Unbundling at Elearning Africa

I recently attended the 13th Annual Elearning Africa Conference which took place in Kigali, Rwanda, along with The Unbundled University project’s Principal Investigator Laura Czerniewicz. The conference is a coming together of the many stakeholders involved in digitally mediated education at all levels from schools, tertiary, corporate and continuing education who are working in African countries with the broad purpose of networking, sharing expertise and facilitating conversations about how what elearning looks like and how it plays out in African contexts. Given the evolving nature of how digital technologies are being adopted at different levels of education in many different contexts, the conversations, discussions, presentations and debates spanned a vast array of topics, with currently in vogue issues such as the potential of Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain and the opportunities afforded by the Fourth Industrial Revolution featuring in many presentations. While there was a generally a positive approach to the potential of elearning and the Fourth Industrial Revolution to contribute to educational needs in Africa, Laura Czerniewicz’s keynote cautioned the need to be aware of the potential disparities that can and will emanate as education becomes more digital. As an example she mentioned that while the algorithms that underpin much of the premise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution potentially herald great opportunities for educational applications, she reminded the conference attendees that algorithms are not neutral but human generated. Consequently awareness and policy steering needs to be put in place to mitigate unintended effects that contribute to deepening inequalities, an argument that held much resonance and was picked up in a media op-ed by Bitenge Ndemo.

Unbundled higher education provision

Of interest to the Unbundled University research project, a number of examples of unbundling in higher education provision were shared. A very interesting presentation by Jean Marie Vianney Hitamungu from Kepler – a nonprofit higher education program that operates a university campus in Kigali, Rwanda – focussed on how Kepler is using blended learning and online short courses to augment the skills of its students who are studying US-accredited degrees through Southern New Hampshire University competency-based online degree program. In itself this is an interesting example of an unbundled university provision, but what I found particularly insightful was learning about the engagement and interaction with employers into developing this into a rebundled context-appropriate higher education program. This includes adapting the curriculum to industry needs, establishing a job readiness program and, as part of a full circle engagement, collecting feedback on Kepler graduates’ performance in the workplace to feed into the ongoing development of the program. The Kepler model is an example of an unbundled and rebundled educational provision that is integrating online learning for scale, to overcome geographical boundaries and increase access and flexibility. While small scale with a few hundred students, the first cohort of students recently graduated and the initiative plans to expand to campuses across East Africa.

Another interesting initiative was a presentation by Brian Ntambirweki from the Virtual University of Uganda (VUU), who spoke about how VUU as Africa’s first online-only postgraduate university, offers fully online programmes for career advancement in flexible formats, including a number of intakes a year. In terms of unbundled provision, Ntambireki remarked particularly on cost reduction of staff salaries, saying that these were kept down so fees were affordable, as they were able to employ lecturers remotely “teaching in their living rooms” and so keeping core staff costs down.
In both of these examples, apart from being examples of unbundled provision, the need to align with industry and employer needs was paramount. This is not only reflected in the type of qualifications available – business, communications, MBA etc. but also to the extent that employers and industry appear to have a say in what is taught in the curriculum. The use of digital technologies is enabling flexibility for students and teachers and to some extent allows for scale and cost reductions. Although the numbers of students enrolled in these programs are relatively small compared to a traditional residential university offering hundreds of degree courses and with thousands of students, these examples show how digital technologies and market forces are enabling forms of rebundled university provision.

MOOCs and microcredentials

While the two examples above are concerned with delivering a full degree in a more flexible, contextually appropriate and cost-effective way, other initiatives and conversations at the conference centred around microcredentials and MOOCs and how these types of learning opportunities might be leveraged to improve educational provision. A fascinating panel on MOOCs included a presentation from Sheila Jagannathan from The World Bank. Sharing the experience of the World Bank’s use of MOOCs in their Open Learning platform, Jagannathan outlined how MOOCs formed part of a larger learning ecosystem for the World Bank, and were particularly useful for awareness raising of large issues such as introducing a topic or sharing a body of work (such as the World Bank’s own report which was disseminated to over 40,000 in a “Netflix style” experience). Jagannathan remarked that the number of African learners accessing MOOCs worldwide was growing especially as the MOOC platforms’ compression techniques for video delivery has been improving, and she also remarked that regional MOOC platforms were taking away the share of MOOC enrollments from the large global MOOC platforms. This suggests that MOOCs are making more impact in local contexts and are being leveraged by local and national initiatives while language may also play a role.

