The promise of open, distance and e-learning

Considering the promise of open, distance and e-learning - ODeL - in Africa, we need to take cognisance of the high expectations that post-secondary school education will solve many current societal crises, such as unemployment and gross inequalities.

Realising the potential of ODeL in Africa is, however, intimately connected to trends in the international higher education landscape and the causal power of social, political, economic, technological, environmental as well as policy (legal) structures.

New developments

Recently the international higher education landscape was dominated by talk about the 'unbundling', 'unmooring', 'disaggregation' and even the 'end' of traditional residentially-based higher education.

The advent in 2008 and growth of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, questioned many of the traditional assumptions germane in higher education regarding the 'quality' of distance and e-learning offerings.

Although course delivery through the web already started in 1994, the MOOC phenomenon can be traced back to David Wiley's early open online courses in 2007-08, and the first MOOC by Stephen Downes and George Siemens in 2008.

It is important to note that MOOCs are a particular form of e-learning and that there are many other varieties ranging from ad hoc online courses to blended learning and fully online programmes.

Despite the variety inherent in ODeL, the debates surrounding MOOCs brought to the fore many of the misconceptions regarding e-learning. For many years institutions dedicated to distance and e-learning were stigmatised and referred to as 'second best' and as last resort for students who did not get admission at full-time higher education institutions.

With the advent of MOOCs, it was as if the broader higher education sector discarded their concerns about distance and e-learning programmes. Suddenly distance and e-learning was in vogue as many higher education institutions rushed to offer open, online courses and programmes and-or join strategic alliances that offer MOOCs.

There were claims that these offerings would provide opportunities for the many students who were previously excluded from post-secondary school education, or who were neither employed nor in education, specifically in developing world contexts.

The increase in open, e-learning opportunities and new alliances between different stakeholders resulted in a seemingly ongoing realignment of the higher education landscape and a proliferation of opportunities for lifelong learning. Or so we were led to believe.

Sober assessment

Since the launch of the first MOOCs and resulting media punditry and exuberance, there has been a more sober assessment of what these open online offerings did, as well as can and cannot offer.

Not only are there concerns regarding the high dropout rate of students in most MOOCs, but there is also concern that very little has been realised of the original promise of these offerings to include the previously excluded.

Research indicates that students who enrol for these courses are, in general, already well qualified, and in employment. Despite the low retention in many of the MOOCs, which resemble concerns regarding retention and student drop-out in distance education, the jury is still out regarding the real impact of and future developments in open online courses.

There is no doubt that these offerings did manage to disrupt, possibly temporarily, many of the traditional assumptions about teaching, learning and accreditation; the initial promise of a reconfiguration of the higher education landscape is possibly a dream deferred.

The experiences of the last two years show that there was very little, if any, pedagogical innovation in MOOCs and the affordances of technology were anything but realised. Many courses, though open, had copyrighted materials or required students to buy prescribed materials written by the presenters of the courses.

Many educators from developing world contexts also expressed concerns that these open online offerings were a new form of imperialism perpetuating North Atlantic ontologies and epistemologies.

The promise for Africa

While concerns from developing world contexts regarding the inherent 'imperialism' in MOOCs may be justified, there have been very few African universities that rose to the occasion and offered context-appropriate open online learning opportunities.

This raises the interesting question regarding the reasons for this (sad?) state of affairs.

Is it possible that concerns about access and the cost of access to the internet prevented institutions from embracing the affordances of technology? Is it possible that many African post-secondary school institutions barely cope with addressing the current challenges in their respective contexts and that there is no incentive to take on additional workloads?

Are the institutional and accreditation cultures and regimes of higher education institutions in the developed world so different from the institutional cultures in developing world contexts that the many challenges and opportunities of open online learning are just a bridge too far?

In the context of post-secondary school education on the African continent, it is clear that current institutions cannot, and for the foreseeable future will not be able to, sufficiently address the legitimate need to increase access to higher education.

In Africa there is a crucial need not only to increase access with success, but also to increase access to diverse opportunities across the post-secondary school sector.

There is a need to provide access to a diversified post-secondary sector ranging from vocational to academic offerings, as well as a range of affordable and appropriate opportunities of residential, blended and ODeL. A recent South African example of such a reconfiguration is the published White Paper on Post-School Education and Training.

There is also very little doubt that the future of post-secondary school education will be increasingly digitally mediated.

Considering the huge growth in access to affordable mobile technologies on the African continent, it is crucial that African educators and post-secondary school institutions explore the educational potential offered by a range of devices such as lower-cost mobile devices.

Realising the benefits

Recent developments in international post-secondary education have not only erased many of the traditional misperceptions regarding distance and e-learning, but also showed that distance and e-learning may not necessarily be an appropriate choice for all institutions, or for that matter, students.

With the realignment of the higher education landscape, ODeL is increasingly becoming the first choice for an increasing number of students due to the flexibility it offers.

There is, however, a range of issues that need serious attention before the promise of ODeL can be (fully) realised. These issues include, inter alia, quality assurance, accreditation and credit transfer, and issues in cross-border provision, co-providers and employer recognition of awards.

There are also concerns about the carrying capacity of institutions, funding regimes and the increasing privatisation of post-secondary school education. We also need to seriously reconsider the scope and content of our programmes and concerns about the un-employability of many of our graduates.

Even more important for a realistic assessment of the potential of post-secondary education to contribute to solving many of the societal problems communities in the developing world are facing, is to seriously consider the structural context of higher education.

Post-secondary school education is but one role-player among many others. The success of a post-secondary school sector is dependent on the quality of primary and secondary school education.

There is also an increasing realisation that post-secondary education cannot, on its own, solve unemployment and other societal ills, without consideration of the structural limitations of economic policies, political and societal stability, technological infrastructure, environmental concerns and national policy and legal frameworks.

There is no doubt that ODeL has huge potential to contribute to economic growth, erase inter-generational poverty and address societal injustices and inequalities on the African continent.

Realising its potential however depends on a sober assessment of ODeL as one variable among many interdependent and often mutually constitutive factors in local and international post-secondary school contexts.

* Paul Prinsloo is research professor in open distance learning at the University of South Africa.