile said building effective ecosystems to support and continuously improve African educational institutions requires that African governments create enabling conditions, promote industry partnerships and facilitate ongoing collaborations.
A senior public administration lecturer at South Africa’s Tshwane University of Technology Dr Ricky Mukonza said NRENs provide opportunities for collaboration and coordination among different educational and research institutions.
“These are important because they provide a platform for these institutions to come together and find solutions to common problems as well as share best practices. It is important that they be supported because they play an important role in the knowledge and development sector,” he said.