Confronting Utopian Views of ICT Education in Developing Countries: A case study in Ghana

by Simone Wagner

In the summer of 2013 I traveled to Ho, a township located in the Volta Region in Ghana, to teach computer literacy classes based on ICT (Information Communications Technology) and conduct ethnographic research on tech-education in Ghana. I aimed to use my daily observations in my own classroom, as well as interviews with students at nearby schools, to illustrate a portrait of how computer education is functioning today in a developing country such as Ghana.

The Ghanaian government’s motivations to educate the youth in computers became particularly apparent with the implementation of the 2010 standardized testing reforms for entrance into senior high school, also known as the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE). The new test collapsed Agricultural Science and General Science into one category and added new categories such as Basic Designing and Technology and ICT. It is a further indication of the government’s agenda for modernization reform, a common rhetorical practice within not only Ghana, but many developing countries. Governments and international organizations tend to talk about tech-education as a way of empowering students by fostering skills and creating opportunities in our globally connected world. These buzz words…

African governments in particular have begun to implement policies around ICT education in an attempt to bridge the digital divide, with goals of building in automation and faster communication systems within the country. I began my research by posing the question, what challenges are schools facing adapting to the objectives of the government? I had a desire to understand on a deep level the obstacles Ghanaian students face in this attempt at modernization, to uncover where their interests lie, as well as their sources of confusion.

For one, many of the schools I visited expressed a need for better or more equipment and a need for technical support. It was common for me to see computers in the classrooms not being used, many of which were condemned as being unusable, broken, virus-infected or otherwise. In many schools, the unused equipment just sat there in the back of classrooms. In one school I was told that only eight out of thirty computers in the lab were functional. The computers that needed fixing sat in the classroom next to those that worked. In the adjacent classroom I found stacks of older computers, seemingly forgotten at the back of the room.

Many of the classrooms were overcrowded and couldn’t accommodate every student. That same school’s computer lab housed 60 or 70 students each session, all learning on eight computers during a 30-minute session once a week. While resources were scarce, and the student-to-computer ratio at all of the schools I visited never reached 1:1 (a goal set forth by the Ghanaian government), the greater problem seemed to be the struggle to maintain these systems, and most of the time there were legitimate reasons for this. Many of the systems used were old, difficult, and expensive to repair and maintain. Sometimes they were so old that the parts they needed were no longer manufactured, rendering the computer useless. The only solution was to replace the computers, if they could afford it, because the schools didn’t have the time or the resources to fix them. When I went to visit a primary school in a village near Ho, the computer lab was locked up. After talking with one of the teachers it became clear that the school hadn’t used the computers inside the lab in about a year, since their volunteer instructors had left to go back to their home countries.

Many students just heard about computers and talked about them in their classrooms, rarely getting a chance to use them on their own. They described this as a difference between “theoretical” lessons and “practicals.” So much of their understanding of the computer was based on these reinforced notions of the potential of the device, while rarely seeing that potential ever realized.

Through DAVS I met Paulette, a local Ghanaian volunteer working with DAVS in their health care program; she also worked as a pediatric doctor at a large hospital in the capital Accra. Paulette had a computer with her in Ho, along with a wireless Mifi router; she was what you might call “computer literate.” When I asked her if she uses her computer in her work at the hospital, she replied that is wasn’t a requirement for her. She felt being able to use a computer was something she needs to know, but not necessary in her line of work. She explained that the hospital still relies heavily on a physical paper and folder filing system and nothing in the hospital has been digitized thus far. Many of these computer programs were being taught at relatively young ages, long before the time they may need to know them. More often than not, students never utilized their knowledge of computers at all. For many it is just a pre-requisite for a job. Paulette continued, “It is a requirement because it is a standard everywhere else. But it is not a standard here, it is only a standard on paper. You need it on your CV.”

I heard similar stories from the students in my own classroom: if they wanted to get a job after they finished school, they needed to have a certification in computer skills. They needed that piece of paper, and my students often asked me about it throughout my six weeks with them. They all agreed that they needed to learn how to use the computer, but couldn’t give a clear answer why, except that having knowledge of computer software is very well-respected in Ghanaian society; it meant that you could work in an office environment, and that you would need to dress up in business attire every day.

While there were definite infrastructural challenges, it was unclear if other factors were playing a role in these various disconnects. The promise and expectation of what these devices could do overwhelmed the reality of how they functioned in the classroom. In treating computers as neutral technologies, educational initiatives fail to recognize the actual function of the machine as currently configured. On the government website, there is a notable lack of conversation on issues of digital globalization in Ghana, or even how the adoption of computer education might help to combat globalization effects. While the use of computers is thought of as necessary, it is rarely questioned why; nor was it clear if some aspects of computer education were necessary for development, while others were not. The challenges and setbacks of the modernization process were never confronted or questioned.

One particular statement within the ICT education policy hints at the potential threats digital tools can bring to the changing of local culture. It explains that the policy focuses “not just on knowledge and skills but also attitudinal capacities to develop the right culture with the appropriate mindset, values, and behavior” (2008 ICT in Education policy). This statement is the first indication, if not the only one, that expresses a consideration for the cultural implications of these devices that require particular mindsets, values, and behavior– all integral aspects of culture.

The device is often only thought of in terms of what it denotes, ignoring the possibility of connotation. Globalization has transformed towns and cities in the developing world, reflecting ideals from the Western world; Ho was no exception. TV broadcast top 40 music videos from the US, while the local barber featured African American celebrities on their street advertisements. Images and knowledge of Western cultural artifacts serve as cultural currency, a symbol of societal status for many.

The issues of power in this divide seem to be two-tiered– the first between Ghana and the Western World, and the second within the country, between those in the main cities with the majority of the wealth and those in the poorer, rural areas with less infrastructure. Digital devices, particularly the desktop computer, are cultural objects, designed and constructed with Western society in mind. The adoption of digital devices is the adoption of a product from Western culture. Whether or not these adoptions are met with enthusiasm or rejection, it is primarily an issue of assimilation, promoting ideologies different from local understanding and worldview.