Using Information Technologies to Improve the Performance of African Canadian Learners

Harvey H. Millar Ph.D., P. Eng.

African Canadian Education Project

Saint Mary's University

Halifax, Nova Scotia B3K 5Y1

email: Harvey.Millar@STMARYS.Ca

Web Site:



Across Canada, the educational issues facing African Canadian learners are all too similar and familiar. Examples include: high drop out rates, racism in the classrooms, the feeling of being marginalized, a severe lack of experiences as subjects in the curriculum as opposed to being objects, heavy attrition rates between secondary and tertiary education, and a lack of exposure to African histories. Information technology is being hailed by its advocates as a useful tool in combating several of the failings of the traditional school system. Further, few of us have been spared the expression "use technology or become obsolete". Several Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora believe that "if we don’t get on the information superhighway, we are in danger of being so far behind that we will lose all the gains we’ve made to date". They believe that we will become permanently relegated to the margins. These statements, understandably, create fear, and can drive Africans to uncritically accept information technology as a panacea to all educational concerns. This paper presents a framework for reflecting on and assessing how information technologies might play a role in leveraging the academic performance of African Canadian learners. The framework provides a way of examining the intersections between the educational needs of African Canadian Learners, the capability of technology, and the culture and value underpinnings of both the learners and the technology.

1. Introduction

Studies and reports on the academic performance of African learners in North America have shown that African learners under-perform mainstream society in most if not all areas of academic endeavor. The African America Education Data Book Vol. 1-3 (1997) provides comprehensive statistics that attest to such a reality. While to the author’s knowledge, a similar set of statistics is not available for African Canadian learners, regional reports on the state of education in Canada appear to suggest that the relative performance of African Canadian learners is quite similar (BLAC (1994), Kakembo and Upshaw (1998), Glaze and Wright (1998), and Foyn (1998)). As such, the search for strategies to effect positive change in the performance of African Canadian learners is afoot in virtually all regions of the country. Most Provinces have Black Educators Associations in addition to other organizations that focus on educational achievement of African learners. For example, in Nova Scotia, The Black Educators Association (BEA), The African Canadian Education Project (ACEP), The Council on African Canadian Education (CACE), and the African Canadian Services Division (ACSD) within the Provincial Ministry of Education, are all entities working to effect improvement in the academic performance of African Nova Scotian learners and ultimately African Canadian learners in general.

Much of the debate on improving the performance of African Canadian learners has focused on finding ways of getting schools, school boards, and Education Ministries to meet their fiduciary responsibility through inclusion, re-centering Primary-12 curriculum, developing multicultural and anti-racist paradigms for teaching, hiring of more African educators, and expanding school resources to include African literature, histories and other references. While these measures will go a long way towards creating an improved learning environment for African learners, educational experts and advocates alike in the African community will agree, that we still have quite a long way to go before conceding that the performance of African learners is at par with or has exceeded that of mainstream society.

There are many who see the advent of technology in education, and in particular, the emergence of information technology in education as a tool for improving the educational experiences of learners in general. For mainstream Eurocentric institutions, many of the technologies, particularly those associated with the internet, are seen as providing the opportunity to: broadening access to learning opportunities, better enable active learning by distance, transform learning institutions and learning models, and meet the needs of self-directed learners by allowing the design of asynchronous learning modes. Many believe that the technology can facilitate the design of highly customized learning experiences at the individual level. Others believe also, that these technologies can reduce the cost of educational delivery, a feature needless to say, attracts government policy makers.

Advocacy around the use of technology in general and the use of internet-based technologies in education has led to an almost universal belief that failure to actively engage with the technologies can lead to obsolescence and eventually self-annihilation. The African community has not been spared the impact of the "propaganda" and as such, its is not uncommon to hear expressions such as: "if we (African people) do not get on the information superhighway, we will be left curb-side. We will simply never catch up!!" This statement is real, and the fear in the community of being further relegated to the margins is very real. The theme of 1998 NCBEC conference held in Montreal attests to that fact. The impact of this fear as I see it, is that we are in danger of developing knee-jerk responses that will lead to our uncritical adoption of education technologies simply because they are available, they are seductive, or that mainstream society is doing it. In so doing we would be doing African learners a disservice. Given that technology has its advantages and disadvantages, we as a community must seek ways to make technology (typically not designed by us or with us in mind) adaptable in order for it to work to our benefit.

