MOOCs have a massive potential market in Africa

Nigerian Ambassador to UNESCO Mariam Y Katagum, a member of the governing board of the Commonwealth of Learning, answers questions on the opportunities and challenges facing the provision of MOOCs – massive open online courses – in Africa.

UWN: What is the present provision of MOOCs in Africa – in how many countries are they offered? Which countries are ahead, and which are facing difficulties?

MYK: I do not have specific statistics of the number of countries in which massive open online courses are offered, but we know that MOOC as a mode of teaching and learning is just beginning to gain popularity in Africa.

Records show that African countries have been slow in embracing the idea of MOOCs, even though the concept presents a lot of advantages in increasing access to quality higher education at reduced cost.

Many universities in Africa practise some form of online distance learning, but only a few are already advocating or mobilising for MOOCs. Open universities in Mauritius, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe provide one form of e-learning or the other, but the proper application of MOOCs is still at a developmental state for many.

In the meantime, South Africa represents an exceptional case as a leading country embracing MOOCs. The involvement of the government of South Africa in streamlining policies to promote MOOCs testifies to this.

It should be recalled that a National MOOC Strategy was outlined in a 2012 White Paper for Post-School Education and Training. This set the country apart as being ready to embrace a blended MOOC system with quality measures in place for the articulation of qualifications, among others.

This involvement by government has remained a factor in the relative acceptance of MOOCs in South Africa at present. South Africa as a country has now established a Massive Open Online College as a result of this endeavour. Many South African universities like the University of South Africa and the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, also have well developed MOOC portals.

The challenge of infrastructure for MOOCs, like lack of adequate access to technological facilities, inadequate Internet connection or low broadband, is still a general factor militating against its development in Africa.

Lack of awareness on the value of MOOC education, the ivory tower mentality and the actual privatisation facet of higher education development in Africa are also common difficulties the present and future development of MOOCs in Africa is contending with.

UWN: What opportunities and challenges do MOOCs present that are specific to Africa, for learners and providers? (for example, Internet access, scattered communities, infrastructure costs, teachers' workload...?). Let’s start with opportunities.

MYK: For learners, MOOC means higher education for all, anytime and anywhere. The opportunity of access, cost-effectiveness and quality education is the most prominent benefit of online courses, while the possibility of massive roll-out and participation is peculiar to MOOCs. This is a form of revolution in higher education where needs are met with provisions, without having to worry about space and distance.

Furthermore, the current large illiterate population and weak science and technology environment can be addressed through massive higher education. MOOCs widen access to education and promote economic and technological emancipation. It is therefore a good development in enhancing Africa’s education system.

The issue with scattered community and the challenge of setting up classic lecture systems is also taken care of where the MOOC is present.

The African student population of 18-25 year olds is presently estimated at 200 million. This is expected to double by 2045. With this, only 5% of the African students are enrolled in higher education. High-school drop-out, affordability and lack of student support are reasons for this low enrolment rate.

MOOCs can complement the knowledge and skills base for a productive economy in Africa by providing skills development programmes that are accessible and affordable.

For providers, MOOCs have the potential of a massive market in Africa. The simplest justification for this is that there is a huge need to be met and studies have shown that a well streamlined MOOC, with maximum consideration for excellence and accreditation, could provide lasting solutions to education and skills development, especially in the African context.

UWN: And the challenges?

MYK: I have mentioned some of the generic challenges above, which border on Internet access, the ivory tower mentality and the privatisation strategy by government (as a stage in Africa’s higher education development).

Other challenges are connected with accreditation, the quality and seeming lack of prospect of training as stepping stones to pursuing further studies.

The connectivity obstacle and lack of access to computers underscore the fact that, even though MOOCs have become almost part and parcel of the education system in the developed world, its mainstreaming in Africa remains a challenge.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, 16% of Sub-Saharan Africans (about 140 million people) are using the Internet today and only 6.7% of households have access – mainly in urban centres.

Where connection is available, low Internet bandwidth is considered a big nightmare for online resource access, especially video, as MOOCs are mostly online video-based teaching and learning methods and access to video-intensive online courses is dependent on IT hardware that comes with high acquisition costs on the continent.

The ivory tower mentality that privileges the university environment and traditional lecture methods over online education presents another level of difficulty. Unlike the developed world, Africa is still on the verge of shifting from the firm belief in exclusiveness and public nature of university education. This mentality constitutes a challenge for acceptance of MOOCs as a good form of providing and receiving higher education.

The issue of government involvement in promoting, funding and providing specific policies that advocate for MOOCs is another challenge. The funding challenge is closely related to privatisation of universities in Africa, and so is the absence of government policies that specifically promote the concept.

It is widely believed that the proliferation of the privatisation policy in Africa in the 1990s was meant to relieve governments of funding to universities, whereas the mainstreaming of MOOCs requires massive investment by governments. There will be a need to leverage these higher education investment-cutting measures with the need to accelerate the development and sustainability of MOOCs in Africa.

The next issue is that of accreditation and perceived value of certificates from MOOC-based training. Most of MOOC-oriented trainings are not credit-based. This means that they are only meant to certify learners for the acquisition of knowledge and certain skills set, but could not lead to further higher studies.

MOOCs are therefore more attractive to a set of audience who already have university education and are only seeking to update their knowledge or acquire new skills. This challenge casts a shadow on whether MOOCs are the best solution to increasing access to higher education in Africa.

UWN: Who are the learners?

MYK: There are no statistical data at my disposal for the age and gender of learners through MOOCs. As far as the education level is concerned, in the case of Nigeria, most learners through MOOCs are post-secondary students as well as graduates and the working population seeking to update their knowledge and skills.

The Open Educational Resources or OER portal of the National Open University of Nigeria provides MOOCs for students who are unable to secure admission to university and need to fill the one-year gap before proceeding to university.

UWN: Is there cooperation between African higher education institutions, countries or national/international organisations to create MOOCs?

MYK: Yes! I have the example of the OER Portal of the National Open University of Nigeria, funded by the European Union and developed in collaboration with UNESCO.

The World Bank’s New Economy Skills for Africa Program: Information and Communication Technologies, or NESAP-ICT, programme is another example. The NESAP-ICT supported the development of what is called SMART (Software, Mobile Applications, Research and Technology) Knowledge Hubs in Tanzania as a model for preliminary knowledge of the relevant ICT-related skills that are being sought by the local IT sector.

With the support of the World Bank, the country also launched a pilot initiative to incorporate Coursera trainings as part of a broader initiative to equip students with market-relevant skills.

UWN: Could you describe the National Open University of Nigeria’s experiences and progress in introducing MOOCs?

MYK: A visible example of progress in introducing MOOCs by the National Open University of Nigeria, or NOUN, is the sharing of their courses under an open licence (OER) and making these accessible using mobile devices.

The vice-chancellor of the university once affirmed that NOUN is heading towards becoming the first OER-based open university, where all new and revised courses will be published as open educational resources.

Most importantly, the first three openly licensed MOOCs of NOUN, which basically embrace the principles of MOOCs, under the OpenUpEd initiative, have just been introduced. The five-week MOOCs with podcasts, chat sessions and reflection-assignments with peer students went live in January 2016.

As I mentioned, the three MOOCs are aimed at secondary school graduates who do not find a place for the first year in the university. The MOOCs, on history and philosophy of science, study skills, and information literacy, are to promote the acceptance of open and online higher education in Nigeria. They are accessible through the NOUN OER Portal.