This presentation and other MOOC related conversations suggest the need for policy that can make learning in MOOCs for African learners matter if development needs were to be addressed: this includes how MOOCs could be formally included in higher education provision and count for credits; how students could find appropriate MOOCs that could lead to meaningful employment opportunities; and how the perception of online learning and MOOCs could be improved so more students and employers valued their potential. The need for learning to count and lead to meaningful employment was a key theme throughout the conference with a focus on the role of national accrediting bodies, universities offering or adopting MOOCs for credit, and employers in recognising micro-credentials offered by MOOC platforms. Another fruitful area for development needs was how MOOCs could be augmented with facilitated learning and blended with face to face interactions in the interests of localisation, which has the additional benefit of mitigating connectivity challenges for individuals or ameliorating the cost of internet access.

Infrastructure and resources

Indeed amid many of the conversations about the trajectory of elearning uptake, the concern about connectivity and capacity remains. Unlike Global North contexts and better connected urban areas, the key issue of having electricity, broadband and internet connectivity and lack of these constrains the type of elearning that might be available to Africans remains a serious issue, and one which is not easily addressable. Africa’s current internet penetration is some 15.6% with a projection that of 50% of Africans will be connected by 2025 (a user base of 600 million people). Other issues include the lack of skills to develop and build the elearning infrastructure required. Given the scale of need, multiple stakeholders involved in digitally mediated educational provision are being called on to consider the implications of implementing and shaping elearning. The seriousness and scale of the educational needs in African countries was frequently discussed especially at the governmental and ministerial levels including the role of private sector companies, who could provide resources, expertise and capital.

Sharing research findings

Many of these themes and conversations resonate with our areas of investigation in the Unbundling University project. In our poster presentation at the conference entitled Going Online: Unbundling and the relationship between Public Universities and Private Companies, we shared some of our early findings that outlined some of the reasons, and visualized relationships emerging between universities and private companies in the South African Higher education sector to deliver online education. Mapping and understanding the nature of these relationships is a fruitful way of understanding some of the processes of unbundling in university educational provision. The need for online education capacity and skills, the need to generate additional revenues, meeting students’ needs for flexibility and meeting the needs of industry for skilled graduates were issues that our interview participants talked about as reasons for emerging relationships and partnerships between HEIs and private companies to deliver online education provision.

Understanding the nature of relationships and the types of educational provision – MOOCs, short courses and formal degrees, sheds light on a sector that is changing but is also starkly delineated by the type of institutions that are engaging in these relationships. In the South African context, research intensive universities and those that are historically advantaged tend to form these sorts of relationships and partnerships for online education provision. How these trends will play themselves out in the changing sector going forward continues to be a fascinating area for ongoing research.

Online learning designs – synchronous and asynchronous models of online learning and how these relate to unbundling

Recently, in December 2017, I attended the Observatory of Borderless Higher Education’s Global Forum on Online Learning which was a gathering to assess and review the potential of online learning in Higher Education from a global perspective. The 2 day forum brought together a somewhat eclectic mix of people – these included university senior leaders, academics and teachers, educational managers, instructional designers and regulators as well as private providers of educational services. This mix itself is indicative of the many players that are now involved in online learning provision. The opportunity to engage and hear different perspectives made this gathering particularly valuable to gauge the nature and trajectory of online learning development globally. It also indicates how online learning provision is being increasingly unbundled and rebundled. In the Unbundling project our definition of unbundling is as follows:

Unbundling is the process of disaggregating educational provision into its component parts likely for delivery by multiple stakeholders, often using digital approaches and which can result in rebundling.

An example of unbundled educational provision could be a degree programme offered as individual standalone modules available for credit via an online platform, to be studied at the learners’ pace, in any order, on a pay-per-module model, with academic content, tutoring and support being offered by the awarding university, other universities and a private company.

When reflecting on the presentations and conversations through the lens of the Unbundled University project, it was evident that the language of the ‘market’ is prevalent and normalised in these spaces. The conversation was around how online learning in Higher Education is a global market with institutions and organisations having something to offer and to gain from this expanding international terrain. The forum was framed to discuss to what extent and in what ways online learning was globally established and what opportunities there were for its expansion. An interesting (and perhaps surprising) insight was that while online learning is potentially a global export, in the sense that anyone from any geographical location can take an online course in another continent, analysis of student take-up suggests that many students choose to take an online programme from an institution in their own country or in geographical proximity. This suggests that online students are attuned to local or regional opportunities, even though they may never physically visit the campus; while other factors such as national or regional recognition of particular qualifications may play a part in students’ choices.

