Does Ikea Hold The Secret To The Future Of College?

Social entrepreneurs in Africa, backed by the likes of Microsoft and Ikea, are attempting to satisfy a huge demand for learning across the continent. Could they find the next Steve Jobs in the process?

If you want to study computer programming at a sub-Saharan African university, bring a pencil.

"We used to write programs on paper," says Ahmed Maawy of Mombasa, Kenya. "Say, write a program that calculates the area of a square. And you write that whole piece of code on paper. That's the test. It’s so crazy!"

The private technical institute that Maawy attended in 2002-2003 closed the doors to its computer labs outside class hours, giving students little chance to practice executing actual code. For this he was paying 120,000 Kenyan shillings a semester—that's $3,526 per year in a country where the national income per capita is $816. And at least that college was accredited. Another school where Maawy enrolled turned out to be a scam.

Incredibly, Maawy is among the lucky—as well as exceptionally smart, determined, and hardworking—aspiring African scholars. To compensate for the weak schools he attended, Maawy went to cybercafes, where he accessed pirated textbooks over torrent sites and used sites like Codeproject and Android.com to teach himself web and mobile development.

Ahmed Maawy

He put himself through school by working two jobs and doing other students' programming projects for them, while photocopying his classmates' lecture notes, showing up in class only for exams. He gained practical experience working with Ushahidi, one of Kenya's most robust technology companies, and did a post-grad year at Amani Institute, one of many startups starting to transform the education landscape in the country.

Today Maawy is a tech entrepreneur with several ongoing concerns: (D8a, Siftdeck, and is working on launching Apps4Africa), plus MombasaTechCommunity, a mission-driven venture that aims to provide everything that his university education did not to other young hopefuls: networking, mentorship, and technical expertise. "The major objective is not to make money, it’s to empower these individuals, because Mombasa to me is home."

In the last year the hype around online education, and particularly free Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, reached a fever pitch and met a sharp backlash.

MOOCs, it seems, don't work particularly well as standalone education solutions; less than 10% of users will finish a typical course without outside support, and most participants are already highly educated.

Some of the figures most associated with the movement, like Udacity's Sebastian Thrun, have revised their business models and backed off from their most grandiose claims of transforming access to education.

But if there's anywhere in the world where free and low-cost online education has the chance to make a transformative impact, it's in Africa, where the demand is huge. Here, a growing network of social entrepreneurs, some African, some foreign, are appropriating free resources produced overseas into a new context: packaging them into a low-cost bundle with moderated discussions, mentorship, and practical experience, sometimes to create complete degree programs, other times on an informal, as-needed basis. It's a unique recipe with a chance to "leapfrog" traditional, complex university infrastructure and succeed, not just in Africa, but around the globe.

Margaret Li Yin is senior coordinator of the Open School at Open University of Mauritius, a brand-new online institution. She recently facilitated a blended MOOC, combining the video-based course with an in-person discussion, on classroom technology for K-12 teachers in partnership with Coursera and the U.S. State Department. She compares online learning to "Ali Baba's treasure."

"First you have to know that it exists, and once it exists you have to have the magic formula, the open sesame," she says. "For my students the Internet was just for emailing. They didn’t know how many avenues for self and professional development it holds. Our main purpose was to make it known that you have access to free learning, and that has been extraordinary."

The Next Steve Jobs?

Africa has the world's largest unmet demand for higher education. There are 200 million people aged 15 to 24, the youngest population in the world. This youth population is on track to double by 2045. But higher education enrollment of this population in sub-Saharan Africa is just 5%, the lowest in the world. Around 35,000 people every year manage to study abroad. The remaining 190 million are out of luck.

"There are a lot of young people in Africa who could be Steve Jobs, but most of them will die without living their full potential," says Ndubuisi Ekekwe. He's the founder of First Atlantic Semiconductors and Microelectronics, one of Africa's leading microelectronics firms, and is currently on leave from a faculty position at Carnegie Mellon University to start First Atlantic University, a for-profit, blended learning institution that aims to bring cutting-edge practical and technical education to the far reaches of the continent.

Ekekwe, a Nigerian, is scratching his own itch as an employer. "We got a contract from a U.S. company and went around the country looking to hire, but we couldn’t," he says. "I got so frustrated, I thought I would do something myself. I said, here is an opportunity if the government won’t do it."

