MOOCs: The challenge of Africa

The take-away

  • As the population grows, MOOCs could be the best response to limited academic resources.
  • The hurdles remain high, though, from lack of internet access to resistance from employers.

Less than a decade ago, Massive Open Online Courses shook up the academic world by making classes from the globe’s top universities available on interactive platforms. Dubbed MOOCs, they were an instant hit. One hope was that they would make education more accessible in developing countries, especially in Africa, where only 6% of college-age students are enrolled in higher education, vs. 72% in Western Europe. The gulf will only widen as the population, which is expected to double by 2050, puts additional pressure on educational resources.

Against this background, MOOCs seem to offer all the advantages: these online courses are often free, they spread high-quality education, they can be brought up to date as often as necessary and there is no limit to their potential for dissemination. So why are they still so rare in African countries?

In 2014 only 2% of the students taking classes from Coursera, the leading MOOC platform with more than 30 million users, were from Africa. This is partly because internet access remains limited: 35% vs. an average of almost 60% worldwide. Another obstacle: students who learn this way earn diplomas that are often not recognised on the job market, where formal degrees are required.

European students actually face the same issue, but for them the consequences are less severe. “Most users in developed countries already have a university degree,” says Dimitrios Noukakis, director of the MOOCs for Development programme at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). “So they use these courses as continuing education.”

How then can MOOCs be adapted to the needs of their African users? By integrating them into the existing infrastructure, namely by offering them to local universities. This is the approach taken by EPFL beginning in 2013 with its MOOCs4DEV programme. EPFL became the first European university to offer partnerships with sister institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Wanted: African MOOCs

“Partner universities can integrate our MOOCs into their courses,” explains Noukakis. “Their students thus have access to the same content as ours or of users connected through platforms such as edX. Meanwhile, we’re also developing special content for local needs.” Twenty-eight MOOCs designed by or with the support of EPFL now reach more than 6,000 students at some 15 universities.

Academic institutions that integrate MOOCs are not necessarily traditional universities, with chairs and desks in classrooms. They can also be virtual universities that offer distance learning. “MOOCs bring a university degree within reach of young people – especially young women – who live outside large cities,” says Noukakis. A prime example is the Virtual University of Senegal (UVS). Founded in 2013 with an initial enrolment of 2,000, UVS now has more than 15,000 students. Many MOOCs offered by EPFL are available, including a programming class. UVS even provides its students with a computer and flash drive with internet access.

In the long run, African universities will be able to develop such models without relying on Western institutions. Still, for the time being only those in South Africa have the resources to create their own MOOCs. The University of Cape Town (UCT) has designed 14 online courses available on Coursera and FutureLearn. “Creating a MOOC is too costly for most African universities,” says Janet Small, course development manager at UCT.

Even if Africans account for only 16% of their 160,000 MOOC users worldwide, Small is optimistic. “Few Africans are familiar with the concept of studying online, but I think the potential is huge for people who have no time or money to take university courses and who simply want to acquire some basic skills.”

US connection

An African concept that integrates MOOCs and other online resources into classroom coursework while offering access to US accredited degrees through a partnership with Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) saw the light of day in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2013 with the Kepler programme. Three bachelor of arts degrees are available: management, communications and healthcare management. “Our students work on projects created by our partners at the Southern New Hampshire University in the US and receive feedback from its academic staff. They also study with Kepler course facilitators on campus,” explains Teppo Jouttenus, vice president of Academic Affairs.

In addition, Kepler offers elective modules using MOOCs from other international universities. But these require intensive guidance from Kepler course instructors. Jouttenus says that MOOCs can enhance academic content but are not enough for a complete education. “The required discipline is often a barrier,” he says. “Many MOOCs require a significant amount of independent study skills that beginning university students often lack”.

Kepler currently has over 600 students across two campuses, in Kigali and the Kiziba Refugee Camp, which mainly hosts people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to Jouttenus, 90% of students find a job within six months of graduation.

Affordable cars

Access to education is also a matter of mobility. For Africans who live far from cities, attending school or university is often complicated by the lack of transport infrastructure. The answer is of course better public transportation, but individual mobility could also help. With this in mind, the Technical University of Munich has developed its aCar project.

The concept is to build a small vehicle for Africans, notably students, at an affordable price (below €10,000). This electric car is modular and therefore adaptable to different needs and terrains.

The initial prototype was successfully tested in Ghana in 2017. The first models available for sale are being manufactured near Munich, with output of 1,000 cars scheduled by 2020. Plans are eventually to move mass production to Africa.