Education at the click of a button

It is education at the press of a button. Anyone with an internet connection can access some of the best teachers the world has to offer. Since they began in 2008, more than 25-million people have enrolled in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), in courses that range from Introduction to Artificial Intelligence (taught by Stanford University academics) to Grammar and Punctuation (offered by the University of California).

With a quality education still out of reach for the majority of South Africans, and university access limited to the minority, could MOOCs offer a way for South Africans to educate themselves?

“MOOCs [are] a way, not the way, to do continuous education over time,” said Prof Phillipe Gillet, vice-president for academic affairs at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.

MOOCs involve “courses segmented into small weekly models, short videos, online quizzes … [and] online forums”, Gillet said. These courses are tailored for university students, but also self-learners and professionals.

His institute began offering MOOCs in 2012, and has a division dedicated to “MOOCs in Africa”, he said. “While you have fewer internet connections in Africa, those connections are used for learning.”

However, could this nostrum work in the South African context?

Rachel Prinsloo, in the University of South Africa’s department of academic planning, said that, while the university is looking at the possibility of introducing MOOCs, the real issue that South Africa faces is youth not in education, training or development. “There are about 2-million [of these individuals] in South Africa, and the number is growing. MOOCs in our context must be something different,” she said.

This idea was taken further by Square Kilometre Array South Africa director Bernie Fanaroff. “I’m told there are 50-million cellphones in South Africa, half are smartphones, and new phones bought are smartphones,” he said. “But one would have to look at how you would deliver courses to phones on limited bandwidth.”

MOOCs could play an important role in areas like professional development for teachers, or offering foundation courses for first-year university students from previously disadvantaged schools, Fanaroff said.

However, the major sticking point on MOOCs is quality assurance and accreditation.

“Communities are seeing technology as a way to access information and to build up qualification, but [MOOCs institutions] have not solved the issues of assessments, accreditation, global partnerships or how to allocate credits,” Prinsloo says.

Here is also the additional concern about drop out rates. It is estimated that, out of the millions of people who sign up for these courses, less than 10% actually complete the course. When asked about this, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne’s Gillet said: “Usually, the mean is 6%-10% worldwide [write the final exam] … but that is still quite a lot.”

However, in the South African context, there is already a high dropout rate at traditional universities, with only 15% of undergraduate completing their degrees, according to 2013 Department of Higher Education and Training figures. Dropout rates could be even higher for an online course in which there is no face to face contact.

Gillet said: “There are many different kinds of MOOCs: social science and humanities on the one hand, science on the other. There are things you cannot do with a MOOC, like surgery. There are also things that cannot do if you do not have a campus [where students go for courses, practicals and exams]…. There are things you can do with MOOCs and things you cannot do.”

But MOOCs could change the way that students engage with campuses. “They are the new textbooks to some extent. We have to rethink the way that we are teaching,” Gillet said.

  • NOTE: This is part of a series produced for Independent Newspapers’ post-Science Forum supplement.

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