Over the past few decades, both governments on the continent and international aid organizations have focused on basic, K-12 education at the expense of the university level. The share of the World Bank's education spending that went to higher ed dropped from 17% in the 1980s to 7% in the '90s. Combine that reality with a decade of austerity (Nigerian public universities, for example, just ended a five-month-long strike), and the result in many countries in Africa has been increasingly expensive and scarce spots in both public and private universities that aren't producing much in the way of world-class research, plus even lower-quality for-profits like the bogus one Maawy attended, rushing to serve the enormous demand.

Beneath the Waves

But in the past five years, two things have happened. One, not surprisingly, is that research has underscored that in an ever-more-complex global economy, university education is important to economic growth. In fact, raising the average education level by just one year would raise African GDP per capita by 12.2% over the long run, a Harvard paper found.

The second change occurred on the ocean floor and in the stratosphere. Internet penetration, while still at rates that are half the world average, is growing steadily across Africa thanks to a series of undersea cable connections starting with SEACOM in 2009, plus low-earth orbiting satellites and 3G connections using cell towers. There are now 167 million Internet users in Africa, and there's a burgeoning economic scene around them. For example, a conference and event series called Digital Africa is sending the first-ever delegation of African tech companies to CES in Las Vegas this month .

When an unprecedented global thirst for knowledge connects with the Internet's firehose of information, learning is bound to flow. But what is the best way to channel all this energy in forms that are equitable and scalable?

The IKEA of Higher Education

Jamie Hodari and Alex Hague have an idea, called Kepler University. It grew out of Generation Rwanda, a nonprofit that for the past nine years has been funding students to attend Rwandan universities, and an increasing frustration that these universities just weren't good enough.

"What we learned sending students to traditional universities was, first, that no one can afford it, and second, that people don’t graduate ready to hit the job market at all," says Hodari. He says that classrooms designed on a post-colonial model of memorization and repetition are a poor fit with today's employers. "We started saying, what could we be doing to provide a more active learning environment that fosters critical thinking? And then these MOOC resources emerged, and the Internet started getting faster and faster in Rwanda. All of a sudden a solution was there that wasn’t before."

Kepler started this fall with 50 students, who are simultaneously enrolled in College for America, an American competency-based program through which they'll earn their U.S. associate's degrees.

At night, on their own time, they watch video lectures from MOOC courses created by professors at colleges like Stanford on topics like economics, statistics, and psychology. It's a so-called "flipped classroom" model—they spend much of their class time in small group work and discussions. "We want to maximize active engagement. In this first year, they are learning how to learn, how to interact with material more critically," says Hodari."When our professor says, 'What do you think about this?' that's literally the first time they've ever been asked that."

In future years Kepler's model will integrate work experience through partnerships with global employers. The whole program is aiming for a $1,000-a-year cost, which is a fraction of what Rwandan universities charge.

"Before we started they told us that we’d be having online courses and we’d be be able to have an international degree," says Jean Monet Ngenzi, a 20-year-old Kepler student. "I was very excited. Being an online scholar is better, because it allows me to have connections with people outside. I can be competitive on the job market with people all over the world."

Jean Monet Ngenzi in a Southern New Hampshire University t-shirt.

Kepler's major donor is the Ikea Foundation. Jonathan Spampinato, head of communications and strategic planning for the foundation, says, “By making college degrees affordable for the many, this program could help millions of boys and girls from poor families across East Africa lift themselves and their families from poverty. This approach is similar to democratic design at Ikea—to look for ways to create better everyday lives for many people by lowering costs while keeping quality.”

Dai Ellis, the cofounder of Generation Rwanda, is currently doing initial user anthropology in Kenya on a new edu-venture called Spire which seeks to incorporate many of Kepler's features, such as blended learning, flipped classrooms, and workplace-based learning. His cofounder, Oliver Sabot, spent the last six years as the senior manager of the Clinton Foundation's global health initiative.

"I was fortunate to be getting involved in global health at the turn of millennium, when it underwent a true transformation. I was looking for something that was at a similar inflection point," Sabot says. "And as I looked at a couple of sectors it just struck me how much it felt like education is right at the start of the same moment, and the next decade has the ability to be truly transformational."

The Microsoft Experiment

University of the People was founded four years ago as an online-only, free institution. Shai Reshef designed the open-source curriculum to rely on PDFs so that it could reach the lowest-bandwidth parts of the world, and has assembled an all-volunteer virtual faculty made up largely of retired professors from around the globe.

