This September, Kepler, a university in Rwanda unlike any other in the world, is opening its doors. It combines MOOCs (free online courses from top U.S. and European universities) with intensive seminar-style learning, coaching, and on-the-ground advising to create an ultra-low-cost degree accredited by an American university.
Kepler's goals are not modest.
"I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that we could be one of the country's best universities from Day 1," says cofounder Alex Hague. "The dream is we want basically to provide a higher education experience that’s internationally competitive, for a cost that’s radically less than the regional competition."
Although MOOCs are brand-new, Kepler's roots are not. In Rwanda, young people can get a "certificate of vulnerability," an official government recognition that their lives are harder than most, due to poverty and losing family members to the 1990s genocide. For the past nine years, NGO Generation Rwanda has been putting groups of 20 or 30 of the brightest of these vulnerable young people through local universities. The organization gradually developed a full complement of support services—counseling, health care, and "soft skills" like resume prep—to ensure their success. Ninety-eight percent of participants have ultimately graduated, and 98% are also employed.
But there were two problems, from Generation Rwanda's point of view. One is that this model did not scale. "Two hundred graduates in nine years is amazing, but there’s this looming crisis, a huge youth bubble in Africa," Hague says. "Only 7% of the population can pursue any kind of formal higher education now, and tens of millions of people will need it in the coming decades."
The other weakness was that the quality of regional universities—varying between $2,000-$3,000 annual tuition, very expensive by local standards—left a lot to be desired. "The education system tends to be 'learn by rote,' not particularly progressive," says Hague.
Generation Rwanda's founders brought in a new leadership team consisting of Jamie Hodari, whose background was in hedge funds, and Hague, who had a more typical development background. Their mandate was to scale their impact while also improving quality. They naturally turned to the explosion of free video-based courses offered by major global universities that have proliferated in the last two years via platforms like edx, Coursera, and Udacity. Since the debut of MOOCs in early 2012, millions have signed up, though just a small percentage have actually completed the courses successfully. A debate is raging over whether and how free, online learning materials can truly increase access or disrupt the conventional business model of universities. Kepler will be one of the first organizations to try it.
The pilot class of 50 students starting this fall were chosen from 2,696 applicants. They will live together in houses with electricity and Internet access provided. They will have eight in-person teachers: two Americans with backgrounds teaching in charter schools, one Jamaican, one Nigerian, and four Rwandans.
Initially the students will be pursuing a single degree program, an associate's in general studies with a focus on business. The idea is that they will watch MOOC video lectures and complete exercises online, and then meet in person for "active learning" sessions where they practice the kind of discussion and debate that is characteristic of Western-style learning at its best. "Our curriculum design director is building out the courses to be locally relevant and much more hardcore," says Hague. "It’s not just getting people through MOOCs—it’s about building blended learning that has MOOCs as one aspect." The program will eventually include internships with local companies that Generation Rwanda has relationships with, such as telecoms.
"Blended learning" has been shown to generally have better outcomes than online or face-to-face programs alone. And the Kepler University students will be able to earn an American university degree through a dual enrollment partnership with College for America, a groundbreaking experiment in its own right, created by one of Fast Company's Most Innovative Companies, Southern New Hampshire State University. College for America has special permission from the U.S. Department of Education to award college degrees based on demonstrated knowledge, not the number of hours spent in a classroom.
Finally, one of the most important parts of the whole program is its cost. Once the program is up and running, Kepler anticipates that its entire operating costs will run about $1,000 per student per year, an amount that the graduates will be able to pay for themselves, given the typical salaries of Generation Rwanda graduates. Charging tuition, says Hague, goes back to the question of scale and the ultimate challenge of opening up opportunities to millions of bright young Africans. "To grow, we need actual revenue, not just donor money."
Kepler doesn't offer everything that a traditional university does. There is no access to research. Teachers earn much less than traditional professors. And the courses are all imported. The question is whether it's fair to compare the offerings to a traditional university—or to what these students would have had otherwise, which is nothing.
"Our idea was to test these new technologies to see if they can deliver what people breathlessly say they can," says Hague. "We have that local knowledge and we can experiment, because kids aren’t choosing us over Northwestern, they’re choosing us over subsistence labor."
[Images: courtesy of Generation Rwanda]