Image credit: By Discott via Wikimedia

Can tech solve South Africa’s higher education crisis?

December 9, 2016 • Government & Tech, Learning & Education, South Africa

Over the past few months, universities across South Africa have ground to a halt as student protesters, under the banner of #FeesMustFall, shut down learning institutions in a bid to get free, decolonised education. The movement, which started in 2015, is driven by desperation. For most South African families, higher education is out of reach. The cost of sending a child to university is just too expensive for a population that is still largely living in poverty. The future of the #FeesMustFall movement is unclear. Violence – from police and protesters alike – has turned the tide of public support, but protesters have vowed to continue until their demands are met.

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, which conducted the 2015 South African Reconciliation Barometer survey, said in a statement: “During the course of 2015-2016, the frustrations resulting from vast socioeconomic inequalities found [and is still finding] an outlet in the national student protests for free higher education in South Africa. Under the banner of ‘#FeesMustFall’, multiple layers of advantage and disadvantage, of access and non-access, of inclusion and exclusion became apparent – prompting for the need of a much deeper understanding of South Africans’ lived realities of socioeconomic inequalities, as well as the obstacles and aids to social mobility.”

Within this context, perhaps technology can help. This is the sentiment shared by Myles Thies, head of strategic services at Eiffel, and serial entrepreneur Alan Knott-Craig Jnr, who have both advocated for “a combination of online learning platforms and municipal free Wi-Fi to address the urgent need to reduce the cost of higher education in South Africa”. There are already initiatives using technology to support higher education in the country.

According to Disrupt Africa, South African e-learning startup, The Student Hub has raised ZAR4.2 million ($300,000) from three angel investors as it prepares to launch ERAOnline, an online educational support platform for university students. The Stellenbosch-based The Student Hub launched in April 2015 as a platform for the buying, selling, and renting textbooks, but earlier this year pivoted into e-learning.

Dr Nicos Nicoloau, CEO of UNICAF, an organisation dedicated to opening up access to quality higher education for sub-Saharan Africa’s one billion plus under 19s to improve and transform the lives of gifted and often underprivileged students, agrees. “E-learning is the best possible solution,” he says. “It does not require a huge investment in physical infrastructures and there are many providers who have the know-how and technology to provide e-learning solutions to learners.”

Proversity’s Angelique Oliver believes it is not so much a matter of if e-learning is a possible solution; at this stage, it is the only solution. “When considering the severity of the protests happening in and around universities in South Africa, it is simply not possible to physically get to the classroom. E-learning brings the classroom to the learner allowing education to take place even whilst turmoil prevails on campus,” she says. “With nearly every student owning a smartphone, access to online content is readily available.”

Nicoloau adds that e-learning is also convenient for students not living close to educational centres and or who have family or professional commitments. “We already have many providers in sub-Saharan Africa who have demonstrated the viability and success of such delivery models and were able to increase access to quality higher education,” Nicoloau says.

UNICAF partners with UK, US and European Universities to deliver accredited Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate Degree courses via its sophisticated e-learning platform. To date the organisation has awarded $35 million of scholarships and cut the cost of attending university for thousands of sub-Saharan transnational students by up to 80%, making higher education – something that has been out of reach for the vast majority of the population – a viable and very real option.

Nicoloau says that while free education may not be immediately viable, e-learning can certainly increase access to quality higher education by providing to students quality options at a much lower cost. “Not having to establish the traditional brick-and-mortar institution, which will cost millions, significantly reduces the amount of investment needed to provide additional higher education opportunities to students,” he says. “Instead the investment is made on student services, technology and high calibre instructors who can deliver a high quality product to students.”

There are still barriers, though. Andrew Robinson, Director of Higher Education at Cengage Learning, whose digital resources are widely used in South Africa to help support remote learning, says that whilst mobile phone ownership and usage is high, widespread access to high speed broadband, especially outside cities, cost of ownership of tablets and PCs, and even access to electricity in some areas are all barriers to successful e-learning.

Oliver says that the most significant barrier at the moment is the cost of data. “Most South Africans access the internet via their mobile phones. The problem with this is the price of data. One of South Africa’s biggest cell phone service providers, MTN, charges R1,250 (+/-$90) for a menial 20Gb of data, closely followed by the cheapest provider at R1,099 (+/- $79) for the same amount.  At these rates it’s almost comparable to paying universities fees, something needs to give…” Recognising these very issues, the student protests have also spawned a spin-off protest movement using the #datamustfall.

For e-learning to work there needs to be the digitisation of textbooks and course content. “How the information is served is entirely dependent on the needs of students and lecturers alike. We’re a huge fan of video content, however data prices in South Africa make it hard for the average student who does not have uncapped data to download or stream content,” she adds.

Nicoloau says that government needs to embrace the idea of an online institution and to understand that quality has nothing to do with the physical structure of the institution but rather with the quality of the material and the level of the instructors delivering such material. “Providers have to invest in the technology, in training tutors in the use of modern teaching technologies and in student services to be able to deliver a high quality product to students at a very low cost,” he adds.

“The cost to the student is an important factor. There is no point developing a product which no one can afford. We have to strive to offer a high quality product at a cost students can afford.”

By Bianca Wright

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