Guidelines for Mapping Education Data in Sub-Saharan Africa

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The blogpost was written by Taskeen Adam and Irene Selwaness and published on the EdTech Hub blog on June 14, 2022. The blogpost is available at https://edtechhub.org/2022/06/14/guidelines-for-mapping-education-data-in-sub-saharan-africa/ under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International. It is reposted here without any modifications.


Are you a government official, NGO or researcher looking to understand what education data is available locally? Our new guidance note shares practical lessons learnt from mapping the availability of education data in Kenya, Malawi, and Sierra Leone.

Last year, we posted about the Unlocking Data initiative and its goal to support access, use, and sharing of education data to effectively tell the story of education in Africa. In 2020,  we hosted a series of workshops that aimed to unpack the biggest barriers in data sharing. At these workshops, the community of practice realised that before we can truly discuss (re)using education data effectively, we need to understand what data exists, where the data gaps are, and what data indicators are needed for decision-making. To delve into the topic further, we hosted an event to showcase early ‘Lessons Learnt from Education Data Mapping in Africa’ and created a working methodology for education data mapping.

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The Story of ‘Unlocking Data’

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Photo Credit: Image by ESSA

Imagine you are working in the Ugandan Ministry of Education and you want to understand how barriers to girls’ education at secondary level are changing. You can find a few academic articles that look relevant but sit behind a paywall, and a high-level report from a consulting firm, none of which answer the exact question you want to ask. You know the data that was used to write these articles and reports could provide crucial insights if analysed with your priorities in mind. However, tracking down the data is fruitless  —  the data was not deposited, catalogued, or indeed ethically cleared for future use.

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Using ‘building blocks’ to develop digital education platforms cheaper and faster

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Earlier this year, our team at EdTech Hub and partners at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation noticed a recurring pattern: we saw colleagues around the world — in government, the private sector, civil society — working to develop various digital platforms for learning. We also noticed that most of them tended to need similar platform components — and they either developed them from scratch or used off-the-shelf solutions that weren’t quite tailored to their needs. 

We found ourselves wondering … if we, as a global EdTech community, can understand which platform components or ‘building blocks’, are needed and how they can be used most effectively, we could reduce duplication, increase quality, and conserve resources — ultimately lowering the cost of digital education opportunities and giving access to more children. 

So, we set out to investigate existing and potential use cases for how open-source, modular ‘building blocks’ can be used to build digital platforms for education in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). We wanted to test the following hypothesis:

build digital platforms for education
… but what are ‘building blocks’?

Building blocks can mean different things in different contexts. In our research we defined building blocks as open-source, modular, interoperable pieces of code or software that can be (re)used to build or tailor platforms. They are the middle ground between building bespoke platforms and using off-the-shelf platforms.

Examples of platforms that could leverage building blocks include content repositories, teacher professional development platforms, virtual learning environments, student information systems, and education management information systems.  Broadly, these platforms fall into two major categories: platforms for teaching and learning and platforms for education system management.

What did we do?

We conducted desktop research and semi-structured interviews with donors, ministry officials, and platform developers to gather a long list of platforms and tools that are used in sub-Saharan Africa. From this, we did a deep dive on three building block platforms (DHIS2 for education, OpenEMIS and Sunbird), and four countries (Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Kenya, and South Sudan).

Through our research, we were able to provide insights on the following questions: 

  1. How can education systems potentially benefit from building blocks?
  2. What are the pathways to successful uptake?
  3. When should you build from scratch, use off-the-shelf solutions, or use building blocks?
  4. What roles do key stakeholders play?
  5. How can stakeholders interact better?
  6. What are the risks of provision?
  7. Is there a need and demand?
  8. How can donors provide better support?
  9. What considerations need to be taken into account to determine a country’s readiness to use digital platform building blocks?
What did we find?

In addition to our insights on the above nine questions, some of our unique findings included the following:

  • While countries such as India have a thriving community both developing and using building blocks, this is not yet the case in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, ministries are more likely to build bespoke solutions from scratch (e.g., Kenya’s National Education Management Information System) or to use off-the-shelf solutions (e.g., MS Teams). This is either because they are unaware of existing building blocks or have concerns about the integrity of open-source platforms.
  • While there are no homegrown examples of building blocks in sub-Saharan Africa, building blocks that are developed by international partners are being used (e.g., OpenEMIS used in DRC, Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa and Zambia, and DHIS2 for Education used in Eswatini, Mozambique, The Gambia, Togo, Uganda, and Tanzania).
  • Factors that enable effective use of building blocks include:
  1.  Digital infrastructure maturity
  2.  Human capacity such as skilled developers and data analysts
  3. A supportive ecosystem 
  4. Sufficient funding
  5. Stakeholder and policy support
  • There is a need to ‘educate demand’ on the use of open-source platforms and building blocks for both donors and in-country decision-makers. There are a large number of bespoke platforms being developed by ministries with donor funding. Sharing information regarding the benefits of building blocks can reduce duplication and conserve resources.
  • There is a need to coordinate donor funding on platform development. There are a number of donors developing different platforms of a similar nature within a country.  This has resulted in fragmented data that can even produce conflicting findings. Donor projects and funding need to be coordinated such that they invest in building central and / or integrable platforms.

Photo credit: Nathan Dumlao

Some links I always share

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I’m at the TeacherFutures workshop (pre-PCF9) organised by the Commonwealth of Learning. Really interesting conversations with colleagues from Cameroon, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Nigeria, Uganda, Sierra Leone, South Africa.

In these conversations, I usually refer to a few Open Educational Resources, particularly for teacher professional development. These include the following teacher professional development resources:

These programmes are not the only such programmes, but they are distinct in that they provide concrete resources that are publicly available under Creative Commons.

There are a couple of other programmes I refer to. One is OpenUpResources (https://openupresources.org/), producing an open mathematics curriculum (in the USA) as well as Kolibri (https://learningequality.org/kolibri/), an innovative hybrid online/offline learning management system (with similar idea to some of the ideas advocated around 10 years ago here).

Launch of literature and project surveys on EdTech in LMICs

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In an attempt to gather as much literature, projects and interventions about EdTech in LMICs as possible, the EdTech Hub is launching two surveys to collect such information. 

The literature survey

We recognise that in such low and middle-income regions, much information is not always in searchable peer-reviewed journals or databases, yet may be highly relevant to the EdTech hub. For this reason we are including grey literature such as theses, conference papers, journal articles, NGO reports, and policy papers, among other forms. A link to the publications survey can be found here.

The projects and interventions survey

Similarly, projects may be implemented on the ground but may not have a virtual presence, let alone be captured in journal articles. We are interested in finding out about these interventions. A link to the projects and interventions survey can be found here.

We welcome any suggestions on how to improve these surveys and ideas of how we can better collect information on literature and projects.

Where to begin a systematic literature review?

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How do you begin searching for everything that has been written on education technology in the past 10 years? Over the past few weeks, the research sphere team has been grappling with this question.

It seems logical to first decide which search terms we would use in database searches. However, the main issue with this was the sheer number of words we could be using. For example, we initially came up with 146 terms (and counting!) that refer to specific technologies used in the classroom. Now, most systematic literature reviews, of course, dutifully report on the terminology used in their searches. However, not many appeared to explain how they came to choose specific search words.

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