More than ever, is the acknowledgement of the interplay between social, economic and technological developments with education standing as the pivot for convergences? These development links give birth to a dynamic global and national learning environment influenced by the internationalisation of Higher Education; an increased demand for education and life-long learning; changing academic demographics and experience; and the challenge of affordability.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in Africa/South Africa are receiving attention from academia and politicians. The following questions immediately come to mind: Does Africa/South Africa need MOOCs, and if so, are we ready to embrace MOOCs? Both questions appear to be straight forward. However, according to literature, mainstreaming MOOCs into a diversified education system requires taking into account the challenges repeatedly voiced on public platforms and the media. Written by Jacquelene Friedenthal, STC, Swiss Embassy in South Africa

Arguments in favour of African/South African MOOCs are:

MOOCs are viewed by African academics as an instrument to access affordable education. They could enhance global good through the joint collaboration in the development of courses for and with local institutions. The establishment of a MOOCs platform will enable skill building in the development of online courses and/or digital technologies, as well as provide an opportunity to integrate digital technology into the education mainstream for everyone’s benefit. The developing network of social entrepreneurs could also be interested by such platform, combining online content with discussions, mentoring, hands-on experience and internships.

MOOCs have the potential to prepare school leavers for academic or vocational education and training, as currently being done by the KHAN-Academy. They could play a critical role in the socio-economic development of Africa as one year of extra schooling of African students could result in an estimated GDP growth of 12.2%. MOOCS can also assist in enhancing the reach of Higher Education Institutions and promote their reputation internationally. Infrastructures are also developing: Inmarsat, for example, focuses on providing broadband connectivity, which should increase MOOCs’ accessibility and participation in South Africa.

The Africa/South Africa MOOCs model

“Blended learning will be the norm. It’s not a matter of ‘if’. We just have to decide ‘how’.” says Ass. Prof. Assoc Prof Laura Czerniewicz. The Africa/South Africa MOOCs model is very likely to be:

  • A combination of Online Education Resources (OERs) having local instructors with flexibility to adapt the curricula and local context,
  • An blend of hands-on and in-class support approaches,
  • Providing courses that are globally benchmarked, orientated towards the industry’s needs and with certification upon completion,
  • Implemented with dedicated facilities, student support mechanisms, free internet access and peer interactions e.g. Coursera Learning Hubs,
  • With technology familiar to the local context e.g. affordable mobile phones accessibility; radio and compact disks,
  • With lower resolution versions of videos, offline connectivity tools and offline reading,
  • Incorporated into formal studies with accreditation and graduation,
  • Having a sound business model.

There are no shortcuts in presenting MOOCs in Africa, as institutions require well-developed and cultivated administrative, pedagogical, financial and technical capacities and infrastructure to mainstream Online Education Resources.

Readiness for MOOCs

Although it is believed that North America has already reached a peak of inflated expectations it is not the case in developing countries, as Africa is only now reaching the peak of inflated expectations. There is also the concern that many policy makers in developing countries have never heard about MOOCs. The MOOC phenomenon is only just starting to register with many educational policy makers in middle and low income countries.

The Republic of South Africa has an inclusive MOOC strategy outlined in the White paper for Post-School Education and Training and in this excellent analysis of the new South African policies by Tony Bates, which “sets out an impressively idealist set of values for South African post-secondary education, based on equality between races and genders, access to all, and academic freedom within an overarching framework of public accountability.

The 2012 White Paper is an encouraging signal of the South Africa’s readiness to embrace a blended MOOCs system with quality measures in place of the articulation of qualifications. Addressing the challenges of access, equity, quality, skills and an idling youth led to the launch of the White Paper Post-School Education and Training on 15 January 2014. The provision of open learning is heralded as an instrument to provide improved access, quality and cost-effectiveness of post-schooldistance education. The establishment of multi-purpose educational facilities are proposed to facilitate mixed models based on open learning principles. It is anticipated that open learning will complement the traditional campus-based contact education focussing on a mixed model where vocational training should take centre stage. Infrastructure is set to be resourced with connectivity and a network of education providers in learning support centres.

Most of the 23 universities in South Africa practice some form of Online Distance Learning with a few starting to advocate and mobilise for MOOCs. Although scepticism and identified challenges are real, there is a notable optimism in using MOOCs in an adapted form to supplement face-to-face education through a mixed model of Online Education Resources. The domain that receives centre stage for African/South African is that of business management with participants from the Graduate School of Business at the University Of Cape Town (UCT). Taking the lead in Africa, the Africa Management Initiative is a forerunner with its first MOOCs platform and basic management skills course (The Africa Report, 2013).

It is not surprising that, with business management as the pioneering MOOCs domain in Africa and South Africa, Regenesys Business School broke new ground with the first business school in the world to offer free accredited business education from Certificate, Diploma, Bachelor’s Degree up to an MBA level. This flagship MOOCs course has so far attracted 83 000 students from 113 countries.

