Sarah Laurence : Correspondent
While only half of Africa’s children attend primary school, a paltry 10 percent of those who do go to school enter into university programmes. Amid poverty, political instability and social issues, the demand for tertiary education across the continent is growing, and the need is drastically outstripping the supply. A 2010 World Bank report on financing tertiary education in Africa said that from 1991-2006 the number of students more than tripled from 2,7-million to 9,3-million. It said: “Sustainable growth in Africa is contingent on the capacity of states to diversify their economies and thus train human capital that will help to carry out and support this transformation.”
As fee-related student protests in SA indicate, on-campus university education comes at a high cost that states and students are unable (and increasingly unwilling) to bear.
For Africa’s vast commercial opportunities to be realised by Africans, business education that is rooted and contextualised in Africa is becoming an urgent necessity.
Prof Walter Baets, head of the Association of African Business Schools and director of the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, says: “There is so much opportunity. Parts of the continent are booming and there is a need for professional business knowledge and expertise. Business schools are struggling to keep up.”
The virtually unlimited class sizes and the minimal resources needed for online education, therefore, make it a seemingly obvious solution for education delivery in Africa.
However, too much focus on the medium, as opposed to the content, could limit its positive effects, as could a lack of infrastructure and challenges related to adoption.
Christopher Hosken, former chief business developer at online education provider GetSmarter, says the biggest challenge is the digital divide. Another is “the adoption of online as a medium of teaching and learning, especially in areas where it’s always been chalk and talk”.
Still, there is more than enough demand for the current supply of online courses, especially in countries such as Kenya and Rwanda that have invested in bandwidth infrastructure, and as the supply of high-quality tertiary education rises, so will the demand.
In May last year, 1 389 delegates from 68 countries met at the African Union’s headquarters in Ethiopia for the international eLearning Africa conference.
Grégory Vespasien of conference organiser ICWE says the “enormous demand” for higher education far outstrips the available supply.
“This problem is growing . . . as Africa’s population is getting younger every year. Many African countries simply do not have the resources available in their tertiary systems to meet this demand and many governments are very worried about the social consequences.”
ICWE says the online medium is “vitally important for tertiary education because it allows the development of education — the provision of courses and so forth — without the need for a massive investment in physical infrastructure. It does not require governments to build huge new universities. Instead of buildings, money can be spent on teachers, technology and coursework.”
The plethora of open online courses available from service providers such as Coursera, Udacity and edX should prove how well the online model can supplement tertiary education in Africa.
However, despite the reams of high-quality material available from these providers (for free, with low-cost passing certificates), their global completion rate is radically low and the content is not tailored to African students or markets.
And yet, in 2013, US researchers from Ambient Insight named Africa the most dynamic e-learning market in the world, with Senegal, Zambia and SA displaying an average of 15 percent year-on-year growth.
Their report, The Africa Market for Self-paced e-Learning Products and Services, predicts that by next year, e-learning revenues will have doubled in several African countries for the past five years.
One of the largest players in e-learning in Africa is the African Virtual University (AVU), an intergovernmental organisation founded in 1997. Since its inception, it has taught more than 50 000 students and works with 18 countries to deliver internationally designed curricula online.
Although there are plans for AVU to offer its own programmes and degrees, it currently works as a linking medium, partnering with African and overseas universities and providing a platform through which students can access their course work and communicate with their peers and lecturers.
While AVU faces challenges such as unstable power and internet supply, and the rising costs of partner university programmes, its growth and the co-operation from governments indicates that it is fulfilling a need.
GetSmarter partners with the University of Cape Town (UCT), University of the Witwatersrand and an increasing number of prestigious international universities to provide short courses and degrees online.
With UCT, it launched the Across Africa initiative, that delivered two of the university’s most popular postgraduate degrees online in 2015.
Hosken sees GetSmarter’s role primarily as one of proof of concept. “It pioneered online vocational short courses and proved that there can be career advancement from taking UCT quality programmes and seeing where you can provide education that is delivered in 10- to 12-week programmes and really producing people that can practically apply the skills learnt on the courses,” he says.
“We’ve paved the way for people to believe that you can take the academic prowess of big institutions and use the intelligence of these institutions to introduce online short courses that everyone can access and benefit from.”
However, he says the propagation of the medium is not enough — content has to be structured, taught and marketed in a way that ensures learning and practical application.
“We’ve found a model that pedagogically works well and we’ve found a way to get these courses to the right people and match the supply with the demand,” he says.
“One of the biggest advantages of using the online medium in education is increasing inclusivity, so that you essentially allow people to access university-quality content through a medium that doesn’t require extra classrooms to be built and extra educators, and you don’t need a tonne of professors sent around the continent to teach people.”
US investment in online education has grown 53 percent in the past five years, according to industry analysis firm CB Insights.
But critics say that the much-hyped education revolution has been somewhat of a flop. The tragically low penetration rate of huge open online courses at traditional universities, and the slow adoption rate of students and providers have flown in the face of predictions.
Yet, Carnegie Mellon and the London School of Business and Finance put MBA degrees online, and Harvard Business School developed its own learning management system, HBX, so the increased rate of worldwide adoption is inevitable.
Online education will not replace traditional forms of university education, but will help to offer students an alternative, and act as a measure of accountability.
ICWE’s Vespasien says: “In many ways, (access to quality tertiary education) is the most important issue facing Africa today.” — bdlive.