The concept of the virtual university is rooted in providing innovative and adapted solutions through the use of information and communication technologies. Virtual universities such as the African Virtual University and the Virtual University of Pakistan have demonstrated that it is indeed possible to train quality graduates in the Global South and to address issues such as massification and quality.
More recently, virtual universities have been created by governments and the private sector in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Uganda. Virtual universities have the potential to assist countries in the Global South to increase access to higher education and develop human capital, as well as to address current and emerging local and regional issues such as lifelong learning and skills needed for the fourth industrial revolution.
Skills for the fourth industrial revolution
Lifelong learning implies that globalisation and the growth of the fast-changing knowledge economy require people to keep updating and upgrading their skills throughout their life course to cope with changing circumstances, both in the workplace and in their private lives.
As this phenomenon of lifelong learning quickly gains social and political recognition, governments can use virtual universities to take the lead in producing manpower with the requisite skills for growing modern economies.
As the fourth industrial revolution gathers momentum and many jobs continue to be automated via technologies, a recent research survey indicates that the skills in highest demand with employers are soft skills: communication skills (77%), adaptability (67%), digital proficiency (64%), innovation (63%), critical thinking (61%), emotional intelligence (53%), technical skills (43%), self-learning (40%) and data-based decision making (35%).
The growing demand from labour markets for knowledge and skills that require regular updating in view of the fourth industrial revolution should drive virtual universities to be more proactive and take the lead in offering online courses that address individual needs on a continuous basis.
I believe that virtual universities must have the right leadership and the capacity to adapt to the constant demand for education and technical innovation such as mobile learning, micro-credentials, student data analytics, open educational resources, artificial intelligence and blockchain technology. They must also be able to address the challenges related to implementing these innovations in their respective environments.
The student data collected through online learning management systems have become a critical driver of knowing learners, improving the quality of teaching and learning, personalising student support and meeting their needs.
Use of artificial intelligence – the capability of machines to learn and their ability to respond to certain behaviours – by virtual universities should enable them, among other things, to enhance student data analytics and personalised learning as well as to provide more reliable, cost-effective, efficient and timely processes.
Micro-credentials or badges
As most employers increasingly expect their workers to continually seek out learning opportunities, micro-credentials or badges offer students and working professionals a way to bulk up their résumés with field-specific skills. For instance, through their online platform edX, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University are taking a leading role in this area.
Through artificial intelligence and blockchain technology, virtual universities need to explore new ways of unlocking learner creativity and ingenuity by applying new approaches to professional learning that are more personalised, practical, applied and nimble.
The use of micro-credentials or badges, a digital certification indicating demonstrated competency in a specific skill(s), will enable them to offer more effective professional learning that incorporates learners’ voices and choices in what credentials they want to pursue.
Employers and employees both seem to be in favour of gaining skills for professional development. A recent survey of human resource managers across different industries showed 95% were interested in the micro-credentials of potential hires.
Most important challenge
The most important challenge, in my view, is the ability of leaders of virtual universities to understand the importance of innovation in their institutions’ mandate and to take action.
For example, they should be responsible for liaising with industry and government regulators to explore ways of implementing micro-credentials. They need to ensure that their institutions have the ability to make the best use of innovations – some institutions have created an education innovation branch for precisely this purpose.
They also have to lead efforts to address some common barriers that may affect their programmes, such as access to broadband and ICT devices (computers and smartphones), funding, quality teaching and administrative personnel, relevant pedagogical models and an adequate online delivery infrastructure.
Bakary Diallo is rector of the African Virtual University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. He was assisted by his colleague Tom Ojwang, programme officer, research and development, at the African Virtual University.