New educational technology network wins award

Massive open online courses – MOOCs – are potential game changers for African education, radically enhancing access to knowledge and creating borderless education. In that light it is a boon that a network for educational technology practitioners and researchers, e/merge Africa, has won a major award.

Tony Carr, an educational technologist in the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching, won a Dewey Winburne Community Service Award for the e/merge Africa peer network He is the network’s convenor.

Carr will be honoured at the South by South West Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, in March.

A new network for educational technology practitioners and researchers across African higher education institutions, e/merge Africa consists of 900 members interested in applying education technology to their work.

The network was founded to build on the work of e/merge online conferences held between 2004 and 2012, which offered professional development activities to support the capabilities needed for effective e-learning and e-learning research in African higher education.

Carr aims to use the network to offer online seminars to share practice and knowledge about educational technology innovation within the African higher education sector while strengthening communities of researchers and practitioners across the continent.

In an interview with University World News, he said hundreds of institutions were involved in blended or online learning and there was growing demand for effective educational technologists as practitioners and researchers.

The award, Carr said, was “a meaningful and quite unexpected form of public validation for this work”.

He would accept the honour on behalf of the core team and hundreds of participants, presenters, reviewers and facilitators in the online conferences and seminars connected to the Centre for Educational Technology, where Carr is based and which is now part of the Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning.

“In a year when the e/merge Africa network moves from extensive consultation and planning to developing and offering regular online professional development events, I feel even more motivated to work with colleagues across Africa and the world to support the powerful contribution of education technologists to the success of African higher education,” he said.

The centre is currently calling for proposals for online e/merge Africa events in 2014 that will share expertise, insight and practices with African and global colleagues. A second call is for potential presenters.

“There are so many forms of expertise and rich professional experience across diverse contexts within e/merge Africa and our events should reflect this depth, richness and diversity,” he said.

MOOCs for Africa?

Carr acknowledged that MOOCs were still “so new we are trying to work out what to do with them”.

Coupled to that was poor take-up, typically limited to relatively well-educated and technologically savvy early adopters with only a small minority of MOOC participants globally being African.

He cited a recent University of Pennsylvania analysis of a 35,000-strong survey of Coursera MOOCs, which found the education levels of MOOC students to be significantly higher than their countries’ averages. Coursera is a large online provider of MOOCs.

Among the BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – almost 80% of MOOC students came from the wealthiest and most-educated 6% of the population.

“MOOCs are not addressing our societies’ underlying capacity gaps and a survey of MOOCs literature reinforces this in asserting that learner experience of MOOCs is affected by digital literacy, English language proficiency and the critical literacies to effectively evaluate large quantities of information,” Carr said.

Consequently, he does not see the technology fully impacting in Africa until the continent develops its own MOOCs with “uniquely African perspectives, content and expertise”. This may also require developing new genres to enhance participant support systems and embrace expanding mobile internet access.

Learning hubs

Claudia Frittelli, programme officer in the higher education and libraries in Africa programme at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, wrote in a recent blog that technology was playing “an increasingly complex role in the building up of African universities at a time when many African universities are being revitalised as knowledge producers for the continent”.

She said Coursera would soon create learning hubs offering people the physical space to access the internet and take courses – for free.

Coursera’s boosted engagement in developing countries, including Africa, “resurfaces the debate around who is qualified to teach with what pedagogy and curricula and whose knowledge.

“How Africans use and appropriate MOOC technology is yet to be explored [and] the extent of innovation surrounding Africans’ use of mobile technology could be instructive,” she wrote.

The positive she raised was that, assuming new learning hubs offered connectivity, MOOC platforms could help better prepare disadvantaged students for local university education. However, they could also encourage elite young people to leave Africa in search of better education elsewhere.

“Given the vastly increasing demand for access to higher education in developing countries worldwide, online course platform offerings have been compared to what libraries provided in the Industrial Age – continuing education for the self-taught,” she says.

While Coursera advocates democratising education by offering free online courses from elite universities, Frittelli pointed to the downsides that most people registering for MOOCs have already completed degrees and that disadvantaged students in Africa were unlikely to live in areas accessible to learning hubs.

“Local governments might look to these online platforms to provide access for an ever-broadening range of students, competence levels and geographic locations rather than finding their own, indigenous solutions to the demand for higher education,” she wrote.

Frittelli believes that more critical than addressing infrastructure constraints will be dealing with how “borderless education will affect innovation in African higher education, its role in society and its positioning in the global system. Initiatives like e/merge Africa aimed to equip African researchers and practitioners to navigate these pathways.

In essence, time will tell.