The purpose of this paper is to provide a prescriptive framework for interfacing the capabilities of information technologies such as the internet with the needs of African learners in order to facilitate the successful design of integration strategies. The framework is prescriptive in that it has not been tested. The framework, however, is informed by my use of technology at work, my experiences in work around educational advocacy in the African Nova Scotian community, and my experience in designing problem-solving strategies. It is hope that the framework will stimulate critical thought around the use of technology to improve the performance of African learners.

In section 2, critical issues facing African learners in traditional school settings are identified. Section 3 discusses what are perceive as the contextual purpose of education for African Canadian learners. In section 4, some important dimensions of an effective learning experience for African learners are outlined. Types of information technologies and their core capabilities are described in section 5. Section 6 discusses important culture and value issues that belie the use of technology. The framework for interfacing the needs of African learners and the capabilities of the technologies is delineated in section 7. The paper concludes with a summary of my feelings regarding our continued struggle for survival and the realistic roles that technology can play in leveraging our power to effectively wage the battle.


2. Critical Issues Facing African Canadian Learners

Much has been written on the experiences of African learners in the Canadian school system. There are several key issues facing African learners. BLAC (1998) and Glaze and Wright (1998) identified several of these issues:

In both reports, several recommendations for addressing these issues are put forward. Many of these recommendations are long-term in nature and require a major transformation of the culture of the education system. Further, several of the recommendations have significant funding implications. With cash-strapped School Boards crying for increased budgets, it would appear that the struggle for equity and parity in the system will be a long up-hill battle.


3. What Should be the Purpose of Education for African Learners?

While this question may sound rhetorical, it is a fundamentally important question for educators engaged in designing strategies for effecting improved performance of African learners. He absence of a clearly stated purpose would inevitably make it difficult to design effective learning strategies. If the purpose of education is utilitarian, for example, in the context of "work for others", then education curricula would be completely driven by the needs of organizations. Most of us however, believe that education has a much broader purpose than simply fulfilling the needs of employers.

Another relevant question is whether the purpose of education for African learners should be any different from that of mainstream society. In much of the literature that focuses of the need for educational reform with respect to equity and parity for African and other non-European learners, the debate centers around content and not necessarily purpose. Purpose is usually implicit. My suspicion it that that implicit purpose is not significantly different from that of mainstream society - that of becoming a full productive citizen.

Purpose must drive content, and there are very few places where I have seen the purpose of education for African learners explicitly articulated. One may argue that the quest for equal opportunity implies that the African Community in Canada wants access to the same rights and privileges that Europeans have and that we want to be able to do what they do to the same degree of competence. While this argument sounds fair enough, that reality is that there is an explicit European agenda - one that is rooted in competition, greed, global domination, cultural hegemony, and discovery and conquest to name a few. Do these constitute the same agenda items for the African community? Simply obtaining parity in the education system does not preclude our participation and contribution to that agenda. Many of us (myself included) teach in these institutions that train people to contribute to this agenda of European triumphalism.

In my humble opinion, I believe that education for African learners should have among others, the following goals:

1: creation of critical thinkers capable of creating theories and practices that reflect our own ethos;

2: creation of a self-knowing, self-caring, and self-loving people;

3: creation of an African world community with unity in deeds, thoughts, and purpose;

4: creation of a people willing and able to produce and design our own (educational, commercial, social, political) systems that can interact symbiotically with "foreign" systems in our global environment;

5: creation of a people whose constant focus is self-liberation, self-empowerment, and community betterment;

6: creation of a people rooted firmly in cultural tradition that reinforces our uniqueness;

7: creation of a people capable of negotiating their existence in their best interest.

These goals are not goals that can be delivered by a mainstream school system. For the most part, the education system trains African learners to simply become a potential resource for use in the broader European agenda. I will take the opportunity here to submit that low motivation, and the rejection of school curriculum on the part of African learners hinges significantly on the lack of any definitive connectedness between the school curricula and goals that reflect the advancement of the African community or society.