In this post I focus specifically on describing models of online learning provision of higher education that were discussed at the forum, as this relates to how students experience online learning, the impact on the students of these various models and how these models are being conceived and operationalised, including resourcing and working with private and alternative providers. While online learning seems new and has become more prominent in part due to increasing exposure around MOOCs, it’s also worth reiterating that online learning did not suddenly start with MOOCs in 2012 but has a longer history and there is much to learn from earlier adopters.

The student experience of online learning

In his opening keynote OBHE Director Richard Garrett talked about the current status and trends in online learning adoption by Higher Education institutions. His key message was that online learning uptake has been slower than might have been expected worldwide, and he made some interesting comments about some of the perceived limitations of online learning as experienced by students. He said that the typical online course suffered from the following characteristics:

● Tended to be text heavy with little ‘personal presence’
● The norm appeared to be asynchronous modes with an over-dependence on threaded discussions
● Depended on familiar instructional and assessment methods – textbooks, readings and essays which sought to imitate the physical classroom

In this scenario, the default pedagogical approach is one of an asynchronous virtual classroom environment with peer interaction mainly through discussion forums. In this form the tutor/teacher is mainly a facilitator with content delivery through readings, audio and video. The students do not have to be the same place at the same time to learn together with synchronous live events being supplementary, additionally beneficial or special occasions. This mode was and continues to be a common approach to offering online learning, and has been one that early adopters or those who have moved from a distance learning mode to an online distance learning mode have offered. It caters for students’ needs for flexibility in terms of time through the asynchronous mode as well as being mindful of connectivity and bandwidth considerations.

A number of participants posited that this sort of approach – while convenient and simple to use – was often not engaging. Attempts to transfer face-to-face pedagogies online rather than designing for online affordances was pedagogically unimaginative, while practical issues such as bandwidth and connectivity constraints make using rich media and real-time interaction difficult. Drop-out rates for students in distance and online modes tend to be higher with the lack of social or teacher presence being key contributing factors. Historically, this model had come out of the distance education model, with traditionally distance universities moving to online spaces. In the growing international higher education marketplace, these types of offerings might be less appealing to international undergraduate students who have a wider range of offerings to choose from, including different types of credentials than the formal degree (such as specialisations offered by MOOC providers).

There were some lively discussions around the asynchronous-oriented model of online learning and how it is evolving. Institutions who are using a form of this model shared experiences that while this type of online learning pedagogy had initially started off with text-based content and assessments, it has evolved as digital tools offer richer opportunities for interaction with video with online labs and simulations also becoming more prevalent. More wrap-around student support is also offered. For example Liverpool University’s online programmes offer their students a full support model including student support managers and a collaborative environment, while IT support and 24/7 student support is provided by a private provider. The University of London’s International Programmes online degrees offer extensive student support with support being ‘developmental’ enabling a range of competency and skill development in online spaces. Student feedback suggests that well designed environments in a predominantly asynchronous mode and the resultant student experience is comparable with a face to face encounter..

Other models of online learning veer more towards a more synchronous mode where the default is to replicate the coming together of students in the same space with a teacher or facilitator. One interesting example is that from Minerva University which offers virtual live synchronous classrooms as the predominant model with a platform custom designed to enable all students to see each other in one space digitally. In this approach, the focus of the students’ week is to arrive at the live classroom for the instruction and teaching. Students may have prepared using materials available asynchronously and will have activities following the live synchronous session, but their regular virtual attendance is crucial as part of the design. Sophisticated video conferences app tools such as live polling and embedded analytics are parts of the platform design, that give the tutor a real- time report of student performance including participation metrics.

There were some useful discussions amongst participants about which types of online pedagogical approaches suited certain students and also an acknowledgement that there isn’t a straight dichotomy between the two approaches. The live virtual classroom mode seems to be increasingly feasible given improvements in bandwidth and may well overcome some of the issues around teacher and student presence that has been a concern of the more asynchronous distance education models. Yet issues such as global cohorts meeting together synchronously across different time zones is a challenge. In both models and the continuum in between, there is a potential for unbundled provision in the types of student support and in some cases in the teaching approaches online. The focus on student support in online spaces was a key theme of discussion highlighting concerns about high historical drop-out rates in online courses with a better appreciation of the different types of student support that works, ranging from academic, psychosocial, pastoral and skills (such as building students’ digital literacies). These forms of support are increasingly unbundled with responsibilities shared between academic teams and private providers, as well as the use of sophisticated analytics and machine learning for monitoring and assisting students at risk.

