Across Africa is the Faculty of Commerce's strategic initiative, aligned with UCT's Afropolitan vision, to broaden access to higher education across the continent through a blend of online and face-to-face education models. The initiative is being launched in partnership with GetSmarter, an online education company, and hopes to enrol some 1 000 students in postgraduate programmes over the next five years.
Across Africa was born out of the question: is technology an enabler or an impediment to expanding access to education? The answer, following a pilot project where two groups of UCT students were presented their normally residential courses in blended format, identified technology as an enabler, much to the delight of faculty members.
Jacques Rousseau, managing director of Across Africa, and his colleague Dale Williams volunteered their courses, evidence-based management (for first-years) and strategic thinking (for fourth-years), to serve as pilots for the blended mode, which combines online and traditional face-to-face learning.
The results were both gratifying, and to some extent surprising. "Student engagement was far in excess of anticipation, while course evaluations – and crucially, results – indicated that students were enjoying and also benefiting from this new mode of delivery," says Rousseau, adding how surprised they were that students from disadvantaged backgrounds sometimes performed better in the online delivery mode, thanks to being free to study when and how they wanted to, in a context in which lectures and course material could be engaged with as often as desired.
The successful pilots led to the launch of the first two of a planned suite of online postgraduate programmes under the umbrella of Across Africa. "GetSmarter have developed a cutting-edge interactive virtual learning environment, which – when paired with UCT's content and quality assurance – holds the promise of the highest-quality online education," maintains Rousseau.
Tackling youth unemployment
Professor Don Ross, dean of the Faculty of Commerce, believes that people with "very good degrees who can immediately add significant value to the economy" are the answer to youth unemployment in South Africa and Africa.
"All over the world, young people who don't have good educational qualifications, who thereby don't have significant value to add to the 21st century economy, are unemployed ... There's the temptation to think that all you have to do is to create mass capacity at your most basic tertiary institutions – however rickety they might be – and just cram the students through. Some of that will probably have to be done, but that in itself is not a solution. We also have to ensure that we increase access at our best tertiary institutes," said Ross at the recent launch of the Postgraduate Diploma in Management in Marketing and the Advanced Diploma in Business Project Management. These courses are expected to start in February 2015.
The residential elements of the courses employ block teaching sessions for designated weeks, initially taking place at UCT only, and examination sites initially only in South Africa, but potentially also elsewhere on the continent should there be a demand. Online elements include pre-scripted lectures on videoclips and reading materials crafted by UCT staff and industry professionals, as well as interactive elements such as chat rooms and discussion forums.
Referring to Across Africa as the Commerce Faculty's highest strategic priority, Ross stressed that the courses are in no way MOOCs (massive open online courses), because Across Africa presents its offerings via a high-touch support model involving constant interaction with students, driven by deep engagement with analytics regarding any particular difficulties students might be having with elements of the curriculum. "Through our private-sector partner, GetSmarter, we believe this enterprise comes with the best-quality online delivery platform in the world. We're committed to keeping it the best in the world ... and though our initial focus is South Africa, our goal is to serve the whole continent."
People central to learning experience
It is estimated that over 6 million people worldwide are currently pursuing online qualifications. Sam Paddock, co-CEO of GetSmarter, finds this "not surprising considering the range of benefits" promised by online learning. "The key benefit of flexibility is what drives the demand from a very specific sector of the population, namely working professionals. Online education promises that working professionals can fit considerable, comprehensive degree programmes into their very busy lives."
His brother, Rob, who runs GetSmarter with Paddock, points out that UCT and GetSmarter have been partners for the last seven years, offering short, non-credit-bearing online courses, mostly to working professionals. GetSmarter has attained a 94% completion rate on existing short courses. The Paddock brothers, both Faculty of Commerce alumni, are confident they can extend this to the postgraduate courses on offer.
Rob outlines what those registering for the newly launched and subsequent courses can expect. "Every course has a designated course instructor, who manages the programme from an academic perspective. They answer questions on the forum, manage project work, and guarantee quick turnaround times on any queries."
Each student is also assigned a personal course coach dedicated to ensuring success in the programme. "Finally, these courses are completed in conjunction with other students. This social learning aspect is critical to a really effective learning experience, which is greatly augmented by students from vastly different backgrounds throughout Africa completing collaborative projects and peer-reviewing each other's assignments.
"We use technology to enhance the effort of our teachers, and not to replace them. We believe that people are at the centre of any learning experience, and that the best teaching takes place with support from and in collaboration with other people," Rob Paddock concludes.
The way forward
In five years' time Across Africa hopes to have 1 000 students enrolled for its courses. "We hope to grow student numbers by two thirds of what our current first-year intake is, but without this growth impacting on (UCT's) physical space," says Rousseau. "We also plan to establish the brand as the online education provider in Africa, giving thousands of people access to education – and in this way, helping to address Africa's development challenges and skills shortages."
As yet, there is no commitment to presenting undergraduate courses in blended mode. For now, the Across Africa road map is focused on postgraduate courses; but according to Rousseau, there is nothing stopping them from considering how blended learning could be used in online bridging courses to facilitate greater access to undergraduate studies.
Story by Abigail Calata, photo by Raymond Botha.
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