Technology: Bridging the Affordability Gap between Public and Private Education

Address by His Excellency the Vice President, Federal Republic of Nigeria, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, GCON at the Second Annual Nigeria Education Conference held at the Abuja Sheraton Hotel on Tuesday November 8, 2016.

I am very pleased and honoured to be here at this annual conference of the elites of educational policy making and implementation in our country. Because of the caliber of educationists and experts who gather here annually, this meeting is obviously not one where we speak merely of routine issues or share experiences only and listen to official reports. I am informed that it creates an opportunity to rigorously debate some of the most important issues that affect the future of education because the future of our society and nation depends on education.

Let me say that I feel particularly at home in your company because I was also a teacher for 32 years. Of course I taught law at the University of Lagos and also at the Lagos State University.

Yes, our future depends on education, the problem is that the future has already arrived, much sooner than we thought and if truth be told, we may not be exactly prepared for it.

There are many fundamental issues to resolve; the first is ideological. Indeed the theme, Learning Opportunities for All: The Critical Role of Teachers, emphasizes in my view, the ideological underpinning of education: education for all. Education is a tool of empowerment, the lack or inadequacy of it can also disempower, so education can create or deepen inequality in the society. A well-educated few with access to the best opportunities and others who are simply not qualified to take advantage of the best opportunities brings me to the example of the huge disparity in our country between the quality of public education especially at primary and secondary school levels compared to what obtains in good private schools in the same country.

In the US before 1954, the issue was segregated schools, poor quality schools meant for black people and high quality schools for white children. Colour was what was used to segregate the schools; blacks could not go to white schools. Now, this changed with the historic decision in Brown versus Board of Education which outlawed segregated schools in the US. In our country there is also segregation but it is based on income and the standard of education of parents.

Generally speaking, public schools are meant for lower incomes and they are of poor quality compared to good private schools which are meant for children of many of us in this room. Indeed most of us who can afford it, have a very different view for the education of our children, these days, culminating in schools abroad. For the poor, it is a vicious cycle, the poor remain poor because of poor education and illiteracy. Most times, their children also attend poor schools. So, while children in private schools are already using some form of technology or the other and are exposed to the best practice in teaching, the children of the poor have no access. It is really a tale of two cities.

As Prof. Akyeampong-(referring to the lead presenter at the conference who had spoken ahead of him) describes the gap between the education for the poor and the better-offs as a learning crisis. I think it is true, it is indeed a learning crisis. But if we were to propose here that we must engage technology in our public school system, many will say it is unrealistic and unnecessary, how can we afford it. Somehow, we become somewhat more cynical about education for the disadvantaged.

We know that many who go through public primary schools have serious difficulties in reading and writing. So, we must change something about what we are doing now.

My wife and I have a trust which we have run for a number of years, I think about 8 years now. We do reading and writing training for children in 40 primary schools in Lagos. The first shock we had when we started was the fact that most of those children simply were not prepared for basic reading and writing. It was obvious to us that a lot of the problem had to do with how they were being trained on how to read and write. And of course the quality of teacher education.

But what was required was really quite simple, there are available methods today that can accelerate teaching, reading and writing but the reason why that is not available in public schools is that we are not investing enough. Not just in technology but in new methods and ensuring that those children who are in public schools have access to some of the better methods to reading and writing.

It is my respectful view that it is the responsibility of those of us who are educationists to think through the solutions for delivering relevant education with the very little resources available. 

I came across the inspirational experience of an Indian educationist who in four years reformed public education in Haryana. The school system had 15,000 schools, 100,000 teachers and 2 million students. The most important part of the story is that the reform was done with little or no resources by using situations around the teachers and the schools including WhatsApp for sharing ideas and information amongst the teachers and supervisors in the department of education.

The reason why the story is particularly inspiring is that it did not take that long; it only took the commitment and a dedication to solving the problem. I strongly believe that the fastest way to breach the gap between those who can afford good quality education and those who cannot is technology. Technology also provides the means to leapfrog the huge knowledge created daily between the hemispheric north and south.

Fortunately, technology is becoming cheaper and more intuitive. I was watching the other day an animated video on class room management made by Nigerian animation innovators in partnership with Nigerian educators. The material does not need to be replicated at any great cost. It will be available on portals or any other electronic platform.

All of such materials can be downloaded and used on a smartphone. I can hear someone saying, how about data?  I think this is where our discussion on getting technology companies to contribute to education comes in. MTN for example is giving free data for the 500,000 volunteer corps graduates who we are engaging, to be able to get access to and use materials available on the training portal.

It is therefore quite clear that teacher education itself must radically change. Teacher training must be technology driven. I also think that a teacher must be trained in much wider curriculum. A teacher must be trained in employability skills, project management, financial management and entrepreneurial skills. Training this new generation of young people is a new challenge. Today, we are training individuals who must learn to multi-task and compete in the global society; the best jobs will require complex skills.

The good news is that this type of training is available and can be made cheaper and more available. Let me commend the Minister of Education and his team for their commitment and dedication to teacher education and the important issues that will shape the future of our society and nation.