But one donor, Microsoft, is nudging UoPeople toward combining its online courses with mentoring and internship placements. It recently announced that through its new 4Afrika initiative, it will be sponsoring 1,000 Africans aged 18 to 34 to earn associate degrees in business administration and computer science.

"Microsoft regularly gets feedback from our network of more than 10,000 African partners that they have a hard time finding skilled people to meet their specific needs," says Patrick Onwumere, director of Youth Enablement for 4Afrika Initiative. "Through this program, we will be working to match graduating students with the appropriate skill sets into known openings within our partner community."

These scholarships will connect students with Microsoft mentors, local internships, and job opportunities on graduation. "This is a a big deal for our students, the continent, our mission, and our financial situation," says Reshef.

iHubs, MOOC Camps, and the University of Life

In many cases, peer-to-peer learning using MOOCs and other online resources is happening in the context of technology incubators and accelerators like Nairobi's iHub, Kigali's kLab and Cairo's Flat6Labs. In these informal spaces, students tap online tutorial sites, MOOCs, peers and mentors for the knowledge they need to grow technology skills or start a business.

"My student interns actually call the iHub the 'university of life,' where you learn things through self-learning and peer learning," says Jessica Colaco, director of partnerships at the iHub, a center for coworking, innovation and informal learning in the business and technology worlds.

Another unusual evangelist for blended MOOCs across the continent is the U.S. government. This past fall, the State Department began hosting discussion groups based around Coursera MOOCs in over 40 countries, including several in Africa, and they are having a small but significant impact.

Cleopatre Kougniazonde, 27, took a business MOOC through the U.S. Embassy in Cotonou, Benin. "Each person studies the lesson at his or her own pace," Kougniazonde says. "And then we come together and ask questions or try to explain to the others."

The personal interaction is key, she says, especially for translating American references, like Walmart. "The moderators don’t come as teachers who give you everything, but they come for us to discuss, learn, share—and that is very important. We learn something really useful and important and credible in a short time. And we didn’t pay a single penny. No fees at all. It’s a wonderful thing."

Through the State Department program, Margaret Li Yin facilitated a five-week Coursera course for K-12 teachers on uses of classroom technology for 120 students in comparatively wealthy Mauritius, plus another 60 who joined remotely from the less developed eastern outlying island of Rodrigues. Li Yin said that of the Mauritians, 98% of them completed the Coursera requirements, took the weekly quizzes, and completed final exams and projects. "When I read the research that says 90% to 95% of students drop out of MOOCs," she says, "I think, this project has success."

One of Li Yin's students, Sachita Jeeta, an ICT support officer for Mauritius's education department, was the number two most frequent poster on the Coursera forums, out of thousands of enrollees worldwide. "It was a great enriching journey for me," Jeeta told me. "I kept thinking, how did I not know about MOOCs?" She is now planning to create an open learning website with resources for educators in her country.

Sachita Jeeta

But Can It Scale?

If Africa had the education rates of North America, it would have approximately 150 million more young people in college right now. The number of young Africans who have experienced blended MOOCs is, generously, in the hundreds.

As quick and dirty as it is, can this solution get anywhere near big enough to meet the demand?

The technology infrastructure, while improving, is still a huge barrier to scaling. Interviewing people for this story was an unfortunate comedy of dropped calls, glitches, and mid-conversation switches from Skype to cell to Gchat. While Hodari and Hague say that Internet access has improved greatly in Rwanda, for example, they say it's still "terrible." In many places where the State Department is running MOOCs, they've had to record the lectures to DVD so that students can watch them.

And there is another, more subtle looming issue. International donors and investors are supporting blended learning programs in the hopes of achieving major impact quickly, by educating students directly for the workforce. The economic imperative is driving new African education ventures hard in the direction of technology and entrepreneurship—courses of study with paths to immediate employment. What doesn't, largely, get funded in this scenario are the next generation of African designers, historians, poets, artists, or political scientists, or the pure research leading to the world's next big ideas. Research output at African universities is low, but research output at University of the People, Kepler, or iHub is zero.

Still, those who have discovered the "open sesame" of blended learning are not going to shut the door because of these long-term, big-picture concerns.

Jima Ngei, a 54-year-old unemployed Nigerian, is a Coursera power user, with 100 courses under his belt. "The education I have now is pretty backward," he says simply. "I want to compete internationally. I am very, very grateful for MOOCs."

[World Map: Pogonici via Shutterstock]

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