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.