Open education as an intervention for socio-economically weaker regions
For several years now, trends toward online education have been evident in African and South Asian countries – despite persistent technological barriers. In this article, we show why this is the case, what potential open education holds for socio-economically weak regions, and how challenges can be overcome in the process.
Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and some regions in South Asia can be described as socio-economically weakened due to social and economic indicators such as low income, highly unequal housing and property conditions, and a lack of schooling, education or training opportunities. According to UNESCO estimations, in 2016, one in five children worldwide did not participate in any form of education. Almost all of these children, aged 6 to 17, lived in developing countries. This crisis could worsen as Africa’s youth population is expected to double to 830 million by 2050. Education systems in these developing regions are often unable to absorb this, with few resources allocated to education. Against this background, open and digital education is steadily gaining relevance as a measure for lower-threshold access to education.
A matter of money
Building schools and universities is of little use in the long term if governments cannot afford their maintenance and running costs. Many education systems in developing regions are already chronically underfunded – a situation that may worsen as systems expand and become increasingly expensive to administer. Funding problems are pervasive in SSA, even though governments spend relatively large portions of their budgets on education by international standards. Governments in low-income countries increasingly see open and digital education as a way to fill capacity gaps. This is because, compared with building new facilities in the form of bricks and walls, digital learning in the form of digital terminals and free applications is a flexible and more efficient alternative. The extent to which this alternative also makes sense didactically remains to be seen, but from an educational economics perspective, digital and open education in developing countries is certainly promising.
Smartphone ban here, mobile lessons there
What makes digital and open education increasingly attractive in SSA and South Asia is the flexibility of the education systems: In contrast to Western European education systems, no historically developed structures have to be overturned. However, in these relatively young educational structures, there is a challenge to establish school as a central place of compulsory education and to increase the rate of educational attainment. This is currently not even close to the levels in Europe and North America. Digital education could be key here, but in many developing regions participation in online education formats is still hampered by technological infrastructure barriers. This digital divide is a particular barrier in Africa, where Internet penetration still lags far behind other regions of the world. Only 18 percent of households on the continent had an internet connection in their home in 2017, compared to 84.2 percent in Europe. It should be noted, however, that internet penetration in Africa varies by state and region: while the majority of urban Africans now have mobile devices and access to mobile broadband internet, many people in remote rural areas do not have private access and must use the internet in public facilities such as schools, universities and internet kiosks, which are connected via satellite terminals and often run on solar power. However, the rapid spread of smartphones in recent years has made digital learning a much more attractive proposition. Mobile broadband technology is rapidly penetrating remote rural areas and providing people there with Internet access. Thus, “m-learning” using cell phones has become a common form of instruction in socio-economically weak social strata in SSA.
Simple further education
Open Distance Learning (ODL) has been pursued for some time as a means of expanding access. ODL universities provide inclusive, demand-driven education. They are widely regarded as an effective tool for social development and are supported by organizations such as UNESCO. What most of them have in common are their relatively low admission standards compared to other universities. Most, but not all, charge tuition for their programs, which range from short-term diploma and certificate courses to full-fledged bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs. Many ODL institutions follow a blended learning model that combines various forms of distance learning with tutoring at study centers that also provide students with access to libraries, computers, and videoconferencing facilities. Flexible schedules allow both first-time students and working adults to continue their education, even in remote, underserved regions. In addition, top research universities in Africa will be able to share costs and pool resources using tools such as shared digital libraries and digital communication facilities that will help connect institutions across the continent in transnational research clusters.
Does expensive equal good?
ODL is often dismissed as inferior and seen as the opposite of expensive private universities. However, open universities were not designed to be centers of academic excellence. Rather, they were designed to provide education to the masses at low operating costs. ODL is not a solution for creating the best education systems, but it plays an important role in providing access to millions of prospective students and has become an integral part of many education systems. It must be acknowledged, however, that the quality of distance learning providers generally varies widely. Therefore, there is a need for bodies that audit ODL institutions – and these too already exist (in small numbers). It would therefore be a mistake to dismiss all ODL institutions as inferior.
The golden middle
In developing countries, providing technology and digital content alone is certainly not enough to engage students in digital learning. Hybrid approaches may be the most promising and highest quality model. In the future, educators and policymakers will need to examine how best to conceptualize and deploy online learning, improving the delivery and content of online courses while making them more interactive and relevant to the local context. After all, the likelihood is that subsequent generations, who have grown up with mobile devices and conduct much of their social interaction online, will be more receptive to digital education.
Most governments in Africa are now pursuing policies that promote the spread of information and communication technologies (ICT) and digital learning. The Kenyan government, for example, launched a digital learning program in 2016 to digitize primary education. By March 2018, more than one million laptops and tablets with interactive digital content had been delivered to 19,000 public schools. In addition, there are some ambitious projects that promote access to education:
- OER Africa is an initiative launched by the South African Institute for Distance Education. It operates across Africa and plays a leading role in supporting higher education institutions to develop and use Open Educational Resources (OER) to enhance teaching and learning. OER Africa has compiled other OER organizations and projects here.
- “Skills for a Changing World” aims to create educational opportunities for those currently excluded from post-secondary education, both at the education and training level and at the higher education level. In addition to preparing students for postsecondary study, the program also aims to prepare students for the world of work by focusing on the development of general skills that are essential for working successfully in today’s economy.
- “African Storybook” provides free access to picture books in the languages of Africa to promote children’s literacy, enjoyment and imagination.
In a nutshell
E-learning undoubtedly has a number of advantages over on-site learning: it eliminates the cost of printed teaching materials and the need for physical infrastructure, so it can be offered in regions where such infrastructure is not available. This can reduce costs not only for academic institutions, but also for students, who often have to travel long distances to schools and universities in regions like SSA. Online class times tend to be flexible, and course materials can be accessed at any time, making study easier for working adults, for example. Digital libraries provide access to literature where physical libraries do not exist. Crucially, e-learning is not limited by the size of physical classrooms – online courses can be taken by an unlimited number of students around the globe. As access to electricity and broadband Internet increases, online education will quickly become accessible to an ever-larger audience. And distributing inexpensive tablets to students is still cheaper than building facilities. It is therefore not surprising that academic institutions and governments in SSA and South Asia are increasingly promoting online learning as a comparatively low-cost investment in human capital development. Further, open educational opportunities help increase access to education despite concerns about educational quality and social equity. They are perceived as a streamlined, cost-effective means of expanding educational opportunities. Despite persistent technological barriers, governments and academic institutions in SSA are rapidly adopting digital learning models. Given current developments and trends, it is reasonable to assume that digital and open education will become increasingly prevalent in these regions.