Zuhur Yasin has never been to the US, but she holds a bachelor’s degree from an American university. Part of Yasin’s studies in Somaliland, a self-declared independent country in Somalia, were spent in a special classroom, lined with rows of computers equipped with webcams and microphones.
The 29-year-old watched videos and took part in live virtual classes at Indiana University as part of her journalism programme at the University of Hargeisa. “We had discussions and shared any challenges or questions,” she says.
The African Virtual University (AVU), an intergovernmental organisation, connected Yasin with Indiana University. The AVU says it has used virtual learning to train 43,000 students since its creation in 1997. Last year, it announced 29 new distance learning centres like the one Yasmin used to take part in seminars nearly 8,000 miles away.
Professors use programmes and apps including Skype and WhatsApp to communicate with students, but classes are taught using special software. The AVU is considering plans to make lectures accessible on mobile phones, which would tap into Africa’s estimated 112m smartphones.
Like Yasin, many students in sub-Saharan Africa are looking for opportunities to attend university. In 2008, the region had the lowest university attendance in the world, with just 6% of secondary school-leavers advancing to higher education – well below the world average of 26%, according to the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
On Wednesday, the African Union (AU) opened the eLearning Africa conference on ICT for development, education and training at its headquarters in Addis Ababa with the aim of closing that gap and nurturing the human resources necessary for economic development. About 1,200 government ministers and business representatives are expected to attend.
Rebecca Stromeyer, founder of eLearning Africa, says: “Now is the time when technology can really help to entrench the progress many African countries have made in education. If the right decisions are taken now, they will help to sustain long-term economic growth.”
Experts say online learning tools can connect Africa’s students to massive open online courses (Mooc) such as Coursera, an education platform that provides free virtual tuition from some of the world’s top universities. In March, the AVU enrolled 1,698 African students in its first Mooc, which explored using technology to enrich learning.
Mark West, a mobile learning expert at Unesco, says: “[Virtual learning] is a portal into educational opportunities that, frankly, hadn’t existed before, and some of those opportunities – if you can afford the broadband connection and the hardware to use that connection – are free. For really self-motivated learners, it’s remarkable.”
However, high dropout rates still plague virtual universities. The best use of online learning is to pair it with some practical instruction and assessment, West says. “A lot of people start but they never finish – they don’t finish individual courses and they definitely don’t finish entire areas of study.”
Yasin had to work hard to follow the online curriculum. “In a regular class you have a teacher who is in front of you who makes you concentrate,” she says. “With the online environment, you have to have discipline, make your own timetable to listen to the lectures, and submit the assignments online.”
Virtual learning is an ideal solution to the barriers that face African students in accessing university education, according to Bakary Diallo, rector of the AVU. Taking classes online can address some of the bigger challenges for the continent, he says. “In Africa, the need for education is so important. Poverty, violence, extremism – I think the root of these problems is lack of education.”
One of the AVU’s new distance-learning centres is launched at the University of Education, Winneba in Ghana. Photograph: AVU
The AVU partners with dozens of African universities and foreign institutions to help students get degrees in ICT, maths and science. Starting next year, the virtual university will offer its own degrees, but for now it simply links students to local and regional universities. Some programmes are taught completely online, while others require attendance at classes and practical assessment at nearby campuses.
While Diallo says his aim is to drive the cost of learning down, the AVU doesn’t have any control over fees at their partner institutions. But that could change when the AVU becomes an accredited university and is able to offer its own classes and charge its own fees.
Unsurprisingly, many of the classes currently offered by the AVU are related to technology. Josiah Mugambi, director of Nairobi’s iHub, a meeting place for east Africa’s tech entrepreneurs, says virtual learning appeals to students who want to land a job at a tech startup because of its flexible schedule. “The AVU is definitely cheaper than the conventional approach, plus one can be doing something else [while enrolled].”
Africa’s politicians are awakening to the potential of virtual learning. So far, 19 African countries have signed a charter that establishes the AVU as an intergovernmental organisation and the AU has prioritised virtual learning in its long-term development strategy.
But with many parts of Africa still facing irregular power supply and poor internet access, Diallo accepts that it will take some time for virtual learning to be rolled out across the continent.
Nevertheless, he’s encouraged by mounting political recognition of the role that online learning can play in African development. “I’ve been working on [virtual learning] for the last 15 years and what I’m seeing today … I’ve never seen before. Governments are really interested in [virtual] learning now.”