Faced with the daunting task of reaching millions of students scattered in a mostly rural nation twice the size of France, the Ethiopian government turned to two South African companies for help.
The assignment for Kagiso Educational TV and Sasani? Create extensive television-based curriculums to be taped in Johannesburg, and cobble together a distance-learning network linking 450 schools in the country, no matter how remote, in one of the least developed countries in the world.
Part one of the assignment included producing the educational television programmes, for grades nine to 12. A second part included creating supporting material for both teachers and students to accompany all programmes, known as the Ethiopian Satellite Education Project.
The initiative was supported by a US$80-million (R640-million) World Bank loan.
The scope of what was required was enormous – and the fate of the educational future of third-largest country in Africa stood in the balance. When the project began in 2004 Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education was requesting 2 978 individual programmes to be produced in 12 months.
In response, Kagiso and Sesani created what they called “a television factory” in Lyndhurst, Johannesburg, naming it “Memar TV” or “to learn,” in Amharic, Ethiopia’s main language.
“It was a huge project and quite a feat to accomplish,” said Eileen Sandrock, managing director of Memar TV.
The weekly requirements included 70 half-our programmes of educational television programming, accompanied by teacher and student guides. It required 60 researchers, scriptwriters and subject experts, and 80 full-time technical staff. The programmes included graphics, studio presentations and visuals taped in both South Africa and Ethiopia.
The project was aimed at alleviating the lack of enough skilled teachers, inadequate infrastructure and overcrowded classrooms in Ethiopia’s educational system.
In the end, 450 schools were equipped with 8 000 plasma screens.
The developers grappled with issues such as the possible marginalisation of teachers, the lack of understanding of English in a nation where teaching is in a local language until high school, and the passive nature of learning from a television screen.
In the end, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education decided the advantages outweighed the minuses.
English journalist Andrew Heavens recalls visiting the southern regions of Ethiopia in 2005 and coming upon a school
“As we walked up to one of the outdoor classrooms, we heard the voice of a math teacher going into great detail about the angles of a parallelogram,” Heavens wrote. “When we went in, we found the 60 or so students were all taking their lesson from a professor speaking through a state-of-the-art Samsung plasma video screen that would be way beyond the budget of many schools in the UK. The lesson was being beamed in from Addis via a huge satellite dish outside through a rack of Digital Video Broadcasting receivers.”
The head teacher at the school told Heavens that there had been start-up problems that were later sorted.
“Students had found it hard to keep up with the English used by the Addis-based teachers. But they soon got used to it and grades had improved by up to 45% over the period,” Heavens was told by the teacher.
According to the Ethiopian Government, the new education system is “an important element of sweeping educational reform in Ethiopia, which has seen the construction of more schools in the past decade, a revision of curriculums incorporating more practical and relevant education, and improvements in teacher training.”
Because of the new system, “greater numbers of teachers now receive additional English language training, and earn a higher wage in order to make the profession more attractive,” the country’s Ministry of Education says. “As a result, there has been a leap in child enrolments, from 3- to 9-million, and greater numbers of females attending classes in urban centres than ever before.”
Rick Grantham, who created the educational programme for Memar as its managing director, wrote an assessment of the venture before departing to launch a new company.
“The Ethiopian example has shown the benefit of developing solutions to meet base line requirements first, instead of concentrating on ICT/ multimedia solutions that cannot be sustained,” he said. “It is hoped that - as skills develop - Ethiopia's video solution will be complemented by on-line computer interactivity, especially since the satellite link now in place can also be used for computers and on-line networks. As such, the Ethiopian experience should be seen as the first step in a more integrated education development plan.”
Grantham believes that although distance learning cannot replace teachers, that “it does offer an ideal opportunity to access large numbers of learners, in different locations, at different times, with customised training solutions, quickly and cost-effectively.”
The developers of the programme hope that similar projects would able to fill the gaping hole of educational needs in many other African countries.