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South Africa must move on from physical universities

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As South Africans, we need to embrace the technology that can educate, up-skill and enrich the lives of our fellow citizens. (Image Source:

Why don’t we have virtual universities in this country? This is one of those simple questions with no good answer. We don’t. And, we do. South Africa has one of the world’s largest and most successful virtual universities in the University of South Africa (UNISA), with almost 355,000 students. But UNISA is still ‘’Old School”. Books. Handouts. Tapes. It’s still very staff intensive (6,000 people), one-way teaching and unaffordable to many.

But where is our Coursera, our Udacity, our Khan Academy? These virtual universities teach millions of people science, engineering, accounting, finance and more. Online universities give people a chance to get advanced qualifications – people that in the past would have never have had the opportunity to study further.

All you need is access to a computer and the Internet
In South Africa, this is a huge barrier to entry. We have a very high Internet penetration rate… but only 20% of South Africans own a computer with an Internet connection (SA Network Society/ Research ICT Africa 2012). You can’t study advanced topics using just a mobile phone.

But still. One in five South Africans is ten million people, and government’s ambitious SA Connect policy should see this number jump quickly. Why are we still stuck in the past when it comes to higher learning, with parents needing to scrape the money together to send their kids far away to sit in a lecture theatre?

The short answer is that education is tradition-bound in South Africa
Universities in the developed world pushed back hard against the new online virtual universities, but eventually came around, and embraced distance learning enthusiastically. They can’t charge as much per student, but by offering an online model that complements their brick-and-mortar campuses, they can take literally millions of students per course. Coursera, the poster-child of the so-called MOOCs (massively open online courses) has 15,000,000 registered users.

South Africa has yet to embrace this new world of virtual universities. While UNISA is a great success story, its techniques and technologies are rooted in its past, including the use of printed materials, audio CDs (often transfers from audio cassette tapes that have been in use for decades). It is making slow moves towards the technology used by MOOCs – video lectures, online forums for peer study, online quizzes and exercises – but too little, too slowly.

Our other major universities are simply not keeping up with the trends towards virtual learning in higher education. Wits, UCT, and UP all have some sort of distance-learning programme, but these are limited, and generally only for postgraduate certifications.  Wits announced in 2014 that it would offer MOOCs through edX, but no courses are active yet.

As South Africans, we need to embrace the technology that can educate, up-skill and enrich the lives of our fellow citizens. Our standing in global primary and secondary school rankings slip every year, as do our tertiary rankings. Thousands cannot afford further education. Our unemployment rate is sky-high. We are losing skilled people in the emigration brain-drain.  We are becoming a consumer, not a generator, of intellectual property and revolutionary new businesses.

We must urgently adopt the technologies of virtual universities
However, we must first fix some infrastructural problems – starting with cheaper, better internet access, and we need to prioritise access to proper computers. Access to smartphones won’t cut it for something serious.

We have to consciously step back from traditional distance learning techniques, keep what works, but adopt new ones that have proven themselves around the world, in particular, Video on Demand.

Recently, Internet Solutions carried out South Africa’s first ever detailed study of Video on Demand as a technology for training and communicating in the workplace. As many as 39% percent of large enterprises believed the single most valuable application for interactive Video on Demand was in training, 55% said it was much more impactful than traditional techniques, 18% said it was brilliant because it allowed measuring of engagement by learners, and 18% valued it as being an incredibly cost-effective way to train (there’s a lot more detail here).

Video on Demand has become a hot topic in education circles in other African countries. Kwame Nkhruma University of Science and Technology in Ghana has been rolling out extensive distance learning options.

Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya – all have similar problems to South Africa, such as lots of people living far from the major metros, with very long distances to travel on poor roads. Rather than make students travel hundreds of kilometres to study, online technologies like interactive Video on Demand, chatrooms, Web forums and other e-learning tools allow them to study from home (where their means allow), or to attend small satellite campuses, which don’t need lots of teaching or support staff.

Broadband networks are spreading rapidly across South Africa. High speed fibre, public WiFi, computers in schools and libraries are becoming common. We must leverage this, for all our good.

It is time for our education sector – both private and public – to fully embrace the virtual university technologies that can bring incredible opportunities to motivated and positive South Africans that have a thirst for knowledge.

By Kervin Pillay, Head of technology at Internet Solutions

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