Helping Africa Learn Online

A mission-driven young company aims to help Africa's universities meet the exploding capacity for education and training.

February 13, 2017

As is true in many parts of the world, demand in Africa for postsecondary education and training is exploding. Enrollments in the continent's universities nearly tripled from 1999 to 2012, but existing universities are straining to keep up with demand and it's highly unlikely that enough new institutions can be built to meet the need.

A young company aims to help Africa's universities serve their students by both expanding their offerings and building their own capacity.

Under an agreement announced this month between eLearnAfrica and the Association of African Universities, the association's 380 member universities can make the company's selection of digital courses available to their students. In addition, eLearnAfrica (and its partner, ITsm Mentor) will provide a variety of services to help the universities digitize their own courses to put them online, to help them build their own capacity.

eLearnAfrica's website had more than 1 million visits in its first four months of operation, and "thousands" of students have registered for courses already, mostly delivered in mobile format, says Brendan von Briesen, the company's chief operating officer. "That speaks to the overwhelming demand on the part of Africans to find high-quality higher education opportunities."

"The situation in sub-Saharan Africa is so dire," von Briesen said. "We've heard estimates that the continent would have to build 10 universities of 10,000 students each per week just to meet the demand. The old model just won't work by the numbers."

eLearnAfrica was founded by Brook Negussie, an Ethiopian IT executive who was educated in Canada and Europe. The company, which describes itself as a social enterprise, has incorporated courses from edX, the Harvard/MIT massive open online course provider; FutureLearn, the Open University's MOOC initiative; and African institutions such as the Zambian Open University, among others. It has supplemented those free courses with relationships with University of the People and a catalog of low-cost vocationally oriented certificate programs from ITsm Mentor. 

The company's main focus initially is making those and other high-quality courses available to the students who attend its African university partners, thereby expanding those institutions' offerings.

But consistent with the view of most organizations that work in developing nations, eLearnAfrica's officials know that delivering outside content isn't sufficient; African universities must develop their own capacity to produce locally relevant courses.

"As an association, challenges of limited access to quality higher education continue to haunt us," Etienne Ehouan Ehile, the AAU's secretary general, said in a prepared statement. "Therefore building capacities of African universities to be innovative in their teaching and learning methods for increased access to quality higher education is top priority for the AAU. This partnership with eLearnAfrica will help us achieve this goal.”

eLearnAfrica offers universities a suite of services such as course hosting, course design and development, and market research, to name a few. "We have some universities coming to us that have content and want to get it out there, and others coming to us saying, 'We don't have anything online, help us out,' " says von Briesen.

"There's a university I can't name right now whose president reached out just a few days ago," he says. "His country has social upheaval, and the university is closed. He told me, 'We see online education as way of keeping the university alive.'"



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