Statistics SA says the percentage of black African professional, managerial and technical workers aged 25 to 34 has dropped by 2% over the past 20 years, leaving this generation less skilled than previous ones — and than every other race and age group. On top of this, the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Information Technology report ranked SA 146th for the overall quality of its education, below Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Mali.
Some may dispute the statistics or question the methodology used, but it is clear that the situation is alarming and needs fresh thinking.
All these countries are behind SA when it comes to education-related infrastructure, including technology. And this is the case even as we spend much more money on education than they do. But we can change this situation with technology, by rolling out online education.
Let’s use IT systems providers as an example — SAP, Oracle and Microsoft have technology certifications such as Microsoft Certified Engineer (MSCE). Most of the material is available online. Training providers exist for those who want to attend lessons. The exams are set by the technology provider. So, irrespective of how you may have acquired the learning material, if you pass the exam you are deemed competent.
A perception exists that online education is of poor quality. I think this is not accurate, otherwise the above example would not have survived. As long as the exams are set by an independent body that regulates the quality, it doesn’t matter how the content is obtained.
So, why are African universities not championing online education? For example, at the University of Venda, students are given tablets, but online courses have not been developed yet.
Vodacom has designed an e-school platform to target high school learners. And innovative tools have been developed by entrepreneurs such as Doug Hoernle, with his Rethink Education platform. In most cases these online tools are used as supplements instead of the core of education.
Other universities have adopted hybrid models that combine online methods with class attendance.
Locally, the Gordon Institute of Business Science has tried this model. Internationally, Harvard Extension School is a good example. Southern New Hampshire University offers more than 200 accredited degree programmes online, on campus and on location.
Massive Open Online Courses (Moocs) have gained momentum. According to data collected by class-central.com, the total number of students who signed up for at least one course has risen to above 35m, up from an estimated 18m in 2014.
It presents a huge opportunity for African countries to champion online education to narrow the education gap.
This is what is required to achieve such an education revolution: entrepreneurs (and the number has grown); corporates with infrastructure, especially in telecommunications (to roll out infrastructure to the rural areas); municipalities to provide technology such as Wi-Fi; universities to establish departments focusing on online education to develop the content; and regulatory boards to set the exams to maintain the quality and provide accreditation.
Coursera, edX and Canvas Network platforms dominate the provision of online courses from universities across the world, mostly US institutions. In SA, we have GetSmarter, championed by UCT in collaboration with Wits. Where are the other SA and African universities?
There is absolutely no reason why SA universities cannot establish satellite campuses throughout the country to provide education through technology. Wits School of Mining, for example, should consider a campus in Rustenburg to target platinum mines. Plenty of ground can be covered.