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Universities must adapt or wither away – online learning is here to stay

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Jordan Griffiths is the acting chief of staff in the mayor’s office in Tshwane; he writes in his personal capacity.

Without Covid-19, it is likely that the majority of South African universities would not have engaged with the importance of developing robust e-learning offerings. The pandemic has forced universities in the country to re-evaluate their entire models of education.

It was encouraging to read Prof Wim de Villiers’ article on the future of universities post Covid-19. Universities in South Africa are a critical component of the country’s growth in developing students to integrate into the economy. With the impact of Covid-19, South African universities were forced to quickly take the vast majority of their courses online to ensure that they could save the academic year. They have all also adopted phased approaches to reopen to ensure that students are not put at risk.

De Villiers acknowledges that there has been immense disruption in the sector that goes back before Covid-19 with the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs). However, he suggests that these courses “have not quite delivered on their hyped promise”. In this, I believe he is incorrect and has severely underestimated the impact that MOOCs are going to have on the sector.

Google, for example, has recently announced a new programme titled the “Google Career Certificates”. The sole focus of the programme is to provide students with qualifications that will lead directly into high-paying, high-growth jobs without having to attend university. Not only are these courses a fraction of the cost one would pay for higher education, but they are also only six months. 

Kent Walker, the senior vice-president of global affairs at Google, has indicated that they will treat these qualifications with the same value as four-year degrees for related roles in the company.

Google is also introducing 100,000 needs-based scholarships and will use this as a direct pipeline to channel graduates into the programme. The company is well placed to continuously update and develop the curriculum in this space because, as world leaders in the technology market, they not only have direct insight into the skills that are needed now, but also those that will be required into the future.

Lambda School, one of the leading coding schools, has recently raised $74-million in investment to expand its overall service offering. Lambda School is famous for creating a payment model whereby students essentially defer their fees until after they finish their courses and land a job. The repayments are then done on a sliding scale which is dependent on the value of the salary of the job you land.

In this, students are not forced into high levels of debt and can properly fund their studies as they progress in their careers. CEO Austen Allred has indicated that the company already has a valuation higher than $150-million. You can follow the school’s success on Twitter, where Allred is constantly sharing stories of his students who, after completing Lambda courses, have gone on to earn starting salaries as high as $100,000 per year.

These are just some of the examples of how the private sector is leading the way in terms of providing higher education. But there many more – the likes of Coursera and Shaw Academy are market leaders in the e-learning space and offer thousands of courses to students around the world, many of which are professionally accredited and recognised.

Already there are low-hanging fruits that can be identified, as there are many qualifications in social sciences, business and law that can be offered through e-learning. 

The challenge is that while universities in South Africa and globally are still deliberating on how to enter this market in a way that ensures quality, private organisations are already offering that quality and doing so at scale. 

In his article, De Villiers discusses how the “soft skills” that come with classroom interactions between academics and fellow students are an invaluable part of the university experience. While this may be correct, it is virtually impossible to verify or even quantify. At some level, you have to attach some form of value to this interaction if you expect it to be the one drawcard that brings students to your institution.

Unfortunately, not every classroom experience is also a joy. Many lecturers are brilliant teachers and educators and bring insight and passion into their subjects. Many are not – they are more inclined to focus on their research as this is their primary academic focus and where their interest lies, not necessarily in educating and inspiring students. 

I had some fantastic lecturers at the University of Pretoria – I also had lecturers who were dismal. Having done two postgraduate degrees and spent two years on the Student Representative Council (SRC) at the university, I am well acquainted with the inherent tensions that exist between creating an engaging academic environment and ensuring that high-quality research is produced. 

The fact is that, without Covid-19, it is likely that the majority of South African universities would not have engaged with the importance of developing robust e-learning offerings. The pandemic has forced universities in the country to re-evaluate their entire models of education. 

De Villiers rightly points out that the digital divide creates limitations for accessibility to education. However, so too do the costs of taking out student loans, travelling to a new city, enrolling in an academic institution, finding a place to stay, and funding yourself away from your home.

There must also be robust engagement on pricing the university experience: indeed, there is a value in being able to sit in a lecture hall with an engaging professor, but what is it? How do you measure this? If a core part of your service offering is this face-to-face engagement, then work it into the pricing of the university experience and discount it from the costs that you would charge students who intend to study the degree online.

If you are serious about creating hybrid models, then at some level you will need to create pricing models which reflect the value of the on-campus experience.

In the US there is an outcry from students from multiple universities over the fact that fees have remained the same while classes have gone online. These institutions are confronting the notion that a core part of their value is the “university experience”. It has never been quantified until now, as students are inquiring as to what they are actually paying for if all the courses are online

Harvard has been one such institution facing criticism, as it intends having all its classes delivered online for the start of its 2020 academic year, with only 40% of students returning to campus. Massive university campuses have fixed costs that simply don’t go away once the students aren’t there.

It is time that universities in South Africa begin to fully embrace hybrid models which explore what types of degrees can be facilitated through online teaching processes. 

Already there are low-hanging fruits that can be identified, as there are many qualifications in social sciences, business and law that can be offered through e-learning. 

Scalability and ensuring quality as per De Villiers is key, but South African universities offer world-class degrees and contain many brilliant academics. There is no doubt that with the right level of support and resources, the tertiary education sector in the country can be a global leader on this front. DM

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