In terms of what is working (or might work) in South African Higher Education, a number of online learning models are in place although the sector for full formal online learning is very small with a handful of programmes currently on offer. Most of these are currently offered with private providers, and the nature of unbundling in terms of responsibilities of the academic institution and the private provider bears scrutiny. Our research is mapping which South African universities are providing credit-bearing qualifications, with what type of provider, and our interviews are shedding light on the types of business models. The discussions at the OBHE Forum brought up important issues of pedagogy, design and student support choices related to local contexts, and that these choices as to how to construct and design online learning experiences will impact on the nature of students’ learning experience and their success. Our research is also indicating that these choices are also influenced by different and competing reasons, such as desire for third stream income, ameliorating resource availability and capacity on campus, approaches from private providers or expanding access to currently underserved populations.

Emergence and role of private providers in the South African Higher Education landscape

In this blog post Sukaina Walji, part of the The Unbundled University: researching emerging models in an unequal landscape project team takes a preliminary look at the emergence and role(s) of private providers in the South African Higher Education landscape. (Our study also includes England and Higher Education providers but in this blog we focus only on South Africa)

The Unbundled University research project is examining what constitutes the ‘unbundled university’ and considers the intersection of marketisation, digital technologies and the notion of unbundling (defined as the increasing disaggregation of services and curricula provided by a Higher Education institution). As part of the examination of the forces that are enabling unbundling we are interesting in understanding the role and nature of ‘private providers’ as a way to understand the evolving nature of Higher Education provision in South Africa, and in particular what makes up the various components that are part of the ‘bundle of services’.  We acknowledge that ‘private providers’ is a very broad category, and in this project we wish to examine more closely the types of services and relationships that currently exist and are likely to emerge between public institutions and private providers.

This blog post shares some preliminary work by the team, and which has begun with a process of ‘mapping the terrain’. In terms of scope we consider ‘private provider’ falling into two broad categories:

  1. Private universities, which offer degrees and accredited qualifications to South African tertiary students. Their core product is then largely the same as a public HE institution: degrees for enrolled students.
  2. Entities, business and service providers that are privately owned and provide services to public (or private) HE institutions.

In this blog post and in our study we are predominantly concerned with understanding the second of these categories – the entities, businesses and service providers which seek to support, service and partner with universities. This is not to minimise the existence of and potential influence of private universities as part of the broader context, but for reasons of containing scope they do not form part of our study.

The context in South Africa

Our first policy brief in this project outlined the broad context of the changes and forces that are shaping changes in the South African Higher Education sector. Policy initiatives have encouraged many public institutions to consider online and blended learning to offer new programmes, and increasing numbers of students are studying through distance education programmes at predominantly residential institutions. This is enabled by the availability of ICTs which is allowing for more flexible forms of provision, sometimes known as mixed mode or blended learning which can offer tertiary education to a wider group of potential students. A number of South African universities are offering various types of provision online including paid-for short courses for certification, post-graduate diplomas, Master’s degrees and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). These types of provision are increasing year on year and are motivated by a range of factors including the potential for third stream income, reaching so-called non-traditional learners who require more flexibility, increasing capacity in the sector and reaching new geographical markets.

Moves towards more flexible forms of provision have also been catalysed by the emergence of student movements at South African universities under the banner of #feesmustfall  which have resulted in partial shutdowns where physical access to on-campus facilities was restricted. In a drive to keep on teaching and to complete the academic year, many educators turned to virtual modes of teaching which ranged from using simple communications technologies such as email and WhatsApp to keep classes going to more sophisticated modes such as live virtual classrooms or extensive use of a learning management system. As well as individual academics keeping their classes going through virtual modes, a number of institutions formally turned to online and blended modes to complete the academic year. While these strategies took place in a “crisis mode”, the medium term effects seem to have resulted in more interest in the potential of online and blended teaching and learning spaces.

Given these forces and developments, South African universities are grappling with how to resource and produce courses and programs in online modes, as our first set of interviews seem to indicate. The skills and resources needed to produce new educational opportunities require finding new resources to fund online education development including paying for instructional design, course production including video production, technical infrastructure, maintenance, student support and management. This range of skills and new needs mean that most traditional residential universities have to consider a number of options for resourcing online education provision. Whether this is done in house with developing new units and jobs or whether these services are bought in either through outsourcing or partnering with private providers is a key decision needing to be made by Higher Education leaders.

