Why online Courses are trending

Hundreds of university students in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa and other African countries took to the streets last year to protest against high tuition fees, lack of equal access to education and inferior learning environments at their learning institutions. The clashes, which disrupted the universities’ academic calendars, highlighted the harsh conditions students face on the continent. 

To put it into perspective, only about 6% of young people in sub-Saharan Africa are enrolled in higher education institutions, according to a 2015 report by the Africa-America Institute (AAI), a US-based organization that seeks to foster relations between Africa and the United States through higher education.

The introduction of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) may, however, provide a lifeline for African students who desire to circumvent college entry difficulties. MOOCs are freely accessible online courses on various subjects that can be taken by anyone from anywhere in the world. One of the advantages of these courses is that they are accessible to unlimited number of students.

“They are very valuable if you consider that MOOCs means access to some of the best experts in the world about a certain topic, and access to knowledge that one cannot otherwise find easily,” Carmine Paolo De Salvo told Africa Renewal.

Mr. De Salvo is an instructor for a 2016 MOOCs focusing on agricultural policies produced by the Inter-American Development Bank on edX, an online learning platform.

Online education or e-learning is not new to Africa and many institutions, including the African Virtual University, have made university education from accredited schools available online since the late 90s. Countries such as Mauritius, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe have embraced the e-learning movement using various online instruction methods.

While traditional e-learning makes tertiary education more accessible, it can still be limiting due to high fees, and because courses are only open at specific times of the year. As a result, students who intend to pursue specialized and flexible post-graduate education are now turning to open online courses.

Experts say that MOOCs can complement traditional education. But because access to higher education in sub-Saharan Africa is lower than the global average by at least 20%, according to the Africa-America Institute, open online courses could actually be the only means for those who lack other opportunities for advancing their education.

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In addition to edX, MOOCs are available through providers such as Coursera and Udacity, both of which are also employed by prominent US universities such as Princeton, Stanford and Harvard. Institutions using MOOCs present learning materials through a variety of methods, including articles, videos, discussion threads and infographics and they typically last between five and twelve weeks. While most courses are not available for credit, individuals who are successful in a course can receive a free certificate or pay a relatively small fee, usually about $25, to get the certificate after completion.

African universities have recently begun to embrace MOOCs, following in the footsteps of prominent American and European universities. In 2016, the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, became the first African university to offer MOOCs on the edX platform. A year earlier, the University of Cape Town, also in South Africa, was the first in Africa to offer MOOCs through the Coursera platform. More universities in other countries are expected to join the bandwagon in the coming years.

Although Africa still has grounds to make up, a 2016 study by the Technology and Social Change Group (TASCHA) at the University of Washington Information School, a US-based network of tech researchers, found that the highest completion rates for MOOCs are in developing countries. According to the study, low- and middle-income populations make up 80% of MOOCs’ users, and 82% of South African participants are 30 years or younger.

A 2015 survey by Coursera, a prominent MOOCs platform, found that as a result of taking online courses, an overwhelming 87% of participants reported career benefits, with 33% mentioning tangible career benefits.

“Usually, the feedback we receive is very positive. Some people told us that their lives had changed, thanks to MOOCs,” said Mr. De Salvo.

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From Africa Renewal