4. Important Dimensions of An Effective African Learning Experience

At the outset, let me define effective learning for African learners as learning (cognitive experiences) that will enable individual and collective contribution to the broad goals and objectives of African society or community. For without this contextual underlay for learning, the African learner is simply an undiscriminating receptacle who may likely work to undermine the survival and liberational agenda of African communities.

Using the above premise, effective learning experiences for African learners should have among others, several of the following characteristics:


5. The Role of Information Technology

Information technology in a broad sense, refers to the group of tools that can retrieve, store, manipulate, and present data. In the last 20 years, the computer has been responsible for revolutionizing the value of information. The ease with which data can be stored, retrieved, manipulated and presented has been impacted significantly through the use of computer technology. As such, the ready availability of information has enabled decision makers to improve the quality of their decisions. It has also led to an improvement in the understanding of the behavior of systems where data can be easily collected and manipulated.

In the last 10 years, the development of the internet has created another quantum leap in the perceived value of information by allowing data to be easily transmitted to virtually any part of the world through a network of computers. This capability is now driving organizational reform and redesign for both commercial and non-commercial organizations alike. While business are using the technology to leverage competitiveness, schools are feeling the pressure to use the technology to enhance learning and to potentially reduce the economic burden on cash strapped governments where delivery of education is concerned.

The apparent delivery capability of information technology and internet technology in particular, has led to a new breed of competition in education. Several private enterprises are springing up offering on-line learning for a mass market of adult learners who are not in a position to return to school full-time. These companies contract content and instructional designers, and deliver distance learning via the internet as an alternative to print-based distance education. Not only is the economic potential staggering, the educational issues are surfacing at an alarming rate. This is taking place against a backdrop of rapid changing capability where technology is concerned. As such, there is little time for reflection - only time for consumption - as the economic agenda drives the pace of change and the emergence of new services.

Types of Information Technologies used in Education

The uses of information technology in education is growing at a rapid rate. As we speak, several new devices are being designed and beta tested. As the number of tools grow, the complexities of integrating the tools in a manner beneficial to the end user grows at an exponential rate. The capabilities however provide for the exploration of rich opportunities for meaningful use. A sample of the technologies in use to date in education are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Some Technologies used in Education to Date

Computer-Based Information Technology


Popular Uses

HTML Web Pages

Hypertext pages and multimedia information that can be accessed through an internet browser

E. Mail

Used for confidential communication with one or more persons


Allows for the presentation of video data over the internet

Real Presenter

Allows the creation of presentation documents that can be seen by a browser

One-way video

Limited simulation of a lecture environment

Two-way video

Limited real-time interaction

Two-way video

more complete simulation of a lecture environment with questions and discussion

Video Conferencing

Allows two or more people to conference over the internet


Used for storing multimedia applications and software. Capability is in its storage capability

MUDs (Multi-user devices )

Allows several users to simultaneously use a particular technology on the internet

On-line Chat

Used for real time synchronous communication between two or more users (an example of a MUD)

Bulletin Boards/

Usenet News Groups

Used for asynchronous communication with a group of participants. Threaded communication.

Real Audio

Used for broadcasting audio files over the internet

PADs (Personal access devices)

Palm-held devices used to access the internet


Allows the presentation of mathematical documents on the internet

Virtual Reality

Simulations of real-life situations


Purported Benefits of Information Technology in Education

Technology advocates make several claims regarding the potential benefit of information technology in education.

Remote or On-line Learning

This appears to be the most popular use of internet based technologies in education. By being able to deliver course content to any location on the globe, advocates see the technology as facilitating an alternate brand of distance education. Because of the access and delivery capabilities of the web, it promotes time and place independence in distance learning. Further, it facilitate asynchronous learning and self-paced learning.

Access to World Data Bases

Several organizations have published all sorts of materials on the Web. The Web is a publishing vehicle and as such, it is the world’s largest library. Individuals can access data bases of information the world over.

Communication with People Worldwide

Email can allow people in Africa to communicate with people any where very cheaply and efficiently.

Creation of Virtual Communities

Through email, on-line chat, bulletin boards, virtual communities (or communities in cyber space) can be easily created.

Creation of Active Learning Environments

Having access to the world largest library provides rich opportunities for creating active learning environments. The internet can be used to enhance traditional classroom delivery of course content by facilitating hybrid designs. Alternatively, web-initiated completely re-engineered courses can be proposed.

