Only a tiny percentage of African students are admitted to university because of limited capacity at the institutions. Developments in computer technology can address this problem, as the case of African Virtual University shows.
Over the last decade, Africa has experienced unparalleled economic growth, putting the continent on a pedestal to become the next growth frontier. Development experts predict that economies in Africa will continue to grow at an average of six percent even when the rest of the world is currently facing a slump. McKinsey Global Institute, a leading economic research institution, predicts that financial services, retail, telecommunications, and construction sectors in Africa will attract more private-investment inflows.
While there is so much optimism surrounding Africa's growth potential, the continent appears to be lagging behind in training the necessary human resource to match its rosy economic growth. Although the number of students enrolling for tertiary education has been growing, the numbers are still dismally low. Only six per cent of students in sub-Saharan Africa are enrolled in tertiary institutions. However, educationists and economists have observed that if Africa is going to compete in the global economy, at least 12-15 per cent of the continent's workforce should have attained tertiary education.
Universities in Africa are overwhelmed by increasing student numbers. Even with the introduction of parallel evening programs, universities still appear to be struggling to deal with the growing student numbers. Universities have been unable to increase physical infrastructure to meet the growing demand. This demonstrates that the current mode of delivery has been unable to meet either current or projected demand. Therefore, under the traditional classroom teaching, tertiary education for most of school leaving children will remain unattainable.
On the other hand, distance education delivered could offer the needed alternative. Distance education employs several methods of learning such as eLearning and correspondence to extend education to students who are unable to access facilities within the physical classroom due to time and space constraints. It is not restricted by time or space thereby enabling students to learn at their own pace and time through regular guidance from tutors and lecturers.
While universities in the past used correspondence as a mode of delivery for distance learning programs, universities have now shifted to eLearning due to recent developments in technology. Increase in internet connectivity and access to high speed broadband connection have made it possible to increase access to online courses, including Open Educational Resources (OERs) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC).
The 21st century is providing increased opportunities for universities to turn to eLearning as an alternative to traditional classroom-based learning. Leading universities in the world such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard launched new initiatives integrating the latest developments on use of ICT in education. The African Virtual University (AVU) OERs are being accessed in some 193 countries worldwide.
Africa can therefore leapfrog barriers to student enrollment by exploiting opportunities eLearning offers. The 2000 Dakar Framework for Action recognizes use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) as a key strategy for achieving 'Education for All' goals. In 2003, NEPAD prioritized efforts towards bridging of the digital divide between Africa and the developed world by fast tracking support to ICT initiatives in enhancing access to education.
Distance education using information technologies has its own challenges. There is still limited internet connectivity on the continent, the high cost of connectivity as well as intermittent power disruption. Besides these infrastructure issues, there are often lack of national and institutional policies, the scarcity of experienced human resources and the perception that distance education may not offer the same quality as face-to-face education.
However, given the pressure on Sub-Saharan countries to face the demand of access to higher education and train human capital who did not attend universities, with the progress made in laying fiber optics and in using alternative source of power, the challenges can be addressed efficiently in order to unlock the potential of ICT in education. Additionally, the emergence mobile technology is an asset Africans can count on.
Between 2005 and 2011, AVU implemented a continent-wide program, the Multinational Project I covering 12 universities in 10 countries, and the AVU is currently implementing the Multinational Project II (2012-2016) covering 27 universities in 21 African countries, with the main objective of enhancing the capacity of universities to offer ICT integrated programs in mathematics and sciences and to increase access to higher education and training.
This the right time for Africa to consider eLearning to address the growing demand for quality and affordable education and training. AVU and other institutions have proved that current challenges can be overcome. This requires appropriate policies and funding, meticulous planning and execution, innovation, quality control, research and development and a vast sensitization campaign. Training human capital that can sustain African economic and social development is possible.
Bakary Diallo, PhD, is the rector of African Virtual University, its head offices in Nairobi, Kenya, and a regional office in Dakar, Senegal.