Types and nature of private providers

At the same time as universities have expressed interest and started projects to develop online courses, the notion or idea of education as a business opportunity has become increasingly of interest to investors, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. This has been the case in the Global North for some time with many educational businesses servicing educational institutions and thus constituting a form of ‘marketization’ of education or a ‘global education industry’. Worldwide it is clear that education is seen as a potential market in which businesses can take an interest or stake in an educational endeavour and for which some return is expected. With increasing austerity worldwide and cuts to public funding to universities, institutions appear receptive to how new projects such as online learning provision might be achieved in the absence of inhouse funding for investment. Many of these businesses are referred to, as in this Inside Higher Ed article,  as online program management providers (OPM) while others use ‘edu-businesses’ or ‘enabler companies’ as a catch-all term. In the South African market, a number of private companies are currently providing a range of services to South African universities across a range and spectrum of services.

The diagram provides an overview of the types of activities an educational institution might engage in when developing an online education program. Any of these activities can potentially be provided by a private provider and at different entry points.






View larger diagram (link to a Google Slide)

While the entry points can be at any stage, if an institution is starting from scratch, it is likely to start with strategic planning and readiness assessment as the first stage. By way of illustration a brief explanation of each stage is given below with some possible examples:

Strategy and readiness: this is the first phase where the private provider helps an institution develop a strategy or strategies for what sort of online provision is required and ascertains the institution’s readiness. This may involve engaging with policy level and accreditation requirements for any new programs as well as analysing the technical and platform infrastructure. For example an institution might be interested in starting short courses in executive education and wants to consider the opportunities in the market as well as what it would take to start a short course program in executive education. Current learning platforms would be evaluated as well as a needs analysis of what potential new consumers might require.

Planning at program level: following on from strategy and readiness, this phase involves planning programs and products and includes ascertaining the specific business models and funding requirements for a new online education initiative and what models there are to partner with an external company. This also includes taking into account the marketing, admissions and accreditation needs of any particular programs. For example an institution might be interested in offering a number of postgraduate diplomas in online mode and needs to firm up the parameters and business model for any given program including how many students would need to be enrolled for the program to be viable, what the price point might be given the costs (that include marketing, admissions and administration support) as well as what level of funding is required for the initiative and what sources might be drawn on. This phase will also involve faculty buy-in and appointment of program convenors.

Design, production and delivery at course level: This phase comprises a series of pathways that consider the design of courses, production of materials, development of assessments and the course delivery process. Following launch, the phase also includes course support and maintenance.

The diagram shows not only the phases of a full scale online education development and production model from the point of view of an institution, but also shows at a level of granularity the types of services and tasks – effectively the components that make up the bundle. We are seeing that enabler companies and edu-businesses are coming in at different points to offer different services, and our preliminary analysis in the South African context shows two main types of companies:

Multi-service companies which offer a full range of services which an institution might pick and choose from. Effectively a multi-service education provider might offer an institution a complete service that includes developing an online education strategy or conceptualising products and then offering production,design, development and launch.. Examples globally include Cengage, 2U, Academic Partnerships, and multi-service online education provision is an area that some of the major MOOC platforms such as Coursera and FutureLearn are moving into as they evolve their business models. A local South African example is Getsmarter (which was recently purchased by 2U). While GetSmarter/2U and Academic Partnerships are actively operating in the South African Higher Education sector, many other companies are tentatively exploring the possibilities of the South African Higher Education market.

The other type of provider is one that offers a single-service such as exam proctoring or tutoring and can range from large scale organisations to small localised ones. Examples include ProctorU, PearsonVue and also includes providers of Learning Management Systems such as Blackboard or Canvas.

The role of private providers and their business models is evolving with differing views of their effectiveness and potential impact on quality of offerings, and also on their potential to impact on the purpose of higher education itself as in this example to enable more career ready graduates. One of the outcomes of this project is to assist senior leadership in universities including strategists, procurement officers and institutional planning departments to understand the nature of what private providers are offering in terms of business models, services, and what the implications and consequences of various models of an unbundled and rebundled partnership might be.

We welcome comments on the description of the online education bundle described here,  whether the categorisation of private providers resonates, and if there are other examples of business models or partnerships in the South African Higher Education sphere. The author welcomes feedback and can be contacted via email sukaina.walji@uct.ac.za or via Twitter @sukainaw.