Columnists Features

Future of varsity education: Online courses plus residential school

OWEN SICHONE
MILLIONS of students are currently taking online university courses. Some of them are even free and offered by the world’s top universities.
Moocs or massive open online courses worry some who see them as a threat to traditional higher education.
But this threat does not exist for Zambia where traditional higher education died in the 1980s when we accepted the World Bank theory that basic education is more profitable.
We do not have to worry about the possibility of moocs robbing professors of their jobs as the Europeans do because African professors have already gone abroad, into politics, are consultants or poultry farmers.
Africa’s major problem is that of overworked young lecturers whose research output has suffered from the ever increasing number of students they have to teach and whose work environment has created the yellow pages outdated lectures, leaked examination papers and ineffective intelligentsia.
Moocs are the best way that a class of 10,000 is able to access high-quality teaching and learning materials without bankrupting their families and governments.
The economics of having American, British, Zambian or Chinese professors teach hundreds of thousands of students at one go are the answer to our higher education crisis.
Admittedly, moocs have registered low completion rates at the moment but that’s because they are still establishing themselves.
Campus based courses do not fare much better either if you consider that many students need five years to complete a four-year course, for a variety of reasons.
Campus life does have its advantages although the average Zambian college campus does not have the lively sports, artistic or even political activities that in more developed countries are the incubator for future film and media stars, prime ministers and senators and of course captains of industry.
There isn’t even a national tradition of University of Zambia (UNZA) versus Evelyn Hone College soccer or volleyball matches and of course there is no boat race – not on the Zambezi, Kafue or even Mulungushi, so Moocs cannot be blamed for threatening that aspect of campus life because we just do not have it yet.
Campus life remains an essential part of the training of the future graduate, especially the teenagers. after all in some countries parents send their children to university mainly so that they can find a marriage partner, and that makes a lot of sense when you consider that in Singapore the government offered special incentives to ensure that graduates married fellow graduates.
What is to be done?
Science and engineering students might require more work on campus than online while humanities students might fare better with more time online and less time on campus but all (young students especially) should spend some of their time on campus.
The Moocs can offer access to excellent, first-world, syllabus and teaching materials while the residential school (one month at a time instead of six) can allow Zambianisation of the teaching and learning experience by having a period of intensive revision, discussion, research, networking, team building etc) free of the unsanitary overcrowded conditions that have so corrupted campus life.
Such residential schools could be at specialised campuses with expensive equipment or small rural colleges with not so expensive teaching and learning materials but good and affordable living quarters.
The registration of students would have to be regulated by the Higher Education Authority of course but this requires information economy strategising.
At the moment Zambia is faring very badly in the knowledge-based global economy.
We are poor because we produce copper and maize while others export software and patent new drugs.
We accumulate certificates (including those from donor-funded workshops that actually prevent you from doing work!) to find a job instead of gaining knowledge and improving skills in order to work better.
In this information age there are many successful people with knowledge but no examination (leaked or otherwise) certificate.
Having taught in all our public universities as well as the major southern African universities I can safely say it is not possible to provide the elite education that university training has always been to all the young people.
And yet now more than ever before, ignorance kills people.
But certificates are not the cure for ignorance. that is why learning needs to be a lifelong experience and not an expensive commodity.
Zambia cannot afford elite university education where a nine-month academic year costs half a million kwacha.
We need to re-examine the place of education in our society and realise that we shall not survive if we do not adapt.
We know how much damage the World Bank Basic Education distraction did, so let us not forget our priorities again.
If a 21st century university might now mean good libraries and ICT facilities with respectable broadband, and less of the expensive ceremonial appendages, then let’s go for it.  Even the sports fields and halls of residence can be reconfigured to be used by more people for shorter periods.
The author is director Dag Hammarskjöld Institute for Peace Studies, and Conflict Studies Copperbelt University

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