Distance learning – is Africa ready?
At present South Africa is leaps ahead of any other African country in terms of number and variety of distance learning institutions; it has more than 70 accredited private providers of higher education. The University of South Africa (UNISA) is South Africa’s largest university and claims 85 percent of all higher education distance learners. It is in fact one of the largest distance learning universities in the world. Distance learning has gained such popularity in South Africa that over the past decade 40 percent of higher education enrolments have been with distance learning institutions.
Distance learning institutions offer a solution to location and work constraints that would otherwise keep numerous individuals from studying and attaining higher and tertiary education qualifications. For example, they have the potential to increase gender parity in situations where women are restricted to the home, whether through maternal duties or patriarchal/religious customs. It is also more inclusive of those with disabilities that keep them house-bound. Many universities and colleges today are also oversubscribed, further enhancing the importance of distance learning opportunities.
Those living on farms, in rural villages or anywhere else far from an urban hub (which includes roughly half of the continent’s population) are arguably the most in need of distance learning options as they cannot access traditional campus-based institutions.
For all these reasons distance learning institutions are a critical building block in African economies, offering more inclusive education opportunities.
Distance learning and technology
Primary developments in recent decades that have taken distance learning to the next level in terms of quality and geographic and other types of inclusivity are the internet and satellite technology.
One of the most pioneering distance learning institutions on the continent is the African Virtual University (AVU), a Pan African Intergovernmental Organisation begun in 1997 and headquartered in Nairobi. Its charter was signed by 18 East, West and Central African nations and as such the university offers higher education opportunities in English, French and Portuguese. Some of its key features include:
- Building and managing large consortia of African Educational Institutions
- Designing and implementing Multinational eLearning Projects
- Establishment of state of art e-learning centres in Partner Institutions
- Training of Partner Institutions staff in eLearning methodologies
- Developing and implementing Open Education Resources (OER) strategy
- Managing a digital Library
It is this sort of trans-border, multilingual and e-based learning that offers African education a fresh hope. We can no longer only pursue traditional education options, and we can especially no longer teach independent of the internet, which is the connection that will open up more than just domestic markets to African scholars, businesspeople, entrepreneurs and so on.
However Africa’s inadequate ICT infrastructure together with costly and slow connections are key hindrances to e-based distance learning programmes taking off in a truly meaningful way. At present urban dwellers and the middle class are the most likely to benefit from e-learning, yet they, as a group, are not as much in need of it as are their rural, poorer counterparts.
For African economies to move forward we need better and more widespread education, and for this education to be inclusive we need better, more pervasive ICT across the continent. Improved and more universal ICT therefore needs to become an even more key objective within both the public and private sectors.