DAKAR, Senegal – « Using digital technology to reduce inequalities in access to quality education ». This is the ambition of Ecole au Senegal, School in Senegal (EAS), a « social project » available online and on smartphones aimed at helping students, teachers, and anyone else who wants to access regular school lessons and other educational content in video format. « We recognize the value of a close connection between education and civic behavior linked to productivity and therefore to the growth of a people, » explains to StopBlabla Cherif Ndiaye, the young Senegalese founder of EAS. “Since January 2012, we have therefore committed ourselves to implementing the innovative practices necessary to support and affirm the education system in general”. With 103,000 alumni, 54 professors and over 3,000 courses, EAS is revolutionizing the way of teaching not only in quantity but also in quality. The teachers in fact go through a rigorous selection to offer the best to all those who wish to use this platform to learn.
« The idea of EAS was born during the presidential election year when for four months there were protests from teachers and, consequently, the school system was blocked », says Cherif, who defines himself as an « entrepreneur social”, one who prefers to work to produce employment and intellectual wealth rather than monetary wealth. « I already ran a call center and had contacts with foreign organizations, so I wondered if it were possible to install a technological system to allow pupils to attend school even when the school system was inaccessible ». In Senegal about 60% of public wages are geared towards the education system. Every teachers strike and protest in the streets, whether rightly motivated or not, means brutally halting the development of an entire nation. Cherif therefore thought that living in the twenty-first century it was possible to learn in another way. « At first I launched a website with courses for the last year of high school written on PDFs, I didn’t even think about the possibility of making videos », continues the founder of EAS.
« Towards 2014 we realized that our platform had not yet reached the success hoped for so we revolutionized our approach by putting online videos to follow the lessons as it was the preferred way for young people to learn ».Cherif Ndiaye, EAS founder
At the time the courses mainly dealt with the “terminale” which in Senegal is usually frequented by students between 17 and 21 years of age. Over the years, the project has expanded to include the entire high school aged 13 and up, a range that represents about 70 percent of the clientele. But there are also people over 30 who enroll in EAS including teachers, adults who want to better prepare for public examinations, police agents, or ordinary citizens who do not have the opportunity to enroll in a traditional school but want to still go back to class. Specifically, you can visit the EAS website or download the application and register for free and then choose the classes or courses to attend.
PROFESSORS AND STUDENTS
The professors are chosen from dozens of applications (for a mathematics course, EAS reviewed up to 80 CVs to select 15 and finally do a face-to-face job interview). »This innovative teaching method is to be seen as an addition to the classic way of teaching, it is a way to give an important alternative to the students », underlines Babacar Gnasse, one of the teachers who once a week goes to EAS office to record his science lectures. « There are advantages and disadvantages: the former are mainly linked to the ability of students to better manage their time to learn, decide when to follow courses and attend them several times, the disadvantage instead is the limit for a professor of not being able to verify the understanding of a pupil who might need more effort for a particular course ». Although the teachers receive a salary, the content of their lessons is indeed completely free. Recently there are over 100,000 subscribers on the EAS Youtube channel.
« I discovered EAS by chance, when I saw one of their videos and with the pandemic I signed up to not miss the lessons, now I use it as a complementary tool to the more traditional school », says Aida Mbaye, first year student at the National High School of Agriculture. « Learning online helped me to save time and energy, because before I had to wake up very early to get ready and go to school, sometimes in the bus there was not even a place to sit with my heavy backpack full of books, so students always arrive in class very tired and unable to concentrate properly ”.Aida Mbaye, student
Funding for the platform comes from individuals or companies through their “social responsibility” departments. The Bank of Africa Foundation, for example, finances nearly 50 percent of the project. Once the coronavirus pandemic began, EAS experienced an explosion of subscribers and institutions interested in this digital platform, increasing its impact on the population. The Senegalese Ministry of Education has in fact recently decided to contribute to the initiative, in addition to about fifty private people who believe in the project. The budget available to EAS for 2021 is 260 million francs CFA (about 170 thousand euros). “Money has never been our priority anyway”, assures Cherif.
« Our priority is to provide a service that does not disappoint pupils who want to succeed in school ».Cherif Ndiaye, EAS founder
This project was not designed only for affluent people who live in urban settings with greater access to finances and internet connection. EAS is also making great efforts towards that slice of the population who live in rural areas and have difficulty connecting both for economic and technical reasons. In a continent where access to drinking water and electricity is still very limited, internet can be seen as a luxury, the challenge of being online is therefore enormous. On Youtube, for example, EAS left students the opportunity to download the lessons for free. Since not everyone can afford an internet connection, for the moment some contents of the platform can be shared with a USB stick even with those who do not have the means to download them. Furthermore, EAS is trying to understand how it may be possible to use the platform without being online. “We are in conversation with a Singapore company,” explains Irene Ntui,a Cameroonian who has been living in Dakar for five years and has been the new project manager at EAS since June.
“The demands have increased dramatically with the pandemic, so we need to equip ourselves with tools that avoid a reduction in the platform speed. The company in Singapore put us in contact with the US company Vita Technologies with which we are trying to solve some technical issues to make our work more effective. Finally, we are also working with a Nigerian company that has experience in expanding initiatives like ours towards rural areas. «
Another tool we are working on is the production of EAS sim-cards, designed with the help of the French organization, Libraries Without Borders (Bibliothèques Sans Frontières), which once inserted into a Smartphone, that in Senegal can be bought for around 20,000 francs CFA, can allow access to some of the platform’s courses such as mathematics, geography, and physics. These are solutions that EAS is working on to improve access to the initiative.
“We have the desire to expand, that is why we have tried several times to contacts some United Nations agencies which, for the moment, have not yet responded to us”, concludes Cherif. « In fact, we are also opening in other countries such as Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Morocco and Niger ». The future of EAS will concern less and less learning in French and more and more local languages where artificial intelligence will be integrated to produce courses which, hopefully, will involve most of the African countries. The idea is to transform EAS into the Ecole Africaine de Savoirs.
Find the translate version into french by Anouk Habermacher: