Cape Town’s Across Africa online postgraduate courses

The University of Cape Town, or UCT, is sharpening its online learning strategy and is making moves to attract more students across Africa. The university has launched a series of postgraduate programmes that will bring together online education and face-to-face learning.

“This is not a standard online provision and we’re not merely putting materials on the web. We think it is the most interactive online programme the world has to offer,” Professor Don Ross, dean of the UCT faculty of commerce, told a media briefing in Cape Town.

The faculty of commerce, in partnership with online education company GetSmarter, is offering postgraduate diplomas online, in blended learning mode, as part of its Across Africa initiative.

Blended learning combines the use of a flexible and cutting-edge interactive online education platform with face-to-face learning. The postgraduate courses are largely aimed at working professionals who want the flexibility to study further and advance their careers.

UCT considers its social media design expertise as an advantage in the hotly contested online learning market.

“With an interactive high-touch design our Across Africa programmes encourage styles of learning and engagement that go well beyond what can be implemented in the traditional lecture hall. The students will have rich, real time communication with lecturers, tutors and one another during all stages of learning,” said Ross.

Students will communicate online in discussion forums and take part in group projects. Video lectures from industry thought leaders, practice quizzes and tests will form part of the courses, with thoughtful feedback promised for every test and assignment, said Rob Paddock, joint CEO of GetSmarter.

He said each student would have a dedicated course coach, who would monitor work and be available to help students set goals and reach targets. “They’ll be able to track whether learners are coping. They will also target at-risk students and work with them,” Paddock told University World News.

He said students would also have ongoing access to a course instructor, who would be available specifically for their needs during working hours, as well as 24-hour technical support.

Targeting students across Africa

Attracting students across Africa is a core goal. “The African continent has seen the fastest economic growth of all regions in the world and it’s also the continent least crowded with competitors, so it’s an absolute priority to move into this space,” said Ross.

Senior lecturer in finance Kanshu Rajaratnam said the reputation and practical experience in Africa of the University of Cape Town was a strong drawcard for professionals on the continent who wanted to advance their careers through studying further.

To accommodate languages, automatic translation software will be a key feature of the online offerings.

“We’ll have special sub-groups and chat forums, so Swahili-speaking students, for instance, could go into a separate chat room. We’re going to be adding different features all of the time, so that we have a complex, virtual university online,” said Ross.

The university is to roll out its postgraduate diploma in management in marketing and its advanced diploma in business project management courses next February.

It has already received 145 applications for the marketing course and 111 for the business project management diploma.

Win-win – Income and demand

Academics see the move into postgraduate online learning as both a potential new income stream and a way to deal with surging demand for higher education places.

“We have to turn down lots of qualified postgraduate students and this will help to fill an important gap,” Ross told University World News.

The university’s face-to-face intake is limited and currently stands at 26,330 students. Indeed, only 15% of people who applied to universities in South Africa were able to be accommodated this year, according to a UCT 2014 fact sheet on access.

Growth in the number of South Africans enrolled in tertiary education has spiked from just 347,566 in 1994 – when democracy was achieved – to around 900,000 now. The government hopes to have 1.5 million university students enrolled by 2030, but this would still be far from producing the number of graduates the country needs.

The access problem is even more acute in other African countries – especially at postgraduate level, even though there is an urgent need for high-level skills across the continent.

“The provision of online education in South Africa allows universities such as UCT to expand the access of high quality education beyond campus borders in an attempt to lessen these figures and to provide continuing education for graduates,” said Ross.

Virtual learning has shot up worldwide, with around 32% of the world’s current students accessing tertiary education online, according to statistics quoted by the university.

Cape Town has been making inroads since 2008 through numerous short courses it has offered through its partnership with GetSmarter, which said 94% of its learners had successfully completed its online short courses.

After many years of discouraging ‘contact’ universities from offering distance education, the government last year granted UCT the right to offer distance learning qualifications.

The cost of the online postgraduate diplomas will be the same as the courses offered on campus. “In no sense should online be seen as a fallback or inferior version. We will offer the best possible courses on campus and online,” said Ross.

A key reason for developing the one-year advanced diploma in business project management was to address the severe shortage of skilled project managers impacting on businesses in South Africa. The postgraduate diploma in management in marketing is a two-year, part-time programme aimed at growing a network of future industry leaders keen to fast-track their careers.

UCT aims to follow up with other popular programmes online.

Bridging the digital divide

In a country and on a continent where many people cannot afford computers of their own, there has been concern that some students would battle to move seamlessly into the digital space.

But there have been encouraging signs from the commerce department’s evidence-based management course, which had a virtual learning environment – or VLE – design.

“Results in the first-year course suggested that the VLE design is intuitive and accessible enough to mitigate against the so-called ‘digital divide’, with students from disadvantaged school backgrounds performing as well or better than comparable cohorts in previous years,” said the university.

With other universities around the world having made the move to online learning years ago, South African universities have some catching up to do. But increasingly they are recognising alternative provision as a critical need.