Why MOOCs will Transform Africa

Photo of Matunduzi School, Girls Education Support Initiative, Malawi 2012
© 2012 Erik Törner CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Educating women can transform nations.

Research by the World Bank and the World Economic Forum, among countless others, consistently demonstrates that narrowing the educational gender gap increases family and national economic stability and growth. The UN Millennial Goals have been wildly successful in raising access to and the levels of girls’ primary and secondary education in developing countries and are now being expanded to include tertiary education as well. Ironically, this is happening just as traditional models of higher education are being deeply disrupted.

For me this issue is very personal. For the past three years, I’ve been mentoring an extraordinary young Rwandan woman, Rina Ntagozera, through Open a Door, a non-profit that educates and empowers women leaders from post-conflict countries. Rina is now a sophomore International Relations major at Haverford College near Philadelphia. She’s passionate about learning, excited by the new challenges of college in the U.S., and determined to return home after graduation to help shape Rwanda’s future.

Through Rina and Open a Door, I’m witnessing first-hand the critical role that education plays in building a new generation of leaders and ultimately, peace and prosperity. Yet given the few scholarships available to international students, especially for those with low income levels, few can pursue the dream of a U.S. college education. And despite huge improvements in sub-Saharan Africa, the higher education opportunities there remain limited in number, accessibility, and quality. Deeply entrenched cultural attitudes toward women further constrain their real and perceived opportunities. Massive Open Online Courses, also known as MOOCs, may help fill that gap, transforming the lives of women who are hungry to learn and, by extension, their communities, and countries. That’s why it’s so thrilling to see MOOCs take off in Africa and teach us Westerners a lesson or two about educational innovation.

Educate a Woman Change a Nation from Open A Door Foundation on Vimeo.

According to a recent Fast Company article, the need—and demand—for MOOCs is strong: Africa is the “youngest” continent with 200 million people between the ages of 15-24, a cohort expected to double in size by 2045. Yet sub-Saharan Africa’s higher education enrollment is the lowest in the world, hovering at 5%. Merely raising the average education level by one year could increase Africa’s GDP by 12.2%, according to a Harvard study.

That possibility is well within reach. Africa’s Internet penetration of 15.6 percent is growing steadily, thanks to investments in broadband and the proliferation of smartphones. The McKinsey Global Institute projects that by 2025, Internet penetration will rise to 50 percent (600 million users) and smartphones will increase six-fold.

In response, both home-grown and foreign social entrepreneurs are experimenting with a variety of courses and degree programs that combine online content with discussions, mentoring, hands-on experience, and internships.

  • First Atlantic University, started by a Nigerian technology entrepreneur and Carnegie Mellon graduate, offers blended programs focusing on technical and practical skills.
  • Kepler University, which emerged out of Generation Rwanda and is largely funded by the Ikea Foundation, aims to combine U.S. MOOCS with highly interactive, small group classes and global internships—for $1000 a year.
  • Microsoft has partnered with University of the People—a free, online school, to sponsor and mentor 1,000 Africans pursuing associate degrees in business administration and computer science.

Add to that the proliferation of technology hubs and incubators and Internet cafes and you have a dynamic web if connectivity for learning and development.

Rina shares my enthusiasm about MOOCs in Africa—especially as they become more smart-phone friendly. “We have a lot of power in our hands these days thanks to the internet, and it is just a matter of knowing how to use it efficiently for our own good,” Rina says. A recent convert to the “liberal arts,” she sees MOOCs as particularly valuable for developing knowledge and skills that are immediately applicable in the marketplace. That’s why she’s enrolled in an EdX Computer Science course. Rina also thinks MOOCs could help high school students become more prepared for college, whether at home or overseas, assuming they can be dragged away from social media (sound familiar?). And for young, ambitious women seeking to better themselves or their opportunities, MOOCs offer a low cost, neutral and safe learning environment.

Will African countries make MOOCs a critical part of their education infrastructure? Will they shape MOOCs and invent models to meet their own economic development needs? Will African women and flock to MOOCs, including those focused on STEM topics, unlike their U.S. counterparts?

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