Future Tense

The Developing World Shouldn’t Fear MOOCs

Online courses won’t hurt local educational systems—they’ll help.

Kepler students in Rwanda
Kepler students in Rwanda.

Photo courtesy Kepler Cap

The state of American higher education is dire. College is expensive, and the limp job market makes two decades of student debt a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to a middle-class future.

But imagine the alternative. Imagine if the problem weren’t students with heavy debt loads partying too much and learning too little, but that there simply were no students.

This is closer to the state of higher education in Africa, where 93 percent of the college-aged population isn’t in college and will likely never attend a single class. In many countries less than 1 percent of the population holds a college degree.

The new generation of savvy, growth-focused leaders across the continent recognizes this. They know that they can’t achieve their goals of building globally competitive workforces without locally trained doctors, businesspeople, engineers, computer scientists, or economists. And they know that without action, things are only going to get worse, given the continent’s youth population boom and rapidly rising secondary school enrollment rates.

So in much of Africa, as is the case across the developing world, people have looked with hope to massive open online courses, or MOOCs, to help increase the scalability, quality, and affordability of university education. Sometimes that hope is unreasonable: No matter how much we all might want to believe it, a student in Uganda cannot now get a Stanford-quality education with little more than a laptop and 3G Internet.

But MOOCs do hold enormous promise for the developing world, in part because they are forming the catalyst for a series of experiments to reinvent the modern university, experiments that very well might leapfrog existing models in the very places that need them most.

Those experiments have not avoided criticism. Last week in Slate, in a piece originally published in the New America Foundation’s Weekly Wonk, Anya Kamenetz argued that the use of MOOCs in the developing world could harm local educational systems:

The danger in overreliance on global MOOCs is that they don’t build local capacity for education, research or knowledge creation in the education sector. For example, Kepler, a U.S.-based endeavor, announced its intention to offer an education superior to any available at a Rwandan university for a lower cost. This may benefit a small group of Rwandans in the short term, but it does not assist President Paul Kagame’s struggle to improve education and technology in that country over the long term.

I co-founded Kepler, so I might be a biased, but I believe that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Kepler is now a part of Rwanda’s national education system, just like the many other private universities in the country. It employs Rwandan instructors and operates with the explicit goal of helping existing Rwandan institutions improve even as it directly serves students.   

Kepler works closely with Rwanda’s Ministry of Education, which is eager to see whether the Kepler model—online lectures, in-person seminars, and intensive workplace learning—can create serious educational gains and employment outcomes. If it does, Rwanda’s existing universities will have learned something, and since all of Kepler’s lesson plans, professor training materials, and curriculum will be open-source and free, they can take from us as much or as little as they please.

Much of the concern about MOOCs in the developing world centers on the fear of replacing homegrown, local professors with beamed-in lecturers from abroad, what Kamenetz calls the “educational equivalent of reruns of Baywatch.” But the most promising university experiments, including Kepler, start from the premise that an online lecture, on its own, is a shaky educational experience at best, and that MOOCs are best treated as a piece of content, much like a textbook.

No one cries afoul when a Nigerian professor uses an economics textbook written by a professor from Berkeley. Having students watch evening lectures by that same Berkeley professor frees up class time to be spent working with students on hard-to-tackle concepts, transforming a passive, lecture-based classroom into an active, discussion-based one. (Indeed, “flipping the classroom” is a hot idea in American education.)

In this context, MOOCs aren’t being used to replace African educators—they’re a tool to help instructors engage more actively with students in class. And quality online content is increasingly not limited to the United States and Europe. For example, Spire, another organization developing new higher education models in Africa, will use courses from South Africa’s University of Cape Town through a partnership with the platform GetSmarter.

The greatest threat to national education systems is not online courses or other innovations. It’s the status quo. African governments spend an unsustainable amount on higher education. While governments in developed economies (including the United States) tend to subsidize higher education at about 25 percent of per capita GDP per student, governments in sub-Saharan Africa, on average, spend more than 10 times as much. That’s in large part because of how expensive university itself is in Africa. In fact, of the 10 most expensive countries in the world to attend university in local terms, all 10 are in sub-Saharan Africa. At Generation Rwanda, the scholarship program incubating Kepler, we consistently see high school valedictorians working in menial jobs because they can’t afford to attend university.

The crisis of higher education in the United States is driven by the fact that the current model, which Africa has tried to copy for decades, cannot deliver both quality and affordability. Unless experimental models can successfully help national systems build new universities that can simultaneously increase access, affordability, and quality, millions of young people will continue to be shut out of university, and shut out of the kind of knowledge economy careers that developing economies need.

What’s happening in African higher education right now isn’t a slow march toward a monolithic experience dictated by American universities. It’s a flourishing of new ideas and novel combinations of educational content and classroom experience. Some will fail; others will yield exciting results. U.S. higher education will undoubtedly move more slowly, but the best of those successes will be hard to ignore forever. And many of the experiments happening in Africa will be just as relevant for helping the United States work through its own higher education crisis. In fact, the best experiments in places like Kigali may eventually be featured at your alma mater a decade from now.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.