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How technology can open up South Africa’s universities

People who sign up for MOOCs can study anywhere, any time, for free. South African universities should capitalise on this technology to improve access. Shutterstock

There are two revolutions happening in South Africa’s universities. One is very public and hard to ignore. In 2015 the country saw the emergence of energetic, organised student movements demanding wholesale changes in the sector.

On the face of it, these protests are about visible issues: statues that honour colonialists; tertiary fees that most students simply cannot afford; universities’ hiring practices. But what lies beneath is a common call by current and prospective students for unhindered, equal access to quality education.

The second, less immediately obvious revolution is happening online - and it may hold at least part of the answer to students’ calls.

A constant evolution

While South African students fight over access to limited campus resources, online quality educational content has become ubiquitous in the developed world. Clay Shirky, an American writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies, argues that the digital revolution in higher education has already happened. Shirky refers to 2012 data from the US which shows that one quarter of university students took at least one online course that year:

At the current rate of growth, half the country’s undergraduates will have at least one online class on their transcripts by the end of the decade. This is the new normal.

Research shows that learning has moved from content consumption to conversation around content. It has shifted from physical places to online spaces. It’s no longer confined to preset times, but can happen anywhere, anytime. Students don’t have to sit through dry lectures - they have access to exciting, engaging media.

Educational technology is in a constant state of revolution too. The computer based training approaches that arrived in the 1980s gave way to online learning courses, and these are now evolving into Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.

Craig Blewett explains how much learning has changed - and continues to do so.

The rise of the MOOC

There are several key differences between MOOCs and online courses that have attracted the attention of students and universities. MOOCs are similar to traditional university courses in that they aren’t open-ended - they typically have a start and end date.

Online courses have static content. MOOCs have user-generated contented arising from collaboration. This element of MOOCs helps students to develop other critical skills like self-driven learning, pattern sensing and problem solving. It also allows for regular feedback and restructuring of the course.

Increasingly research is suggesting that MOOCs offer enormous value - particularly when it comes to rethinking traditional ideas of learning and teaching.

South African built and managed MOOCs are in their infancy, with the University of Cape Town launching the country’s first in 2015. They are a resource that ought to be harnessed far more by the country’s universities to address students’ calls for greater and more cost effective access to education.

Pros and cons

Affordability is central to students’ unhappiness with the South African university sector. Against this backdrop, MOOCs’ biggest value lies in their cost. Some of the world’s top universities - Harvard, MIT and Berkley, among many others - develop MOOCs and invite students from around the world to learn without paying a cent.

As teacher and freelance writer Katie Sluiter puts it MOOCs:

… are arguably the most revolutionary facet of higher education today. Building on the foundations of existing online courses, these classes are open to anyone, anywhere, with enrolments in the thousands, at some of the best colleges and universities in (the US) — all for free.

But most students want more than to merely take a course. They want certificates to prove they have done so. Some institutions have responded to this demand. For example, Arizona State University’s recently launched Global Freshman Academy allows students to register from anywhere in the world for free - but if they pass the final exam and want a certificate, they must pay a fee. These costs mount quickly, particularly for South African students who’d have to pay dollar rates with a weak Rand.

Students may also miss the sort of feedback they’d get from sitting in a physical classroom with a teacher in front of them. There may also be technological issues, especially around bandwidth and the costs associated with data.

A chance for something new

For all of their current shortcomings, MOOCs still have an important role to play in making South African university education more equitable. This may not mean institutions designing and running their own MOOCs. It may involve collaboration with universities that are already ahead of the curve. People could continue to learn for free through international university MOOCs - and South African universities could provide personal support, assessment and certification.

The country’s student protests kicked off under the banner of #FeesMustFall. How about focusing instead on #NewSpacesMustRise? It is time to examine how South Africans can make the move to a new space for learning in a new era of education. These are the questions and the conversations that future directions in higher education need to explore.

Author’s note: This article is based on a piece that originally appeared on my blog.

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