Quality HE via high-speed internet is Africa’s future

If the goals of the draft declaration and action plan of the African Higher Education Summit are to be achieved, there should be less focus on building traditional universities and more on expanding high-speed broadband internet that will enable global cutting-edge knowledge to be delivered to students cost-effectively.

The Draft Declaration and Action Plan of the 1st African Higher Education Summit on Revitalising Higher Education for Africa’s Future was produced at the end of the high-level gathering held in Senegal’s capital Dakar from 10-12 March. This article is in response to a call for comment by the summit organisers.

The primary focus for raising capital for education should be to expand and strengthen high-speed broadband internet to all individuals. It is far more cost effective to move knowledge than people to physical facilities.

Education, pre-school to post-baccalaureate, needs to shift to competency-based measures rather than credit based on time in class or on task. People master knowledge at different rates and competency is critical.

Collaboration, globally and across institutions, is key whether it involves researching new knowledge or making knowledge accessible for education. Research facilities are costly and need to be leveraged. It has been shown that there is no significant difference in knowledge acquisition whether in the classroom or over the internet.

The danger of building on past models

The modern university with its focus on research, teaching and institutional-community development grew out of the original institutions created around 1100 in Bologna. But today the future of these institutions is in a disruptive moment – one that will see significant changes.

With its vast resources, China has chosen, essentially, to buy talent and invest capital in selectively focused research universities. At the same time, it is finding that trying to recreate the multi-function university of today with its role of turning out traditional graduates creates costly over-production of degreed people.

Massively investing in basic undergraduate programmes on the same scale is producing graduates that cannot be gainfully employed as effectively as those on more vocationally oriented certificate and shorter duration programmes.

Established universities in North America and Europe are finding that raising their research or academic rankings is cost prohibitive. With the ubiquity of broadband internet connectivity, it is becoming easier to build collaborative relationships for both research and education.

MOOCs – massive open online courses – once seen as a ‘weak signal’ of change, are now evolving platforms which have numerous ranked universities offering, at no cost, the highest quality courses that are isomorphic to those offered at their respective institutions.

There also is growing recognition that in an interconnected world, it is increasingly becoming cost prohibitive to build or maintain physical facilities that provide the traditional functions of quality research in all disciplines, fully developed educational programmes across all disciplines, and including certification along with community and institutional development programmes.

The existence of the internet clearly shows that basic knowledge is fungible, transferable across geo-political boundaries and asymptotically approaching zero in cost to obtain. More importantly, such programmes cannot be delivered cost effectively by maintaining a physical campus as currently defined.

Globally, current university campuses are like points of intellectual light on a dark plane and are places that attract knowledge seekers. Many of those lights are going to disappear and others will be transformed.

With internet connectivity, it will be far too costly to reproduce these ‘Ivy Covered Walls’, particularly where none has existed or there is a facsimile of these institutions.

The model developed and presented in Senegal in March for African universities is too costly to build as physical facilities and too costly to staff and support.

Additionally, as research has shown and current college graduates who are unemployed and who were part of the Arab Spring point out, it is uncertain that such a system makes economic sense in an internet connected world. And, as China has noted, built institutions will not meet the needs of the present much less the future.

Thinking forward

Today knowledge moves with the ‘click of a mouse’. The Senegal document suggests that one way forward is to attract highly qualified Africans who are part of the diaspora to return to staff new institutions.

With virtual platforms, talented Africans who are part of the global academic community are far better positioned to use their talents and the assets of the institutions where they are located to provide support to knowledge-seekers in Africa, whether these students are formally enrolled in an existing institution or are able through the growing number of virtual programmes to receive credit for proven competencies.

In addition to access to such knowledge, there is a major shift in an individual’s ability to demonstrate that they have mastered a set of skills.

One of the major weaknesses in education in Africa currently – and similar problems exist globally – is that individuals graduate with the requisite credits based on courses taken for a set period of time, yet are unable to effectively articulate that knowledge in a productive manner.

The shift to competencies says that demonstration of mastery and not time spent in class is the major transformation that is needed, particularly in Africa today, regardless of what the future holds.

It is far more cost effective to bring the knowledge of individuals to students on campus, at their homes or even in ‘coffee shops’ from selective, globally ranked faculty or through ranked programmes than it is to expend funds to bring faculty from across the globe to a central place.

These programmes can serve many institutions located in many countries, simultaneously leveraging scarce fiscal and physical resources. Studies have shown, for student learning, that there is no significant difference in knowledge gained and demonstrated between programmes on physical or virtual campuses.

Research – particularly in science, technology and medicine – is costly both for the facilities and the support infrastructure. Even well-funded academic institutions are finding that such work needs to be done through institutional collaboration. This holds for other costs associated with maintaining physical spaces.

The establishment of the African Virtual University and the Pan African University system points to the fact that within Africa there is the realisation that such collaboration is essential for both education and research.

As stated above, knowledge flows almost without friction across geo-political boundaries. Knowledge taught gets transformed through entrepreneurial efforts into new products and services and then comes full circle to be taught and reinvented.

This virtuous cycle is well understood and is critical for Africa in a wired world.

Dr Tom P Abeles is president of Sagacity Inc in Minneapolis, United States. He is editor of On the Horizon, a foresight journal that has a major focus on the future of post-secondary education globally.