The country’s tertiary learning systems are in a mess. They haven’t been upgraded since the 1970s. Rather than leaving the problem to the politicians, Gossy Ukanwoke is creating an online university called Beni American University for Nigeria. By MANDY DE WAAL.
Nigeria’s higher education is a cause of great concern to the most populous African state’s President, Goodluck Jonathan. At a convocation ceremony at a tech university in Minna, near Abuja, he conceded that “protracted structural deficiency” had created the systematic failure.
In brief, students graduate from high school but can’t get into local universities because decaying infrastructure has put a squeeze on numbers. The graduation rate is low, so more people stay in the system for longer than they should. Admission costs are high, which means public education isn’t for the poor and good private education is only for the rich. The country doesn’t have good scholarship schemes, and the education system is riddled with seams of corruption that further hamper its efficacy. But let’s get back to Goodluck Jonathan.
“Our nation today finds itself being distracted from its march towards greatness by ideologues motivated by sundry primordial instincts,” Jonathan said: “We can only fight them by beaming a thousand points of light at the bastions of darkness and fear, and we need our educationists to make this possible. We have high expectations of our tertiary institutions and I personally will not tolerate the inefficiencies which are causing our educational system to fail our children. We are presently effecting a silent revolution in the delivery of knowledge to our students and this is because of the realisation that the educational sector has, for long, been faced with structural deficiencies.’’
Ignore the political “enemy” rhetoric. Basically the Nigerian president is saying the country can’t develop without adequate educational infrastructure. The big question is how will the education system get sorted out, given that Jonathan’s been in government since 2007 and has headed the state since 2010? The reason for the education crisis remains the status quo.
Recently Obiageli Ezekwesili, a VP at the World Bank and former Nigerian minister of education, lamented that the country was turning out half-baked graduates, while Nigerian vice president Namadi Sambo this week admitted that 9,5 million children were outside the formal schooling system.
If the Nigerian government is unable to provide a solution, perhaps the answer to the country’s education woes will come from outside the state?
Meet Gossy Ukanwoke, a 23-year-old man with a plan. Ukanwoke, a final-year student in Management Information Systems at Girne American University in Cyprus, is set to launch his own hybrid university as a low-cost, high-quality offering for Nigerians and then all Africans across the continent.
“One and a half million people graduate from high school each year, but only 300,000 of them gain access to university in Nigeria. That’s what I’d call a real problem,” says Ukanwoke, speaking to Daily Maverick from Cyprus via Skype.
“The best way to tackle most problems for me is through technology, and I have looked at ways to use technology to solve some of the problems that we (as Nigerians) are facing in education.”
But like all good stories, this one starts at the very beginning. “I was born in the 80s so I grew up in a culture where education was really important,” says Ukanwoke. “I grew up in a family of seven, and had elder ones. In early 2000 they would come home with their office computers and I became so fascinated with the way they crunched numbers on computers. I could see them do calculations on the computers just by typing numbers. I saw the computer as a way to make things faster, and easier, and better.”
In 2004 a cousin took Ukanwoke to a cyber-centre where he applied to universities off shore and corresponded with different friends across the world. Ukanwoke was fascinated, and the whole world opened to him. The distance between continents closed and the young Nigerian was hooked on the possibility of what could be created using a computer and the Internet.
“Having Internet infrastructure and access to computers allows us to see what’s happening on the other side of the world, and to look at situations or possibilities that can be used to solve problems in our own local economies,” says Ukanwoke, who believes technology is a vehicle for entrepreneurship with minimal investment.
“If you have an idea and the ability to build solutions around that idea, you can create something without having to have a huge amount of capital. If that idea gains traction and usage it could mean the beginnings of a good business. As entrepreneurs, the Internet creates this sense of limitless boundaries.”
Ukanwoke’s first project was an app-like tool called My Headline News, which was an aggregator that picked up and simplified news from different sources. It was all the news Nigerians wanted on their mobile phone in one convenient place. “I basically created it by writing PHP scripts. I didn’t charge for the service,” he says.
And so Ukanwoke learned his first lesson as an entrepreneur. “I realised that you can’t just create an app and release it. That was the biggest problem that I faced. I developed the app and released it, but I didn’t have the business model to support it and I had to shut the service when it grew too popular. You have to do the paperwork before you get out there.”
My Headline News was launched in March 2010 and by June 2010 it was getting 500,000 news-read requests every month. The growth continued until Ukanwoke decided he couldn’t financially support the service anymore, but it gave him good leverage to create his next business: Student Circle Network.
“I created a viable business model by accessing the vast amount of information available on the Internet, and reading through step-by-step guides on what to do. I also consulted friends who had done a few things in the past, and I read other people’s stories. I decided the route to take, and how to implement what I wanted to do. Then I created the service and took it to market,” says Ukanwoke.
Student Circle Network is monetised through advertisements and via micro-payments from social groups for people who play games. “I’d prefer not to say how much we’re making,” Ukanwoke says laughing broadly when I ask him what his bottom line is. “But it has been more than enough to sustain the service since its launch in late 2010.”
The service is a Facebook-style social network, but one geared to support students in Nigeria. “Students can create groups around resources and then have study sessions or they can get help from each other, as well as teachers who are a part of the network,” says the education-obsessed Nigerian who’s studying in Cyprus because it affords him the kind of learning experience he wants in an environment that’s safe, quiet and well-supported.
Student Circle Network fills a need in his home country because of the massive gap between the higher-learning experience in countries like Nigeria and those in the US or Europe. “Nigerians found they couldn’t compete against other people who were getting education from Europe or the United States, because the content was different,” says Ukanwoke.
“Over time we found that students didn’t want to just take the courses for free, and they wanted to be tested for the study sessions…they wanted to be taught. They wanted to get some sort of certification for using those resources and learning with them.”
Ukanwoke realised there’s an opportunity there. His parents are teachers and he has strong faith in the developmental potential of education. “I believe in the opportunities that learning presents to those who have it,” he says.
Ukanwoke’s solution is Beni American University, which is set to launch in a couple of months. “We are trying to complement the Nigerian higher education system by building a university that is online and hybrid.”
By hybrid, think an online university, but one with mini-campuses that are cyber cafes-cum-coffee shops dotted around Nigeria. “The idea is that students will be able to access learning for free at these centres, as long as they have paid their tuition,” he says.
The idea first came to Ukanwoke in November 2011. Since then he and his team have been doing a lot of groundwork and research on policies, processes and methods. “We’re trying to devise a new model that will suit the African market, which is very unique.”
Beni American University will launch initially by offering two associate degrees, namely one in business management and the other in information systems. These associate degrees will be two-and-a-half year courses, but Ukanwoke says he’s negotiating with partner universities to ensure students will be able to swop out and do an extra year and a half so as to convert their studies to a fully-fledged degree.
“If you look at a global ranking of universities, there’s no African one that’s at the top 100. The first university is South African and that sits at about 103. That’s a problem – we can’t have thousands of universities in Africa and none of them make it into the top hundred in the world. We have to find a way of fixing that,” he says.
“In terms of technology infrastructure, many universities don’t have the proper tech infrastructure in place to accommodate resources or information dissemination.”
Ukanwoke’s other plans include providing free tablets on sign-up and offering subsidised Internet connectivity. Beni American University has just signed a two-year partnership with usePULSE to supply its university students with low-cost PULSE Android tablets starting later this year.
With one Internet business under his belt, Ukanwoke’s second may take off in a big way. Maybe it even makes its way down south, where another over-burdened education system needs all the help it can get… DM
Photo: Gossy Ukanwoke.
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