Thursday, June 13, 2013

African MOOCs: unlocking a billion more brains

has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an
affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has
more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest

Thomas Friedman NY Times

On this view MOOCs are a godsend for Africa. Free, they have the potential to reach
vast audiences who stand no chance of getting anywhere near higher education as
we know it in the developed world. On the other hand, as the
Namibian President wisely said at E-learning Africa this month, let’s not make
the mistake of following an overly academic approach at the expense of Africa’s
vocational needs, what he called the 'spectacle of hallucination'. African MOOCs will have to be more relevant to Africa’s
vocational needs, such as agriculture, healthcare and entrepreneurship. A third view, is that Africa needs to produce as well as
consume MOOCs. Absolutely. 

The bottom line is that the simple idea of making
and making use of relevant courses, made free (or cheap) and accessible to
millions of young Africans, is as good an example as any of Africa leapfrogging
a Western Higher Education system that has proved slow, cumbersome and far too
expensive. The last thing Africa needs are $20-$40,000 per year undergraduate


Africamooc’ is
alive and kicking, aggregating and hosting MOOCs. Jens Schneider, a wonderfully enthusiastic
Namibian says, “If your course is free,
we host for free
”. This is a useful service as Jens understands the real
needs and contexts in which MOOCs could be used in Africa. Aggregation and
reuse is a start, a good start.

Entrepreneurship MOOCs

An example of a relevant vocational MOOC is Jim
Vetter’s LIFE, a not-for-profit funded MOOC for entrepreneurs from all over the
world, with many in Africa. He uses a MOOC to develop small businesses,
especially tech businesses.
Lessons learnt? Use a pedagogy for a range of literacies, make it multilingual
and make content available on  a range of devices. He also uses learners to
help develop content, as they know a lot about troubleshooting in their own,
local environments. Stories are important, as are JOLTs (just in time learning
tools). What was needed were practical, skills around start-up costs, fixed
costs, variable costs, profit & loss, cash flow and so on. For this he uses
free, open source spread-sheets with P &Ls etc. He delivers in English and
Spanish, and soon in French and Arabic. This is important as 202 countries have
logged in so far and it is widely used throughout Africa. I also likes his free
‘facilitator guide’ downloadable from the site.

Tanzanian IT MOOCs

Even more relevant to African needs is the World
Bank funded Coursera initiative to provide market-relevant IT skills in
Tanzania, where jobs are going unfilled due to lack of relevant IT skills.
Tanzania’s problem is not unusual in Africa where talented students go abroad
to study, leaving the country bereft of high-end skills. They hope to match IT
MOOCs to local employment needs by involving stakeholders such as local IT
lecturers, businesses and entrepreneurs. This is promising as it pays attention
to local culture and context.

African perspective on MOOCs

What’s now
needed are a few home grown MOOCs from African institutions. They need not be
universities. Gertjan van Stam has spent a long time in deep, rural Africa, in
Zimbabwe and Zambia, and has some revealing insights into MOOCs in Africa. The
African perspective on MOOCs, he feels, should be different. Take the rural or
traditional African perspective on the subject and you see things through
different eyes. 71% in his village use the internet for education in deep rural
villages. In his village role models emerged, such as the woman who went online
to get a Degree in Divinity and became an important member of the clergy. His
children use Khan and BBC Bitesize for maths, His wife, a doctor, is doing a
MOOC on mobile health. Most education not accessible to the poor, so MOOCs are
a real educational opportunity.

However, he says that Africa must transmit and not just
consume MOOCs. There’s a real need for MOOCs in indigenous languages, sensitive
to Africa’s oral tradition.  Content in
just western languages is hampering progress. Even worse, it may strengthen
colonial thought. He wants MOOCs ‘contextualised for Africa’ and sees them as
an opportunity to ‘send an African knowledge to the world’. What does this
mean? Ubunto – ‘my humanity is linked to your humanity’, Orality - used
extensively in Africa, where instant discourse influences everything. He’d like
to see MOOCs provide more long-term educational content that ‘withstands
rampant individualism’, especially in the Africa where the short-term is
unpredictable. This is fascinating and opens up the possibility for MOOCs that
are far more oral, immediate and useful than using or repackaged western


these people presented their visions for African MOOCs, it was disappointing to
hear predictable responses about drop-outs, certification and
quibbles about the history of MOOCs. This is to apply old narrow narratives to something entirely new and
disruptive. This was in stark contrast to the visionaries, who were actually
doing real work, on real MOOCs, with large numbers of real learners. We needn’t
worry. The digital genie has escaped from the Ivory Tower and caught the
imagination of people who really care about access. Thinking of MOOCs in Africa makes you see the
potentials for escape from the dominant and oppressive western model of Higher Education;
remote, inaccessible, expensive, elitist and overly-academic. I wish them well.

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