In parallel, Business Schools at the Stellenbosch and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Universities for example express caution against the rushing into MOOCs without a full strategic review and understanding of the academic mode and business model (read more).

The context of MOOCs in Africa/South Africa

In South Africa, nearly 16 million of 51.7 million inhabitants are living on social grants. At least 66% of these grant recipients are children between the ages of 0-18 years with nearly 6.5 million of them living in households where not one of the adults is employed. Considering a Gini coefficient of 0.70 with 41.4% of the population living under the poverty line and the dire situation of the South African youth and families, the necessity of free and accessible education is obvious. However, free and accessible education is but one of the ingredients for the completion of a post-obligatory school qualification.

The enabling catalyst for a vision of African economic growth is a robust and accessible schooling and post-schooling education and learning system. The African student contingent is standing at 200 million (25-24yrs) which is expected to double by 2045 but only 5% of the sub-Saharan African students are enrolled in higher education. Reasons attributed to the low enrolment rate are for example a high school drop-out, affordability and student support resulting in fewer than 10% of the youth in SA achieving a post-obligatory school qualification (see John 2013 and Spaull 2014).

A glance at South African “forgotten schools” by

Can MOOCs Enhance the Post-School System and Skills Base?

Students in the Pipeline: Nearly half of the school-going population does not complete their schooling and of the remaining school goers, only 24% pass their matriculation exams with only 11% graduating from a university. Passing a matriculation is not difficult with a subject passing threshold starting at 30%. This means that the knowledge and skills base of the 24% of South Africans who did complete matriculation may very well be inadequate for the labour market.

Supply of students: University access is causing havoc in South Africa. For example, Pretoria alone saw an enrolment in 2013 of over 120 000 students competing for the available 24 500 university positions (Business Tech, 2013). An idling youth of 3.2 million (31%) unemployed who often lack education and training is plaguing the South African social fabric and economy.

Labour Demand: At least 47% of the South African workforce is unskilled having a below matriculation education (Matric is obtained after 12 years of schooling of which 7 yrs is at primary level and 5 at high school level. Matric with university entre is necessary to be accepted at a university in South Africa). The flipside is that the unemployed are also unskilled (47%) with the lowest unemployment figures amongst the undergraduates and post graduates. Also, the production of large numbers of students in domains not in demand by the labour market is worsening with nearly 500 000 vacancies that could be filled immediately should the necessary skills base be available. The National Employers Association of South Africa (NEASA) cited a failing education system; vocational training and school leavers who are performing poorly in language, comprehension and numeracy as reasons for the high unemployment rates among the youth. Unemployment and an unskilled labour force coupled with the quality of the school base system are resulting in South Africa having the highest unemployment figures among the BRICS countries (read more).

moocs africa2

University Enrolment Day 2012 (

Online Education in South Africa

South Africa has 23 universities all of which are offering some sort of Online Distance Learning (ODL) with the University Of South Africa (UNISA) providing ODL since 1946. A number of methods are being used in ODL including the correspondence through written assignments; telecast lectures which allow students to interrupt a lecture to ask questions and then computer-based tutorials that offers either a one-to-one experience or MOOCs. South Africa invests and will continue to invest in ODL offering an opportunity of access and affordability (Gini 2012). ODL students, making up at least 41% of all post school enrolments, come from underprivileged backgrounds demonstrating challenges in support with the necessary competency, proficiency and appropriate study habits.

Notwithstanding these challenges, UNISA is well placed to capitalise on digital technology taking their ODL experience into Africa for open and distance learning. UNISA is host to the UNESCO African Chair in Open and Distance Learning and the National Research Foundation (NRF) South African Chair in Development Education. In 2013, with more than 400 000 students from 137 countries, UNISA is well on its way to becoming an online African university.

MOOCs the magic silver bullet for Africa: but is it?

In a discussion, Professor Narend Baijnath, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of UNISA, reiterated two main challenges faced by the Higher Education Institutions in South Africa in relation with MOOCs. He raised the concern of the need to award a qualification and to offer a workable business model. Prof Adam Habib as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand raised the concerns of access vs quality of education with potentially millions that will never acquire the full educational experience; the concern of inequality was raised as the developing world is already viewing MOOCs accreditation from developed countries as superior to local education and with Harvard, Stanford and Oxford now encouraging MOOCs enrolment which could undermine the potential for investment in local education. MOOCs also have the potential to consolidate inequalities by replacing face-to-face education for the poor by that of online education while the elite retains access to the real experience of quality education. Mixed feelings were raised about providing MOOCs for free with the option of payment of courses that could have a challenge in the structuring of payment in a foreign currency. These views of Habib and Baijnath were preceded in 2013 with an open letter by the San Jose State University :

There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves, nor do we have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching our equivalent course. We believe that long-term financial considerations motivate the call for massively open online courses (MOOCs) at public universities such as ours. Unfortunately, the move to MOOCs comes at great peril to our university. We regard such courses as a serious compromise of quality of education and, ironically for a social justice course, a case of social injustice.”