Some Factors Prohibiting Widespread Use of Technology in Education

Educators attempting to integrate information technologies face a host of difficulties along with the successes that have been realized to date. A brief summary of some of the issues are as follows:

The Teacher

The Learner

The Technology

6. Culture and Value Issues in Technological Advancement

Technological advancement is seen readily as an extension of science, and many hold the view that science is objective and without bias. By extrapolation, one may be inclined to believe that technology is void of cultural and value underpinnings. Of course to think so would be in error.

Technology by virtue of being a tool is designed with a specific purpose in mind - to serve some perceived need or want. Needs and wants are influenced by values and norms. In the case of computer technology, the primary purpose of the technology is to facilitate productivity. As a society, Europeans value productivity as a behavioral norm. As such, there is the general belief that people who are more productive (in an economic sense) should receive more pay, promotion, and public accolades. Even with respect to the use of information technology, constant reference is made to the efficiency with which a task can be completed and ultimately the costs savings that can be gained. It is clear that efficiency which is directly related to productivity is a highly valued cultural norm.

In considering technology for use with African learners, we cannot make the assumption that the value underpinnings of the technology are congruent with the values and norms of African learners. Failure to check for conflicts will impact the performance of the learner.

The proper and effective consideration of information technology in educating African learners require that the educator understands the learner at a cultural and spiritual level. While most learners may not be able to articulate the intricacies of their cultural make up, they will react in accordance with that make up unless some external coercive force dictates otherwise. Then, the engagement is only passive, not active. This defeats the notion of student-centered learning.

7. Framework for Designing Technological Integration for African Learners

Designing technological integration to serve the needs of African learners is by no means a trivial task. Sections 4-6 of this paper identified what I believe ought to be the purpose of education for the African learner. The crucial question is: "can information technology be used effectively to serve the educational goals/objectives of African learners?". Recognizing that the goals that I have proposed and much of challenge waged at the current system of education in the country amounts to oppositional pedagogy (Dei (1998), Asante (1991) Brandt (1986)), I am reminded of a quote from famed African American writer Audrey Laude,

"the masters tools cannot be used to dismantle the master’s house".

Hence naive beliefs that we can use technology to advance our causes need critical examination. Are we attempting to destroy the "master’s house"? In some ways we are, since the Eurocentric agenda is rooted in competition and global domination. As such, by challenging the education system to be more inclusive and to serve common good, we are in fact asking Europeans who designed a school system to serve their needs to reevaluate their agenda and their design of the value and structure of knowledge.

I do recognize that by participating in the current education system, we are currently engaged in using the master’s tools of "education" to attempt to deconstruct the master’s house. We have made gains, albeit through a very slow and painful processes. What is clear, is that we have in the past adapted and still are adapting the master’s tools. Further, once we understand the master’s tools, we have been bold enough to create our own tools to counter the hegemony we face from the imposition of the European agenda. Afrocentric education, anti-racist education, focused schools, and the redesign of curriculum are quite excellent examples of our ability to learn, synthesize, and adapt. I therefore submit that the potential for the use of information technology to further broad-based community goals exist. We have to identify that potential.

In integrating technology in education for African learners, educators ought to essentially work towards designing a portfolio of technologies that can accommodate the needs of the learners. Subsequently, the educator, given a portfolio of technologies must consider them in conjunction with traditional tools such as fax, phone, library, texts, handouts, face-to-face classes, etc. to create alternative instructional designs. More than likely, the result will be a hybrid incorporating both old and new tools.

Identifying a Portfolio of Information Technology Tools

A popular technique used in total quality management (TQM) can be used to facilitate the selection of tools. The tools is referred to as quality function deployment (QFD). QFD is a two-dimensional structure that allows the user to assess the interaction between a set of customer needs and the processes or tools that deliver the needs. QFD is a communication tool used extensively in the redesign of products and services. In this case, the learner is the "customer" and the technologies are resources to be used in the pedagogical design that will attempt to satisfy the needs of the learners.

