As the online education race heats up, emerging market institutions of higher learning need to consider what their legacy will be as they ask: will online learning be the panacea for the learning deficit?
Nowadays having an online learning option if you are an institution of higher learning is de rigueur. And if part of that option is free to access, even better. In emerging markets, with their unquenchable thirst for education and skills, this should be more than mere etiquette. It should be an imperative and could well herald a new era for the way they engage with education – if it is done right.
The shift to empower people with accessible, online knowledge is well under way. You only need to visit websites like Coursera , a tech company that has partnered with more than 30 of the top universities in the world to offer online classes for free, Udacity and edX to see that for yourself. But will these much-lauded initiatives actually accomplish what it is hoped they will? Will free or partly free online studies be a panacea to many emerging markets learning deficit? And, from a business education point of view, will online programmes stimulate entrepreneurial growth and improve practical business acumen?
Research in this area is still scarce, but a recent study carried out by BusinessWeek showed that despite the rush by most top tier institutions to get online, online certificates are not in fact helping people find jobs, even though these certificates are from the likes of Standford, Harvard and MiT. The big businesses remain steadfast about hiring people with traditional, full-time degrees believing that this still equips people better for the working world.
This study speaks to the fact that there are many things to consider if online education is going to replace more traditional forms of education and be truly effective - especially in emerging markets where unemployment is high, skills low, and access to education at all levels limited. To be effective online learning must be delivered in an appropriate way, a way that is based on an understanding of what learning is, how people learn, and why they feel the need to learn.
Simply making intellectual content available online will not necessarily add up to learning. Learning is a complex process that takes place in the head of the learner who engages with the material that is presented in a certain way – and in a certain context.
A key part of this is that learning needs to be experiential; simply reading or hearing the material is not enough. People need to experience learning. They need to feel it happening, similar to an athlete who can feel the burn in their muscles as they train, but also notice their improvement when they shave a few seconds from a lap or lift heavier weights. For learners this should happen, if done right, through interaction with peers in the classroom or back in the workplace via action learning projects where learning is doing, where theory is put into practice. The athlete does not get faster by reading about how to improve economy of movement, or studying the greatest runner’s style. He gets faster when he puts it all into action, applies it to his movement and his stride style.
In the online environment, it is crucial that learners are given the incentive to embark on this kind of experiential learning journey. Content must be delivered in a way that demands them to try it out. The University of Cape Town (UCT) Graduate School of Business in South Africa, for example, is experimenting with online learning built around traditional business concepts, but where learners are also given the tools and motivation to apply these to their lives and their work. This gives them the opportunity to feel how these concepts translate into work on the ground.
Learning really only comes alive when it is given personal meaning. What is being learned is only one small part of the equation, how it is then used counts for everything – and this will be different for every learner (be they a coach, a small business owner, a banker or a social entrepreneur). Different skills are needed for different situations and occupations. These skills and competencies can be based on similar concepts, but in each context the concept is applied differently.
Learning is not a commodity. It is impossible to have a one-size-fits-all approach to learning. It has to be geared towards a specific purpose otherwise it is entirely limited to a transfer of concepts where the learner – like an empty vessel – is filled up with cargo. The problem with this is that cargo can just as easily be unloaded again. For learning to stick it has to be about more than the content and more about process and context. And a good process, verified by a diploma from a good institution that understands this, is like the Bill of Lading that endures long after the cargo has been off loaded.
The online education revolution is here. And really it is a blessing for the many who have little chance of accessing high quality, credible educational material – especially business material. But instead of blindly following the international heavy hitters in a rush to render content accessible online, higher learning institutions in Africa and other emerging markets – business schools in particular - should become even more rigorous about their roles and responsibilities in developing the intellectual capacity of nations. They should listen to the market place for clues about which skills and competencies are most needed and seek ways to make these available so as to be relevant and to make an impact.
If the aim is truly to empower more people to learn and to be effective in business, as entrepreneurs and in their chosen professions, then any other course of action is sterile.
Walter Baets is the Director of the University of Cape Town- Graduate School of Business