The 12th e-learning Conference hosted by the Government of Mauritius and UNESCO, in the final week of September this year, focused on the perspective of e-learning in the African continent with a lot of interesting papers and discussions presented by international academics and industry people. The research papers reflected the development of e-learning in sub-Saharan Africa with a stereotype of a region that was and still lags behind in educational technology while, in reality, stakeholders could seek opportunities to advance e-learning. It is worth noting that distance learning and the diffusion of information technology have already made in-roads within Africa.
Possibly, Mauritius along with South Africa and a few wealthier nations of the Continent could boast having excellent internet connectivity and succeed as developed economies capable of implementing e-learning in society.  There were some certain clear illustrations particularly at the tertiary education level where the University of Mauritius and the Open University have taken first-mover advantage to initiate e-learning.  To this extent, one might claim that e-learning is still in its infancy and bears some distinction with distance education that combines a little of e-learning with traditional distance learning with course materials and some face-to-face interaction.
New perspectives for e-learning
The Conference held in Mauritius particularly addressed new developments taking place through e-learning.  One representative from ‘Blackboard’, an English-based firm, stated the development opportunities to enhance e-learning in Africa.  With ‘Moodle’ as an already established educational platform, ‘Blackboard’ was capable of providing tailor-made training to different audiences.  The cost of implementation was minimal and this could benefit young Africans. For the intervener, it was the question of considering deeply the ‘massification’ of learning in Africa as an outcome of the UNDP Millennium goals.  Since there would be a greater need for Africans to embrace tertiary education, ‘Blackboard’ could be of great use in providing excellent teaching platforms to the region based on skills development.  Traditional academic education was not the main concern for employers but rather the skill acquisition and talent development were the critical employability factors that employers considered in today’s changing paradigm of learning.
The relevance of business training to the retail environment was another highlight of the discussions around e-learning.  Based on research findings, a third of the potential South African workforce was located in the retail sector with the country having some of the biggest retail companies in Africa.  Taking into consideration that retail sector employees spend long hours at work and they are barred from learning and training opportunities, training organisations were keen to develop e-learning. This could be in the form of modular courses provided to learners focused on their practical work experience.  With tools providing quick and easy learning assistance, retail sector employees could gain much in time and money while following tailor-made e-learning programmes. The intervener for this debate was questioned upon the validity of such learning. From his perspective, training in the form of e-learning was highly needed and should be associated with quality certification to better reinforce the provision and validation of e-learning.
Integrating business with e-learning
Seen from visits at the different stands, there were opportunities to have a better outlook of e-learning in the region.  For instance, new universities in Western Africa recently stemmed from the development of e-learning. This was a more economical means of initiating ‘start-ups’ in e-learning at the tertiary level particularly when students faced financial difficulties to purchase books and stationery. In Senegal, for instance, new institutions could provide learning programmes to potential learners by offering them e-learning platforms.  This could also curb the cost of displacement to the universities that could be not easily within the reach of the students. On the local scene, the Open University has been at the forefront of e-learning and this could be an inspiration to certain African educational authorities.
This Conference was also a meeting point for international representatives from the Continent to see how e-learning might have long-term sustainability in the area.  There were arguments regarding the viability of e-learning principally from the fact that sub-Saharan Africa is still poor with people in remote rural areas facing the hardships of life.  Access to the Internet was important along with participation from governments to ensure that e-learning remains a practical undertaking in Africa. Understandably, it is usually providers based in the Western world to be the first to address the problem and fill the gap. This was particularly true because most of the technological development still remains the property of rich countries and they have developed e-learning as an educational platform to foster educational innovation and advancement in Europe and the USA. Just to name a few, Microsoft Cloud learning, Moodle, Pearson Education…
Attraction and challenge for e-learning in Africa
Sub-Saharan Africa offers an opportunity for the business world to develop e-learning.  This has been a long-term prospect because publishing companies like Longman, Penguin, Macmillan, Oxford University Press along with French publisher Fernand Nathan had their footsteps earlier in Africa.  They were the first to promote education based on the respective English and French backgrounds that the African nations had inherited from colonialism. Although such education was generally imposed on African natives, it stood as a hallmark for quality.  Over the years, African institutions wanted to adapt western curricula to their particular needs and these led to the development of local training and educational institutions. Alongside, Africa remains a young continent with a relatively large percentage (above 35%) of people within the age group 15-24 and this calls for concern from education providers because the young are in need of education for the advancement of the Continent.
In parallel, governments in sub-Saharan Africa are gradually more in favour of educational advancement to ensure the development of their economies.  Admitted that education is the only path for economic prosperity and stability, different African States now advocate that education should be on top of their political agenda.  In this way, the development of infrastructure in Africa has also entailed the improvement of educational infrastructure, hence, the development of Internet and connectivity in different ways.  For example, if Mauritius adopts 4G connectivity, the Comoros are connected through satellite providers while cheaper connection systems are entailed in poorer economies.  The new undersea cabling encourages higher connectivity through systems like ACE, MainOne and WACS along with SAFE and this prompts further e-learning opportunities in Africa.
Low standard of living and illiteracy
Obviously, the challenge for e-learning comes from the appallingly low standards of living in sub-Saharan Africa counting for a significant population size earning less than $2 per day.  The fight for illiteracy is conventional through barriers to learning stemming from poverty, patriarchal family and authority and poor access to hygiene and health.  Stakeholders of e-learning however obliterate such concepts, believing that there is a critical mass forming a niche market that is apt for learning.  Africa needs its local corporate managers, middle managers and technicians.  It cannot sustain itself through bringing qualified foreigners to develop the economies.  E-learning stands as an opportunity to tackle the impending challenge.
E-learning platforms and conferences should not be merely considered as meeting points just to advance discussions or get engaged in plenary sessions that have little outcome.  These will be disastrous undertakings because they will just ‘beat around the bush’. Developing e-learning becomes critical as younger people embrace new technologies through the smartphone and cheaper e-technologies like the tablet or the mobile with adaptable software applications.  Fostering such development is necessary and will bear the fruit as people get connected and interact more sensibly today. The e-learning conference and related happenings hopefully set the ball rolling with room for positive expectations in Africa.