Wesley Diphoko, Head of the Independent Digital Lab (02 June 2017)
CAPE TOWN - The Heher Commission has declared that South Africa cannot have a free education system. From a pure economic perspective, this view is correct. However, from a technological perspective this view is incorrect. Here’s why:

Since 1998 Google has enabled the world to have access to knowledge for free. Wikipedia, another knowledge repository, has enabled people to have access to information for Free.

Lastly, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been in the game of enabling people to communicate and access information for free. At the same time, while offering these services, all the technology giants mentioned have built multibillion-dollar businesses. How did these institutions enable people to have access to knowledge and information for free?

The answer to that question is what is missing in the Heher Commission, the free economic model. This model is what enabled Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, TED and other similar institutions to offer a valuable service to society for free through digital platforms.

The free economic model is part of the secret sauce behind major technology platforms in the world today.

It is based on the zero marginal cost economic concept, which is about things that can be distributed without an appreciable cost to anyone. It is part and parcel of digital economics.

Free in this case does not mean there's no cost to the development of these digital platforms, in fact there's billions.

It also does not mean that entities that offer their services for free do not make money to sustain these institutions, they actually make lots of it.

Major difference

The major difference is that the beneficiary of the service does not pay through monetary means, they pay through their attention and data. Understanding this philosophy or thinking is important in creating a free online university in South Africa, an idea which has been dismissed by the Heher Commission. The commission has determined that the online university cannot provide the whole solution to the challenge of accessing education. The reality, however, is that an online university is one intervention that can become an immediate answer to the call to access education for free.

The creation of a National Online University will require some of the following elements:

  • Technology education
  • Offline access points and facilities
  • Education projects experts
  • Recognition and accreditation and community and government support.

The foundation of an Online University will have to be a technology platform that can provide content, measure progress, and enable interaction.

Such a technology platform should be built to become a national infrastructure for education, not just for a single institution, but for every person who has an interest in education.

Environments where students can access online content will be necessary to enable even students with limited access to the internet. These environments can also be spaces for cross pollination, working together and discussions among students.

Such access points and facilities would have to be based in communities where people are located and reside. This may mean a concept similar to libraries on a bigger scale and built for the digital age.

Learning should include practically applying what one is learning. As part of this process communities will have to identify community challenges that can be turned into projects for learners in the educational environments.

These projects in turn will serve as evidence of advancement by students when developed into solutions based on insight acquired by learning.

Projects developed by students in this environment will serve as their own credential to indicate competence to potential employers and funders.

The best people to learn from are the people with field experience and insight. These individuals are entrepreneurs, activists and professionals who are leading in their fields.

Such individuals will be required to form part of sharing knowledge with student in various communities. These individuals can be guest lecturers who can share insights online and also be available in the physical spaces for mentoring.

As part of recognising what people have learnt from such an Online University, digital badges will become a crucial tool for accreditation, skill, quality, or interest that can be earned in many learning environments.

Open digital badging makes it easy for anyone to issue, earn, and display badges across the web - through an infrastructure that uses shared and open technical technical standards.

What is required is the recognition by employers and funders of such an institution.

Community support

An Online University that has been described above will require community support and government. Communities will have to take the lead in enabling young people within their communities to be educated.

Government support will also be necessary to recognise such an institution as a legitimate environment for people to learn.

The Heher Commission Report has indicated that South Africa will have 1.5 million students by 2030. The report has also indicated that in order to meet this challenge South Africa will need to move away from reliance on traditional models of provision with heavy requirements of "bricks and mortar" to a learning system based on open learning principles, where quality educational environments are designed to achieve the educational purpose using the most appropriate and cost-effective technologies available.

In 2013 Gloria Sekwena died during a stampede at the University of Johannesburg. This lady was waiting in a queue to register her son to study.

The reality is that there was not enough space at the university to accept everyone who wanted to study medicine at that institution.

Each year there are long queues and chaotic scenes at South African universities because of limited space. This situation should never be repeated in South Africa.

The time to create a National Online University is now and it will require businesses, communities, technology and government to work together in solving the access to South Africa's education challenge.

Wesley Diphoko is the head of the Independent Media Labs and founder of the Kaya Labs.