First published: October 2015
The recent fees protests sweeping across South African universities seem to point to one thing and that is education is expensive. In as much as we might or might not agree with the way things are being handled, one thing is clear – it is getting increasingly difficult for a parent to pay thousands before his or her child registers and after that, finish off paying the remainder by March of that year (UCT undergraduate degree is R80 000+ per year). This takes education beyond the reach of many.
We can spend a lot of time debating who is wrong, who is right, politics this and that. I completely agree, the SA government has some of its priorities in the wrong order and corruption is the bane of any economy. But politics is not an area I spend my time focusing on. I would rather talk about one possibility – online education.
During these protests, the University of the Witwatesrand (Wits) and other universities shut down. Exams are fast approaching and my lecturer for Computer Science, Richard Klein, knew it will be tough to get students in a classroom during this period. He used his smarts and created a WebRTC chat service, set up a Google Hangout and streamed the past three lectures from his bedroom (literally!) It was great to see students tune in with some mentioning how they were using free wifi provided by Moov in the Sandton Library to do so. As he was explaining concepts, changing from sharing his laptop screen showing how he is coding to his webcam and writing things on a piece of paper, everyone was engaged in the comfort of their familiar spaces. After a section, he would turn to the chat box to attend to posted questions. I will be honest, I only took up Computer Science this semester to learn the theoretical concepts but in the few weeks I have been attending class, I have never seen such levels of engagement. My classmates went on to beg him to revise a course he doesn’t even lecture because we have an upcoming test and schools are closed. Everyone was comfortable, the whole “lesson” started at 8am and lasted until 4pm! This is extremely difficult to achieve in any physical setting. Because it was being live streamed via Youtube, anyone from any of the closed universities could have tuned in and learnt with fellow students! These past days, I believe my class and I experienced the future of education.
It is great to see the advancements being made on access to quality internet connection. Cape Town recently announced a tender for free wifi access in the city. Tshwane Municipality have been doing this for quite some time now. Access to good bandwidth wifi is one strong factor that online education initiatives that make use of already existing infrastructure like the one we used with my lecturer or ones that are built with just that focus in mind like IQmates (advert!) depend on. This is quickly presenting viable methods of delivering top quality and engaging education even to the remotest of areas.
There are still challenges and weaknesses that are stopping the complete adoption of online education. Just to list a few here:
- Accessibility of the technology for both teacher and student
- Low computer literacy of the population who would benefit the most from these initiatives
- Technology takes out that face-to-face human interaction that at times is much needed and its restrictions when it comes to courses like Chemistry which require you to physically touch the apparatus during titration experiments.
- A successful program depends on how disciplined the students are to keep up and actually do the work. MOOCs suffer from a high dropout rate (only about 13% finish the course) so clever ways to lower this are needed.
Despite the challenges, there are numerous advantages but again I will just list a few:
- It is easier for students to access a variety of programs and courses unlike being stuck in one classroom
- Online education is becoming cheaper. The technology it depends on like mobile devices have prices that are dropping faster than one can keep up. With recent protests, it is a worthy investigation.
- The engagement in our online class was very high because students were learning from their comfort zones. In a physical classroom, some rarely raise their hands but that chat box was buzzing with questions.
- It is flexible as right now I can re-watch the video, pause it, rewind it as many times as necessary. You remember that nursery rhyme. “Try try try again….?”
- Because it is flexible, a student can both work and study at the same time giving more opportunities for career advancements. This usually works best for professionals undergoing life-long learning who have finished their degrees already but it is a very strong benefit
- Lesser expenses like commuting, buying textbooks as most are available online, tied in with the programs
- With the right tools and dependents, you can access your school content anytime and from anywhere. The expansion of wifi access to remote areas coupled with cheap Android handsets coming into Africa present interesting opportunities on delivering quality education to those who could not access it before. That is why IQmates is seriously focusing on its Android app!
Because of the challenges still haunting online education, there is still need for that physical learning space but one cannot discredit the many benefits it presents. Blended learning or a mixture of online and physical delivery could be the best solution for right now. It takes the beauty of both worlds and mixes them up in a fashion that has the most impact than either one alone.
There is no doubt in my mind that as time passes, education will soon be anytime, anywhere access. Schools are starting to realise the need of implementing tools that current students understand – chat services, online peer-to-peer assistance, recorded videos playable anytime, anywhere. Wait, I think I’m now discussing IQmates (last advert!).