Could MOOCs help democratise education in emerging markets?

Digital Education

Digital Education

There is no doubt that information is the power of a progressive society. Access to knowledge is the first step in a society’s journey towards becoming empowered.

The status quo

According to the 2013 INSEAD Global Innovation Index, approximately 14 million people in emerging market country like South Africa have access to the internet. That’s still a relatively small portion of the population, although it’s a much bigger proportion than the 100 or so million internet users India currently has.

But while numbers may fluctuate from country to country, there can be no doubting that the internet presents the greatest opportunity for access to knowledge than has ever existed in the world before. The Innovation Index goes on to highlight that knowledge diffusion is a key measure for the level of innovation which can be found in a country.

Compare that potential to the current situation in emerging markets. For instance, in 2010 892 936 students (726 882 undergraduates and 138 610 postgraduates) were enrolled in South Africa’s public higher-education institutions. According to that country’s 2011 census, only 12,1% of people 20 years old and older have any tertiary education and this includes short courses and certificates, which is nowhere near the over 10-million unemployed and largely unemployable people in the country.

The unavailability of relevant, low-cost, high quality learning content undoubtedly remains a major barrier to growth.

Sure, new universities are popping up all the time (Nigeria established nine in 2011). But is opening universities which people still can’t afford really the most impactful and viable way to educate and upskilll people?

Is the open source economy the answer?

Massive online open courses (MOOCs) have been a key development in recent digital history. These amazing platforms enable users to access university courses. The world is littered with MOOC’s- Open Culture, Coursera and Alison to name a few.

Emerging market countries are starting to catch on to the phenomenon too. In fact, nearly nine percent of Coursera’s students are from India, and just over five percent are from Brazil.

In South Africa meanwhile, there are a handful of organisations trying their hand at free online learning, the most notable and commendable of which has to be Regenesys Business School’s recently launched Regenesys Foundation which teaches business school classes online at no charge.

People from developed nations are starting to pay attention too. A group of Nokia alumni recently set up a MOOC aimed specifically at Nigeria.

One of the biggest considerations of MOOCs is their possible impact on the training industry, which is an issue that should come to the fore in the near future.

Time for education 2.0 in emerging markets

No matter how much money a government can spend on education, the current system has proven that it is not the answer to closing the skills gap which exists in many emerging market countries. It is time for these countries to look at higher education differently and use the Zeitgeist to their advantage.

Bureaucracy is not the answer. The real economic difficulties faced by these countries mean many cannot afford to go to school. So what could be an answer?

Education 2.0!

There needs to be a mindset shift in education system for government, institutions, employers and learners. What they can and cannot achieve must be acknowledged, this is a sign of maturity. These countries may not be able to get as many young people through doors of higher learning as we’d like, but we can give them access to the same knowledge and empower them with the same skills.

The success of a higher education system depends on all sectors coming to the party in more new ways than before. No longer just dialogues and white papers but in partnering for real impact. What if government working with civil society can create a MOOC and private and civil sector enable the accessibility (through Wi-Fi hotspots, 3G, a MOOC app etc)?

Insanity is defined as doing the same thing expecting different results. It’s time to turn tertiary education on its head, and begin to create real value. Education as we know it is gone. The choice is in how we harness the value that comes from the current environment.



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