Awarding degrees

Professor Narend Baijnath was very clear that a formal degree is more than a string of MOOCs courses. The primary objective of MOOCs is to encourage peer-to-peer learning supported with the issuing of certificates upon completion rather than course credits. Not delivering ‘credits’ which lead to a degree is creating the impression that MOOCs are of lesser value than a university course. In Africa, obtaining a degree from an established university is far more important than the content acquired through a number of courses. If you don’t have the papers to prove your educational value then why trouble to follow MOOCs? Accreditation for students participating in MOOC institution may require putting in place new mechanisms, guidelines and practices if not covered by existing accreditation bodies or schemes. So why do many persist in thinking of MOOCs as “of lesser value than university courses”?  Partly, it’s a legalistic reason: they aren’t delivering “credits”, which lead to a “degree”. Students in Africa need to see the continuum between a course and a qualification leading to employment. The MOOCs do not provide this continuum.

The business model

The business model of the MOOC platforms and content providers is often questioned. The expressed motivation from the platform quarters is noble and philanthropic stating the objective of free and open education and recently access to education for Africa. The course providers, mainly prestigious universities, present motivational participation as education access, experimentation with MOOCs as an e-learning approach, using MOOCs as a catalyst for full time enrolment, and brand extension. It is unclear how the business model will work and although it is claimed to be open and free the backdrop is a global e-learning market that will reach USD 107 billion by 2015. The need for a business model is obvious for the creative business strategies of MOOCs content providers. Some content providers have identified an income generating stream in:

  • Incorporating MOOC material as part of a blended learning experience for on-campus students
  • Offering at cost certificates that demonstrate that the course had been competed
  • Selling course-related merchandise
  • Indirectly improving brand awareness and increasing reputation in both importance and reach.

The recipients and educational experience

A typical MOOCs student is self-driven, well-educated, and is literate in information technology allowing him/her to work through the complex nature of online learning. MOOCs students already have a two- or four year post-secondary degree and those from BRICS countries are from the wealthiest and best educated 6% of the population. MOOCs originate from urban environments in developed countries and are presented as a solution to enhance the existing educational system and supplement student learning for the developed world. MOOCs were not originally targeted for the developing world. A number of students in Africa are unfamiliar with computers including basic skills such as the launch of a programme, typing and closing a programme. It appears that the typical MOOCs student will rank into the category of self enhancement in direct opposition to the typical African student ranking in the category of basic needs and survival.

The way MOOCs teach

In 2013, Prof. Thrun, the creator of Udacity, expressed the concern that regardless of unprivileged or privileged students, only 10% of MOOCs subscribers finish the course and subsequently said that a face-to-face course will present a 52% likelihood passing rate as opposed to the low pass rate of Udacity course. The remarks of Prof. Thrun and academia place a question over the pedagogic model of MOOCs. The notion of a quality education, drop-out rate and experiencing a full educational online is some of the pedagogical concerns raised. MOOCs don’t work for everyone, especially for at-risk students with lower grades and coming from disadvantaged backgrounds requiring substantial teacher inputs – thus the solution of a blended MOOCs approach is attracting mainstream attention. Also of concern is that Africa/South Africa should not become a passive recipient of knowledge with static professors. A blended MOOCs approach was introduced in Rwanda with a combination of free content and low-cost instructors providing a hands-on classroom interaction as a possible example of future MOOCs.

The content providers and platforms

From the map below it is obvious that MOOCs are from the” west for the rest”. Indian and South African academics expressed concerns about the content, the global unevenness of knowledge and the potential of undermining the advancement of public universities in developing countries, such as unilateral content providers with passive recipients in the South who do not speak of a global partnership of academia but rather a neo-colonialist approach. Further hampering the localisation of MOOCs is that of strict copyrights on content offering students a take-it-or-leave-it solution. South African academia is calling for the establishment of joint partnership towards a global good of education.

MOOCs africa4

MOOCs Platforms and Recipients (University of Cape Town, 2014)

Infrastructure for MOOCs

Unlike in the developed world, mainstreaming MOOCs is challenging as connectivity remains an obstacle with unreliable internet access and poor infrastructure. A slow download speed and high definition videos are adding to the MOOCs challenges in Africa exacerbated by the inadequate electricity in rural areas. The limited access to internet bandwidth in Africa is obvious as illustrated in the following figures, respectively on bandwidth connectivity and access to electricity.

moocs africa5

Internet bandwidth in Africa

moocs africa6

Electricity Connectivity in Africa


The arguments for and against African MOOCs are swinging back and forth like a pendulum of skepticism, optimism and obliviousness. Regardless of the concerns raised, MOOCs, especially in a blended form, will be part of mainstream education and an instrument to address the challenges of access as reiterated in the MOOCs discourse. The higher education institutions will aim to create their own educational content with a pedagogical approach suitable for Africa and South Africa. This said, there is a cross-cutting feeling amongst South African academics that a philosophy of global good and content localisation should be pursued through joint collaboration between Higher Education Institutions.

Take a look at this article with all the references


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