File picture: Pexels
File picture: Pexels

SA’s National Digital University dream must become a reality

By Wesley Diphoko Time of article published Mar 23, 2021

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Cape Town - In 2012, a woman was killed next to the gates of the University of Johannesburg. She was the mother of a prospective student. Nine years later a father has lost his life again next to a university, this time around at Wits University.

The reason why these two individuals died is partly related to the difficulty of accessing higher education in South Africa. One was queuing and trying to get her son registered, the other was a bystander shot when the police were shooting students who were also fighting for access to higher education.

While individual details of these tragic incidents are more nuanced than that, these two incidents force us to think deeper about what it will take to address the access to education challenges. One would think that a loss of life in 2012 would have moved society to come up with a solution to this challenge, however we are still here with a significant number of young people who cannot access higher education because of space and limited resources in these institutions.

At the same time, we live in an era where technology makes it possible for people to access almost everything that has to do with learning and education. Such access is not limited by space in buildings or resources that support the education process.

A year ago, as people were contemplating the prospect of weeks or months of lockdown, two young academics thought up a novel community service project. During a period when everyone was sitting at home, they thought of helping people to use their free time to learn a valuable new skill. As people who are enthusiastic about Computer Sciences they set out to turn Stanford’s introductory coding class, CS106A, into a massive virtual community: Code in Place.

Two months later, the results were in: 10,000 students from 120 countries embraced the joy of coding through the course. Students who had never before attempted to code were implementing projects in Python, including tools to model dynamics of the COVID pandemic, analyze DNA, conduct sentiment analysis from Twitter, and create a choose-your-own-adventure film. A handful of students kick-started new careers in computer science. A student from Italy called it, “the most enjoyable, mentally stimulating and rewarding experience I have ever encountered.”

How did they achieve such a massive impact in education?

Their secret ingredient was the community of 908 section leaders who volunteered their time to give students live weekly, interactive support in small, virtual groups for 40 minutes. Section leaders joined from over 350 cities on six continents, spoke more than 30 different languages, and came from every walk of life.

This model is a fine example of using technology to enable access to education which if applied with greater institutional support can address the access issue.

Of course, not all courses can be taught online without physical interaction with instructors. There’s also a digital divide challenge concerning access to devices and connectivity. It has to be said, however, that those courses that can be taught online, such as computer science, should receive the necessary support to be taught online.

Google understands the value and impact of this model. Recently, the US tech giant made a huge announcement that could change the future of work and higher education: It launched a selection of professional courses that teach candidates how to perform in-demand jobs. These courses, which the company is calling Google Career Certificates, teach foundational skills that can help job-seekers immediately find employment.

However, instead of taking years to finish like a traditional university degree, these courses are designed to be completed in about six months. The beauty of these courses is that no one will be turned away due to overcapacity as they are delivered online. They are also not as expensive in comparison with traditional university costs.

The Stanford and Google examples tell us that it is possible to have learning environments that do not turn people away due to capacity and other reasons.

The South African Higher Education ministry has tried all traditional means of enabling access through funding and building of new universities, yet the access challenge persists. What has not yet been tried is the National Digital University.

Many who dream about a National Digital University are told there’s University of South Africa (UNISA). The reality however is that UNISA is a traditional university built for the old world. To address some of South Africa’s access to education challenges there’s a need for a national education platform that feels like Zoom, Netflix, and Coursera combined with a Virgin Active type model for physical interaction where there’s a need.

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* Wesley Diphoko is the Editor-In-Chief of Fast Company (SA) magazine.

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