The elements of the framework are as follows:

Step 1: Identify the critical learning needs of African learners

Step 2: Identify pedagogical approaches that would facilitate the needs of the learners

Step 3: Determine which pedagogical designs are potentially effective in meeting the needs of the learner

Step 4: Identify all of the technologies that can facilitate the pedagogical design

Step 5: Conduct an analysis of the interface between the tools and the pedagogy

Step 6: Select the tools to be integrated

Step 7: Design the details of the strategy


Figure 1. A QFD Diagram for Linking Pedagogy and Desired Learner Outcomes

Figure 1 shows the QFD framework for linking the needs of the learner (expressed as desired outcomes) with pedagogical designs. Each outcome is rated on a scale of 1 to 10 to indicate the relative importance of the outcome. At the base of the roof, we list the pedagogical approaches. To the right of the main body of the diagram, we identify the performance of the current school system with respect to the desired outcomes and identify the desired performance for an alternate design. At the bottom of the figure, we identify the current use of a each pedagogical approach vs. desired use. The main body of the diagram shows the interaction between the desired outcomes and the pedagogical approaches. Finally, the roof of the "house" allows a study of the interaction between the pedagogical approaches to search for conflicts and necessary trade-offs.

A second phase of this process, requires the building of a QFD framework which looks at the interaction between the pedagogical approaches (selected) and the technological tools such as (phone, fax, teleconferencing, video conferencing, chat, bulletin boards, etc.)


Figure 2: The Relationship between Pedagogy and Information Technology

Addressing Some of the Failings of the Traditional School System

Two of the most prevalent complaints against the tradition school system with respect to African learners, is its culture of racism and chronic lack of appropriate African-centered references that allow learners to feel included in the curriculum. While European teachers in the system need to undergo a paradigm shift and a socio-cultural transformation, there are ways in which the proper use of information technology can reduce some of the negative impact of racist classroom experiences.

The following are a few ideas:

8. Summary

This paper presented a discussion of the issue of the use of information technology in educating African learners. We live in a time epoch largely referred to as the information age. Technologies that store, retrieve, manipulate, and present information are being developed at an alarming rate. Further, the capability, affordability, and ultimately accessibility to the technology is also changing dynamically. This wave of change has the ability to draw people into the debate on technology consciously or unconsciously. The African community is being told that we must get on board or be left behind.

In my opinion, while information technology, and in particular, information technology in education possesses several desirable advantages, uncritical engagement with the technology can be detrimental. In the context of education, I have proposed a prescriptive framework for guiding an educator through a process of selection. This framework requires the educator to understand the needs of the learner, the types of pedagogical designs, and the core capabilities of various instructional technologies. If applied properly, the framework is a useful technique for enabling educators to design technologically-enhanced courses and programs to improve the academic performance of African learners.

References and Bibliography

African American Education Data Book, Vols. 1- 3, Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute, USA, 1997.

Asante, Molefi K., "The Afrocentric Idea in Education", Journal of Negro Education, vol. 60, No. 2, pp. 170-180. 1991.

BLAC Report on Education: Redressing Inequity - Empowering Black Learners, Vol. 1-2, Ministry of Education, Nova Scotia, 1994.

D’Oyley, V. and C. E. James, (eds.) "Re/visioning Canadian perspectives on the education of Africans in the late 20th century," Captus Press, 1998.

Godfrey Brandt, "The Realization of Anti-Racist Teaching" Taylor, Francis Hemisphere Inc., 1986

Dei, G. J. S., "Taking Inclusive Education Seriously," in Re/visioning Canadian Perspectives on the Education of Africans in the Late 20th Century, D’Oyley, V. and C. E. James, (eds.), Captus Press, 1998

Foyn, S. F., "A Trioka of Programs: African Nova Scotian Education at Dalhousie University," in Re/visioning Canadian Perspectives on the Education of Africans in the Late 20th Century, D’Oyley, V. and C. E. James, (eds.), Captus Press, 1998

Glaze, A. E. and O. M. Wright, "Improving the Educational and Life Chances of African Canadian Youth", in Re/visioning Canadian Perspectives on the Education of Africans in the Late 20th Century, D’Oyley, V. and C. E. James, (eds.), Captus Press, 1998

Kakembo, P. and R. Upshaw, "The Emergence of the Black Learner Advisory Committee in Nova Scotia," in Re/visioning Canadian Perspectives on the Education of Africans in the Late 20th Century, D’Oyley, V. and C. E. James, (eds.), Captus Press, 1998