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Digital Education Can Finally Fulfill Its Promise By Educating The Poorest

Mobile is becoming cheaper and more accessible, meaning we can now put quality education right into the hands of those who need it most.

14/12/2016 04:58 SAST | Updated 14/12/2016 04:58 SAST
ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images
Visitors look at tablets and smartphones on the first day of the 2016 Africa Web Festival (AWF) in Abidjan on November 29, 2016.

When massive open online courses (MOOCs) first began in the late stages of the last decades, they were hailed as a revolutionary innovation that would educate the entire world cheaply. We were, it was often claimed, on the cusp of a digital education that would lift the so-called Third World out of cycles of poverty. It seemed that here, finally, was a vehicle for the Internet and global connectivity to fulfil their promise of uplifting everybody.

Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman said of MOOCs: "Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty—by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world's biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education."

The reality has turned out to be vastly different. Study after study has shown that the people taking up digital education are not the poorly educated looking for that vital leg up, but heavily educated people looking to further their careers. One study of one million MOOC students conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found that between seventy and eighty percent of them had a tertiary qualification. Furthermore, in the BRICS countries, where education as an economic imperative is arguably more urgent than fully developed countries, digital education appeared to be the sole reserve of the educated elite.

There are signs that we are reaching the point where early adopters have been using the internet for more than 20 years, and the majority is taking it up in droves.

As a result, most MOOCs are, whilst charging far less than the typical university for the same kind of courses, still priced above what is equitable for an average person in a developing country. This is especially true in South Africa, where the enrolment fee for a single online course can be more than twice the monthly income of the average working class person.

There are many reasons for this, including the fact that the digital world is relatively young, and early adopters tend to be amongst the educated, wealthy elite. But there are signs that we are reaching the point where early adopters have been using the internet for more than 20 years, and the majority is taking it up in droves. One of the signs of this phase is the increase of e-commerce, as studies have shown that it takes up to five years for people to be comfortable spending money online. The 2015 Effective Measure found that there has been a 94% increase in online shopping from 2013 to 2014, driven greatly by the greater availability of smartphones. (The same study found that almost half of all e-commerce is now driven by mobile.)

What this means is that the internet is now in more hands than ever before in South Africa. It has become viable to deliver good-quality education that serves the needs of people at low skill levels, at price points that are affordable. There is an enormous need for this education to service low-skill people, as this is the nature of unemployment in South Africa. According to the Adcorp Employment Index of April 2015 found that "the skills shortage among technicians is 432,100, among managers 216,200 and among professionals 178,400. In sharp contrast, a total of 967,600 elementary workers are in excess of the nation's needs, as are 247,400 domestic workers."

If a digital educator wants to make a difference, it needs to target people wanting to skill themselves into employment – any employment – rather than only focusing on upskilling the very educated. This is the unique position which Educate24 occupies in the digital education ecosystem. Launched in April, it has no narrow focus on high-skill subjects, but rather caters for everyone.

Delivering quality education to all people requires innovative thinking. The Educate24 approach is to present only the most relevant and useful information in the course material, to encourage students to take the next step in their learning, which could be another course, further reading, or perhaps entering the job market. The most recent research on education shows that the old-school, lecture-hall and textbook method of teaching is ponderous, expensive and does not impart knowledge very well to students. But sliced education, alongside a culture of collaboration and shared learning amongst students that is the common feature of most online educators is yielding much better results. It may even in future lead to a complete overhaul of how all education is done.

The skills shortage is a serious barrier to dreams on a personal and national scale, but it also represents an opportunity to deliver that education in a way that makes sense for South Africa. Educate24 supports the next step of the aspirational, no matter where they are.

Disclaimer: Media24 is a partner to Educate24, and to Huffington Post South Africa. - blogs editor