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How African Young Adults Use Tech to Accelerate Progress

If you spend enough time around education technology folks, you’ll start to hear about OER, or open educational resources. OER are free or low-cost learning materials (online textbooks, videos, online courses, etc.) that, rather than being protected by copyright, fall under a Creative Commons license. This gives both instructors and students the cocreative ability to adapt resources to a given course or audience. More than just making high-quality learning materials open to the public, OER can increase learner engagement, improve academic performance, and even support higher rates of course completion.

Students working on computers

Openness, however, is not the same as accessibility. In developing countries such as Ghana, consistent, speedy internet is hard to come by. Data is prohibitively expensive—so much so that some students will skip meals to pay for it. Even if they can afford the data, load times are glacially slow and frequently interrupted by power outages. Africans nicknamed the waiting-to-load circle “the spinning wheel of death.”

“To take an online course or to download an entire PDF is really difficult because they can’t afford that amount of bandwidth,” says Tiffany Ivins Spence, a graduate of the BYU McKay School’s instructional psychology and technology doctoral program. “Data costs are often a dealbreaker for online learning, So I was always curious about how we can sustain access to digital learning tools in offline areas.”

Out of that curiosity was born Community Development Network, or CDN, Ivins Spence's nonprofit that aims to create "knowledge bridges" that empower communities across the developing world. Since opening its first community learning center in 2020, the organization has created digital libraries in 92 community learning centers across West Africa and has trained more than 5,000 youth service ambassadors to manage these centers. CDN is part of Ivin Spence’s mission to ensure local people are at the forefront of education, social change, and economic development in their communities.

Sidestepping the “Spinning Wheel of Death”

Ivins Spence, ’11, was initially skeptical of technology’s value in international development. With such a great need for basic infrastructure—including roads, hospitals, and electricity—technology seemed like a secondary or tertiary tool for progress. Though she has spent the bulk of her career supporting development efforts in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia, the McKay School’s instructional psychology and technology program was the first place that felt foreign.

“In joining the BYU Instructional Psychology and Technology Department (IP&T), I felt like a fish out of water,” says Ivins Spence. “I felt like the people who were in that program were really techie, and it was a stretch for me to go in and do a lot of the basic tech things. But what I realized was that it was a whole new language that was important to learn if I wanted to better advocate for those I represented.”

In May 2022, the World Economic Forum and United Nations agreed that digitalization is the silver bullet of development. However, nearly three billion people are still unconnected. To build offline community learning centers—housed in school buildings, NGO offices, orphanages, or, oftentimes, Latter-day Saint meetinghouses—the CDN assesses the needs of each location, compiles and repackages educational content based on requests from local leaders, and provides training for youth managers to use the technology, localize content, and facilitate learning.

CDN’s offline delivery model is based on a common tool used in areas where internet access is severely limited: a solar-powered RACHEL server (Remote Area Community 

Hotspot for Education and Learning). Using their personal devices, people connect to RACHEL—most can accommodate at least 30 and up to 300 devices at once—and access a digital library of courses on hairdressing, woodworking, agriculture, graphic design, coding, and more. Students no longer waste away waiting for the next module to load; rather, they get immediate access to course material in one download formatted specifically for their learning experience.

Activating Young People

Someone using a phone

The success of CDN learning centers largely depends on their volunteer youth service ambassadors—or YSAs, an acronym readers may recognize. YSAs are locals between the ages of 18 and 35; many of them are first-generation high school or college graduates and returned missionaries. They are by no means digital masterminds (though they often possess the inherent technological acumen seemingly embedded in all people born after 1990).

“We do an intensive, full-day training on the technology—such as how to build the tech and how to maintain it and how to network it with other existing tools on the site,” says Ivins Spence. “Then we also train on the digital content libraries: what is available, how they could create new modules, and how to localize—for instance, how to translate or swap out photos and put in new local images or case studies.”

YSAs are also trained in training itself, including how to create meaningful classroom experiences and support group discussions. Within a few months, YSAs can start training other YSAs—supporting CDN’s goal of “locals teaching locals.” YSAs don’t need to be experts. Ivins Spence has found that equipping young people with even the most basic technical knowledge accelerates learning for the entire community.

“We see that if young single adults are aware of opportunities, they benefit the older generation and the younger generation as well as their own peer groups,” says Ivins Spence. “We see them facilitate. We see them market different ideas and then testify. They become living evidence of the power of knowledge to increase access to opportunities.”

One such living example is Johnson Gbedzie, a YSA trainer and CDN’s director of special projects. Over the past few years, Gbedzie has noticed that his knowledge of digital technology, training, and leadership has garnered attention from business owners and the Area Presidency alike.

“In Africa, when you are young, you don’t talk when other people are talking. It’s a cultural norm because it’s presumed that you know nothing. Nobody invites you for a meeting or anything like that,” says Gbezdie. “Since I started doing this work, after helping people going into their fields and trying to grow people’s knowledge, I’m able to be invited to so many meetings. . . . People just call me and say, ‘Hey, I hear you are Johnson. I hear you do so much good work. Thank you so much.’ And that alone gives me joy.”

Empowering Communities

With decades of experience in international development, Ivins Spence is intimately aware of her field’s shortcomings. First, there are power dynamics, wherein wealthy or highly educated people are the ones developing solutions, with little input from lower-literate or lower-income groups. Even well-designed interventions can fail if they aren’t communicated well, ultimately undermining long-term progress. So it was really important for Ivins Spence to create something that not only involved local people but centered them. “When we involve local people in solving local problems,” says Ivins Spence, “we will go faster. And it will be better.”

Local community group photo

Local people lead in every step of CDN’s process, from deciding what technology is needed to training new facilitators to selecting what courses they want to offer. And as more people experience the impact of education, they’re finding more places that benefit from offline, localized learning.

Near their community learning center in Kasoa is a refugee camp—home to Liberians, Ivoirians, and Congolese—in which schools are closed and internet connections are even spottier. After meeting with CDN, the camp’s leaders have decided to appoint a group of its refugees to go to the Kasoa center to be trained as YSAs and come back and start developing their own center.

Rural hospitals and homes for people with disabilities in Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Benin see the CDN model as a way to bring low-cost, localized training materials to their staff. Expanding offline access to OER doesn’t just produce more skilled workers; it can improve health outcomes. “That’s the big goal of this work: knowledge worth knowing is worth sharing. We’re building the capacity of ourselves and of others to be ambassadors of knowledge that saves lives,” says Ivins Spence.

There is no singular solution to solve all the problems that developing communities face. But where there are people, there is curiosity, innovation, and collaboration. Perhaps that’s the best place to start.

Written by Anessa Pennington

Photos courtesy of Community Development Network