The Value of Education in the E-Learning Era: An Opportunity for Africa?

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I  argue for an approach to achieve Education for All (EFA) in Africa. The Education for All is a global commitment to provide quality basic education for all children, youth and adults. The movement was launched at the World Conference on Education for All in 1990 by some organizations members of the United Nations system. Participants endorsed an “expanded vision of learning” and pledged to universalize primary education and massively reduce illiteracy by the end of the decade. Six internationally agreed education goals were identified aiming to meet the learning needs of all children, youth and adults by 2015. However, based on the statistics available and despite all good determinations and resolutions taken, it will be difficult to achieve the EFA goals by 2015 in almost all developing countries and especially in Africa.

Online learning could help alleviate the problem of access to quality education in Africa as it has been demonstrated within other settings (notably the developed world) that this mode of learning is convenient and flexible, offer a greater access to learning resources, increase student motivation and self-esteem, enhance learner participation and interactivity, and more significantly, improve the quality of learning.

Online learning is a chance for African countries to counter the effects of brain drain. In fact, the sectors in Africa hardest hit by brain drain are the science and technology, education and health sectors.  A realistic strategy for reversing brain drain into “brain gain”  is to involve  the scientific and technical expertise of their diaspora members into online educational programs .

 The Value of Education

Generally, values are ideals and standards that govern human beings. We believe education is a process of bringing about changes in the way we human beings think, feel, and act in accordance with our concept of a good life. But the argument we want to defend goes beyond that.

Education has an emancipatory and liberating value. It is a driver of real social justice, a process of granting every individual their rights to the societal inheritance, a likely instrument of change, and one of the benefits of having the higher levels of it is a change of social value and proper relevance in the societal leadership. Education is also a major catalyst for human development. As Malcolm X once said, “education is an important element in the struggle to help our children and people rediscover their identity and thereby increase self-respect”. It is our passport to the future.

The worry is that many people in the world are denied this passport to the future and we all should protest against this by speaking out and taking actions to alleviate the problem in our own capacity by ensuring full and equal opportunities of education for all.

How then to ensure full and equal opportunities of education for all in Africa? Promoting equity in education is essential because over one school-age child in four (23%) in Sub-Saharan Africa has never been to school, or dropped out of school before finishing the primary cycle in this region, where the absolute number of children denied access to school has climbed from 29 million in 2008 to 31 million in 2010  as reported by UNESCO. Access, inclusion, and quality are leading challenges facing policymakers, universities, and the private sector in Africa.

Online Learning: Theories and Models

Learning theories have their basis in philosophy and psychology and provide the overall framework for teaching and learning activities. Instructivist and constructivist theories are the two major educational philosophies that have emerged in the last century. The instructivist and constructivist approaches to teaching and learning are considered to lie at either end of a continuum. In an instructivist approach, the instructor sets performance objectives and develops a systematic approach to the learning content that is independent of the learner, while the constructivist philosophy places the emphasis on the learner and the learner’s interpretations through self-directed explorations. Normally, educators choose an approach to teaching and learning that lies somewhere along this continuum.

Traditional Adults Online Learning Models

Traditional elearning institutions use adults online learning models. Adults online learning places emphasis on the learner and various factors including the learner’s interpretations through self-directed explorations, knowledge-base, social roles, maturity, and internal motivation (Assumptions of Knowles’ learning theory of andragogy).

With the online learning environment, there is shift from teacher-directed lessons to include discussions that emphasize student participation. During online class discussions, students share ideas, debate concepts to acquire better understanding and greater ownership of academic materials, and present different  solutions and theories which they can then develop or choose to discard over time.

Technically, online learning institutions usually choose the best learning management system (LMS) that tallies with their needs because there are many packages with diverse features. Some packages are commercial software and others are free open source software (OSS). Some well-known packages are  WebCT, Blackboard, ATutor, Brix, EMU-LMS, Firstclass, Ilias, Janison, TopClass, OLAT, or ANGEL. Moodle is an OSS. The figure below depicts the findings of a longitudinal study (1997-2010) of the US market of LMS based on the initial data from Campus Computing Project and the work of Phil Hill of e-Literate.

Almost all leading elearning institutions like University of Phoenix, University of Liverpool, Ashford University, Capella University, Webster University, Colorado University, The Open University, Walden University, or Dunlap-Stone University propose adults online educational models. The majority of online adult learning platforms emphasize on various aspects of adult learning: 1) participation, 2) experiential Learning, 3) self-directed learning, 4) the value of individual experiences, 5) social equity and access, and 6) capacities for individual transformation.

Like other organizations dealing with issues related to education, the academic community is taking a holistic and comprehensive approach to provide quality education throughout life – strong foundations in early childhood, universal primary education, gender equality, life skills, literacy and quality learning at all stages, in both formal and non-formal approaches. This is highlighted with the so-called MOOCs.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs)

From Harvard to Stanford, a growing number of elite universities are throwing open their digital doors to the masses. They’re offering their most popular courses online for no charge, allowing anyone with an Internet connection to learn from world-renowned scholars and scientists. The proliferation of so-called massive open online courses (MOOCs) has the potential to transform higher education at a time when colleges and universities are grappling with shrinking budgets, rising costs and protests over soaring tuition and student debt.

MOOCs draw upon the Khan Academy online model which dramatically transformed the educational approach. The Khan Academy, a non-profit organization created by Salman Khan in 2006, has put together for free a library of online educational videos. MIT’s OpenCourseWare and Stanford’s Coursera follow Khan’s Academy model. Recently, the University of California, Berkeley started making online courses available through edX, a competing Web portal launched by Harvard University and MIT.

With Udacity, Sebastian Thrun has proposed a different educational model to Coursera, edX, OpenCourseWare, etc. Trun was the head of the artificial intelligence (AI) lab at Stanford, and one day he and Peter Norvig (another AI guru) decided to deliver their AI course at Stanford using a different delivery mechanism, not just video but a “smart eLearning”. Thrun resigned his position from Stanford for a couple of reasons, mainly because he became a Google VP/Fellow, but also because he did not want to be hindered by Stanford in building future eLearning systems.

A new movement named EPIC 2020, was created in that purposed and stands for the proposition that the education of the world will change dramatically for the better during this decade. The objective of EPIC2020 is to provoke thoughts into realizing that academia as we know it today is not the only option.

Africans should support such initiatives.