May 23, 2017 By G. John Cole
Africa's education landscape is opening up to new providers and new ideas. Students from a broad range of social and economic backgrounds are exploring the new freedoms offered by smart and feature phone technology, with the number of smartphone connections in Africa predicted to almost triple to 720m by the end of 2020. This suggests a range of new opportunities for education marketers, such as the option to include increased ‘unbundling' of the classic higher education package of teaching, content, and assessment, among what they put on offer.
In other words, African students are searching for a more suitable range of options just as universities within and outside of the continent are diversifying their means of delivery. For example, the Universities of Leeds and Cape Town are collaborating on a £494,000 research project into the relevance of traditional, campus-based degree programs in the age of the internet. Other African institutions are beginning to look further afield for similarly open-minded partners.
The continent’s “fourth industrial revolution” may have started a little later than in parts of the west, but the rate of growth in internet use is astonishing, and late entry is
a great chance to build on the achievements and discoveries of more developed regions.
If these are promising opportunities, they are also fast becoming necessities. Africa's population continues to boom, with its young population accounting for a 50-fold rise in higher education students since 1970. eLearning is a near-perfect way to shrink geographical distances and tuition fees alike while raising standards to international levels.
Combining consumer communication tools such as Skype and WhatsApp with dedicated educational software empowers students to learn on their own terms and to answer their own needs, which may be vastly different across the continent – and indeed, from the country from which any particular online degree has originated. As the health of the market indicates, the advantages of the unbundling of higher education more than make up for any perceived fragmentation of established curriculums or the bricks-and-mortar campus experience.
This is not to rule out the importance of international study, but rather to flag up the benefits of offering a range of options to African students, including online degrees, overseas study, and combinations of the two. The United States recently sent a mission to Africa to spread the word about overseas studentships, and countries such as Ghana are proactively investing in support for African students to study abroad. Ghana’s Deputy Minister for Education Sam Okudzeto-Ablakwa sees a two-way traffic of students between the US and Ghana as a window for potential research collaboration, and US institutions looking to globalize their reach will find a wellspring of untapped potential and enthusiasm in Ghana and beyond.
That talent has always been there and now are the figures beginning to add up economically. African consumers spent $1 trillion in 2012, up from $364 million at the turn of the millennium – numbers that represent a rising middle class. They have money to spend, aspirations to pursue, and, increasingly, an internet connection with which to do so.
As of 2013, Senegal, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya each had eLearning growth rates of around 25% or more. The outlook is changing so rapidly that education marketers from outside the continent have their work cut out keeping up with evolving trends. But work they must, if they are to take full advantage of this promising market: local institutions such as African Virtual University (AVU) have corporate and NGO support to expand their eLearning capacities, while college after college opens their own virtual campus. Microsoft, Samsung, and the British Council are among the many and varied international organizations who have become involved with these enterprises in different capacities – providing everything from software and educational content to solar-powered internet hubs.
In other words, eLearning in Africa is at the crest of a phenomenal wave. Education actors who wish to become a part of this incredible movement should do so as soon as possible in order to avoid being late.