Here’s Why Opon Imo Matters to Nigeria’s Future

Nigeria’s Osun State has launched Opon Imo – a program to give secondary school students free tablets with educational content. Here’s why it matters.

No one denies that Nigeria has the potential for extraordinary greatness. When I was younger, it seemed to be all about oil and mineral resources.  “Nigeria is blessed” we were told a million times. Today, it’s about people – at least 160 million of them, mostly young. A ready market and an able workforce, we are reminded.

But the other side of that coin is a bit darker. It is not enough for us to be young and energetic. We must also be literate, educated and able to function in the modern workplace. This is one area where Nigeria has done particularly badly. After years of neglect the public education system is in a shambles.

At the last Nigerian Economic Summit, the Minister of Sports noted that, in his time as Commissioner of Education in Kwara State, only a minority of primary school teachers were able to pass a test meant for their Primary 3 students.  Last year, the head of the Universal Basic Education Commission stated that 50% of Sokoto State teachers were illiterate.  And you’d have to have been living under a rock to not have heard of the shocking WAEC & JAMB scores across the nation.

Perhaps the most alarming part is that, as woeful as our education system is, it cannot cater for all our youth.  90% of JAMB candidates will not be able to get into any tertiary institution simply because there aren’t enough spaces to go round.  And it’s estimated that about 10.5 million youth in Nigeria are out of school.

The education emergency requires drastic action. The conventional thinking is to build more schools and focus on teacher recruitment and training. The problems are cost and adequacy. I am not confident that Nigeria can afford the cost of a traditional education overhaul or that we would be able to provide half-decent education to all our youth or even that we would be able to reach all our youth. Remember, most Nigerians are below 30.

I’ve asked before and I’m asking again, “should Nigeria consider being one of the first countries that make MOOCs mainstream and thereby leapfrog traditional education systems? How flexible should we be with education delivery mechanisms?”  This are serious questions we need to be asking ourselves at this point in our nation’s history.

This is why I think Opon Imo is important. It’s an attempt at trying something different, drastic even, to bridge our education deficit. By skipping the usual gatekeepers, it allows the delivery of quality content to everyone with access to a tablet.  There are many genuine concerns of course.  For example, in discussing with some of the team tasked with implementing the program, I complained about the lack of an internet connection on the tablets.  They explained that, since the tablets were going to be free, they wanted them to have as little commercial value as possible outside the hands of a student.  Fair enough.  There’s also this interesting Guardian article that points out that a lot of projects utilizing technology in Africa have failed due to lack of training and support.

These are all legitimate concerns and I expect the Osun State government to take them seriously.  One thing that comforts me is this phenomenal TED talk in which Sumitra Mitra talks about his experiments in self-teaching in Indian villages. You can watch the video below but basically, he describes various instances where children who didn’t speak English were given touchscreen computers with English-language educational material but no instruction.  In all instances, by the time the researchers came back, the children had mastered the material on the content.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dk60sYrU2RU]

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in the education space – Beni American University is putting together Nigeria’s first online university, Fora is working to provide content from educators across the world to Africans via the internet and Osun State is delivering free tablets to 150,000.  While these initiatives aren’t necessarily silver bullets, they show the kind of thinking that would be required if Nigeria is to leapfrog years of missed development and start to play the catch up game with the rest of the world.

 

Tablet designed by Luis Prado

10 Comments

  • pystar says:

    The only grouse I have with this initiative is the fact that the tablets are being given to secondary school students. I feel they should start with much much younger students.

  • Adefowora Ward says:

    As much as I would like to believe that tech (well tablets loaded with text books and exam papers) can solve Nigeria’s massive educational deficit, I think it is useful to think through what the actual problems are and then find the right locutions to fix them. The conversation about Opon Imo so far feels like we are working to an answer so if tablets in school are the answer what is the problem.

    The problem in Nigerian schools starts with our poor early years education – children are not school ready when they rock up for primary school and poor teaching quality does not to address this deficit so how do tablets enable school readiness?

    All the data about success in education shows the key driver isn’t pretty school or snazzy tech but solid encouragement from the family and where that doesn’t exist from a surrogate like a school, so how do tablets improve family support for the child’s learning?

    Sugatra Mitra’s work is about collaborative learning so students share a computer not individual tablets and it was done with much younger children. His latest TED talk http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_build_a_school_in_the_cloud.html shows that you don’t smart teachers to create smart kids. You need engaged, concerned people (usually older), how do tablets create this?

    I don’t want to appear as if I hate tablets (saving trees and all that is great) but if our problem is children dropping out of school, poor teaching practice, unskilled, poorly skilled young people, are individual tablets for some secondary school students the most effective intervention for limited state funds?

    My final comment: those of us who are more affluent than the parents of the children in those schools in Osun should ask ourselves what we look for when we are researching educational establishments for our children. Is it good teachers? Is it leap frogging tech? Is it decent teacher to student ratios? I am just asking ni 🙂

  • This Opon Imo matter inspires a weird range of emotion in me that I can only describe as somewhere between calm skepticism and cautious optimism.

    Like you, I believe that leap frog tech innovations like these — and not necessarily tablets — are not a nice to have. In fact they are the only hope we have of catching up to the rest of the world, and considering our glaring human capital deficits. I agree wholeheartedly with Adefowora that tablets (read tech) cannot replace teachers, but the reality is that we’ll never have enough teachers. We best make use of what is available to us and leapfrog wherever we can. So thank God for Beni American and Fora. Those two are working to “disrupt” education at the tertiary level, but I hope their work and philosophy eventually makes it down to the more fundamental rungs of the educational ladder.

    However, I just can’t get over the stench of populist politicking that is trailing this particular initiative. I’m sorry, and I hope I am proved wrong, but I worry that Opon Imo might not serve a greater purpose than aid the Ogbeni, in his bid to keep his seat as Gomino come 2014.

    This latest display of state-sponsored innovation is not so rare as to merit the hype. Before Opon Imo, there was OLPC and Aakash. Where are they now? Why did they stall? And how will this be any different? How much pedagogy, logistical and longterm sustainability thinking has gone into this? I guess we’ll find out a few months from now.

  • niyoma says:

    Whilst I welcome this initiative, I would rather see initiatives that address the core issues like quality of our educational system, incentives to get more people engaged in teaching and placing great value on education (not all about money). These are longer-term changes needed to drive a better tomorrow, particularly for the disadvantaged. The issues with our educational system are deep and farfetched. Shortcuts are great but they create a cycle of mediocrity – address the core issues and not symptoms.

    Few professions I admire, teaching being top of the list. However tablets will not address how we undervalue our teachers – no pay, poor pay to mention a few. The Ghanaians over the years have placed great value on education and the disparity with Nigeria in many respects is now very evident. I remember as kid, the best teachers were all Ghanaian. And yes, they have since returned home.

    I welcome the focus on our tertiary level; however, primary and secondary education requires the greatest of attention. We all know formative years are circa 5-12 years old. It is at this age range you mould and build the next leaders of tomorrow.

    I would also like to see a less formal learning culture with great emphasis on life skills and values required in the real world. Our current educational system perpetually fails in delivering well-rounded individuals – producing half-baked graduates that add no value.

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