Traditional universities are on the way out: Online is the future for Africa

Education has two faces in today’s world, according to a recent World Bank report. On the one hand there’s the traditional face, where learning takes place in the state-sponsored classroom. On the other are the private initiatives in which other partners take responsibility for education at all levels.

Research suggests that the traditional university has seen its heyday and can no longer survive the changes in today’s world

A groundbreaking Ernst and Young report concluded five years ago that

… the dominant university model in Australia will prove unviable in all but a few cases over the next 10-15 years.

Some analysts are also predicting massive closures of colleges in the United States by 2040. The ivy league colleges will most likely survive the technological revolution, but it’s certain that some universities will not, as the quality online market grows.

This ought to be good news for Africa. The money to subsidise higher education in the traditional sense is in short supply on the continent. The money is simply not there to finance increases in infrastructure and human resources. Financing a brick-and-mortar institution on fees alone is unsustainable.

But it’s, as I hope to demonstrate, entirely possible to finance through fees alone in an online environment.

Using the technology

Today’s technological advantages are grossly underutilised in the education sector. Applied properly, these advantages can save human power hours and costs, enhance content quality, expand audiences and bring the very best content to more students. Technology can also enhance the development of critical minds.

Even though online learning has finally come into its own in higher education internationally, we in east Africa appear reluctant to embrace it fully. With notably few exceptions, our academic work practices appear to have remained more or less static over the past 50 years. True, many academic staff have embraced the use of presentations. And our libraries have online catalogues and a growing number of ebooks. But few lecturers have moved beyond the “chalk ‘n talk” of yesteryear.

It’s a fact that traditional distance-learning programmes have been regarded as “second rate”. This view persists in many developing countries. A major challenge for higher education providers is to make online learning first-class, that’s: relevant, interesting, engaging, and more exciting than the traditional classroom would ever be.

Globally, online education is being used in a creative and challenging way to provide competitive first-class education. Engaging with online material that include video and audio clips makes the learning experience much more pleasurable and satisfying for the self-regulated learner using a virtual learning platform. I have seen this first hand in my own work as a teacher.

Creating challenging, learner-friendly, contextualised and stimulating online resources is a huge challenge in the east Africa region. This is down to a number of significant constraints, not least of which are rural electrification and the high costs of connectivity.

However, in my view, a most significant driver of attitude shift for academic staff is changing student expectations because of the practice of “googling” assignment questions. The serious-minded student will often explore a topic widely and obtain more up-to-date information than the lecturer has. Today’s university teacher is more a curator than a repository of knowledge.

While trawling the internet for up-to-date information, lecturers can compile course materials that are a mixture of their own notes, videos from the YouTube education channel and podcasts from universities worldwide, such as Oxford’s wonderful collection. They can gather lectures and even whole courses online and integrate these with discussions and interactive debates.

All this is possible using an e-learning platform and embracing the flipped classroom approach with a bit of creativity. It’s important for academic staff to recognise the fact that the paradigms of the past no longer work. Our students are not mirrors to be polished so that they reflect our notes back to us. Spoon feeding and rote learning are no longer appropriate in a world that needs critical thinkers and innovators.

With a little creativity, we can create semi-formal student networks for use in the blended or fully online teaching environment. Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp can also be used to bring student groups together and to deliver key messages. And the wonderful thing is that while this shift requires cooperation, none of it requires donor finance.

Global knowledge for local action

Far-thinking ICT managers have a tremendous role to play in universities. Open access library resources can usefully be used to build a virtual library. This would enable many students to read the same book or article at the same time.

The use of open source software is a must for the forward-thinking university in relation to cutting costs on software licences. And Open Educational Resources – a platform of free teaching, learning and research materials – are perhaps one of the most significant developments in higher education today. According to Danai Nhando, there’s great potential for these to increase access to quality academic resources, decreasing cost of education and improving the quality of materials that result from collaboration and peer scrutiny.

Given the inherent flexibility of online education, tutors can be sourced regionally and internationally. A local institution with a global face can raise the benchmarks in the provision of higher education and raise a country’s higher education profile globally.

Online learning programmes must embrace the principle of global knowledge for local action – better still is global knowledge contextualised or created by us. Online education is also a more affordable alternative to crossing physical borders in search of quality.

An online institution, with a slim physical infrastructure, can afford to attract global staff and provide quality learning resources. This can be done while keeping the fees at a level that the ordinary working person can afford. This addresses a very real and growing need for quality higher education as the middle class in sub-Saharan Africa continues to expand.

At my university we provide international education at local prices because we want the leaders of tomorrow to be trained in-country rather than seeking quality elsewhere. The potential is even greater thanks to the fast rate of technology access. It’s said that Uganda may have more mobile phones than light bulbs. What a change this could bring for higher education if we could harness the full potential this presents!

Recasting the traditional conception of the role of a university and its academic practices will take time. Physical classrooms, lecturer’s offices, and student residences are not an integral part of a university’s infrastructure today. What is key to setting up the programmes of tomorrow is investment in appropriate technology.

At my university we are convinced that online learning is the creative response to providing tertiary education in a limiting environment. Just as lack of credit card facilities was a catalyst for the growth of mobile money networks in Africa, so too can the lack of access to the traditional university catalyse the rise of online education.

Professor Deirdre Carabine is the deputy vice chancellor and director of programmes at the Virtual University of Uganda.This article was originally published by The Conversation.