Online tertiary education has a far-reaching impact and is rapidly gaining momentum in this hyper-connected digital era


At the time, it seemed pretty far-fetched. Speaking at the Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe, Microsoft founder Bill Gates sketched a startling picture of the classrooms and lecture halls of the future. The self-motivated learner will be on the web, he said, ‘and there will be far less place-based things. In fact, even getting feedback, having group discussions, maybe having video… You can have all sorts of things’.

Pointing to educational NPOs such as Khan Academy – and, of course, other free education tools, including Apple’s iTunes U – Gates told the audience: ‘Five years from now, on the web for free, you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.’ The date was 2010.

Eight years on, that vision no longer seems like such a strange idea. The Da Vinci distance learning institution has seen a marked growth in student enrolments, up from 1 597 in 2015 to 2 435 in 2017.
‘There is definitely growth,’ says Tshepho Langa, executive: business development at Da Vinci, adding that the flexibility (students have access to material and can study from anywhere in the world) and blended learning approach, which includes supportive contact sessions, provides an attractive solution – especially for business students. ‘Corporates have benefited from our Mode 2 learning approach, resulting in students being critical thinkers and making a significant difference in work processes.’


While anybody with an internet connection can now easily download and enjoy many hours of free higher-learning content, the e-learning sector has matured to the point where premium graduate courses are revolutionising the way we learn. In April, the University of Stellenbosch Business School Executive Development (USB-ED) partnered with online course provider MasterStart to build and deliver a range of online short courses that will help the university faculty grow its online executive education channel, while providing online courses to meet professionals’ needs.
‘This relationship will allow USB-ED to harness the skills and experience that the MasterStart executive team has developed over the past 15 years in the e-learning industry,’ Andrew Johnston, CEO of MasterStart, said in a statement. ‘We plan to work side by side with USB-ED to formulate an online course offering that will fulfil USB-ED’s mandate to upskill leaders and managers throughout Africa.’

The course offering will include project management, operations management, HR management, fundamentals of risk management, and others. And there’s the shift. Because, while the early days of e-learning featured downloadable lectures and interesting videos, the new courses offered by MasterStart and USB-ED are specifically designed for working professionals who are looking for further learning and post-grad qualifications.
‘The expert-driven, fully supported online short courses are tailored for the busy professional to enable participants to learn and build on new leadership and management skills while working,’ said Johnston.
At academic institutions such as Cranefield College, for example, all qualifications are offered online via technology-enhanced distance learning. ‘Cranefield’s students attend online from all over the world,’ says Cranefield College principal Pieter Steyn. ‘Our lectures are all recorded and uploaded to the cloud, and students can attend classes at our Midrand campus or virtually, from anywhere in the world.’ Significantly, Steyn adds, the college’s course content is very practical. ‘What you learn in class today, you can apply at work tomorrow.’

Like all industries, the education sector is in the midst of a disruptive shift to a hyper-connected digital future. That shift is bringing a wealth of possibilities and opportunities. In Africa, the e-learning market doubled from 2011 to 2016, reaching $513 million, according to a report by market research firm Ambient Insights. That report named SA as the continent’s largest e-learning market, followed by Angola, Nigeria and Tunisia, with Senegal, Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe all posting 25% annual e-learning market growth for that period.
‘Africa is one the world’s most dynamic education markets,’ Trixie LohMirmand, senior VP (exhibitions and events management) at Dubai World Trade Centre, said in a statement ahead of the 2016 GITEX Technology Week. ‘Public-private partnerships show best practices for using technology to reach marginalised students with technology that students use in their daily lives. Africa presents exciting business opportunities for education technology vendors and start-ups worldwide.’

The business education sector is particularly attractive, bolstered by support from public-private partnerships. This past March, African online learning company eLearnAfrica launched a scholarship in Rwanda valued at $1.5 million to help online learners acquire an MBA qualification. While the programme is initially focused on Rwanda, eLearnAfrica plans to expand it to partner universities across the continent. ‘This degree programme is fully online,’ eLearnAfrica CEO Brook Negussie told ITWeb Africa.
‘Our students will not have to travel, and can continue to fulfil their work and family responsibilities while they study at their convenience.’

While SA remains Africa’s e-learning market leader, Rwanda is fast catching up. In 2014, the country’s government pledged to expand ICT availability throughout its K-12 and higher education institutions, announcing that it expects all schools throughout the country to have ‘at least two smart classrooms and all subjects will have been digitised’ by 2020.

As the world – and the continent – moves into the always-on, hyper-connected space of Industry 4.0 (also known by its other buzzword title, the Fourth Industrial Revolution), technology is becoming embedded in every aspect of modern life. It follows, then, that the same technology should drive our learning experiences.
‘You need only look at companies like Airbnb, Amazon and Uber to appreciate how swiftly Industry 4.0 is transforming the business world,’ Kirsty Chadwick, group CEO at the Training Room Online (TTRO), said in a recent statement. TTRO offers a state-of-the-art digital learning hub comprising targeted, adaptive and practical training programmes. ‘We specialise in designing and delivering world-class digital learning solutions for consumers across the learning spectrum and can customise courses for learners in the basic or higher-education systems as well as employees at corporate clients,’ she said.

Chadwick warned that learners will not have the necessary competencies to thrive in an Industry 4.0 workplace unless radical changes are made to the current school curricula. ‘We need to leverage the latest thinking in adaptive learning, artificial intelligence, game-based learning and both augmented and virtual reality to lift education methodologies to the next level,’ she said. ‘We must create an Education 4.0 or Learning 4.0 to match the fast pace of Industry 4.0.’ The good news, Chadwick added, is that Industry 4.0 provides the tools needed to solve the employment problems it creates, delivering tech-driven learning solutions that can prepare learners for the future work environment.

Steyn has been singing that song for a few years now. ‘In 2003, I delivered a paper at the IPMA Global Congress on Project Management in Berlin, about the organisational value chain schematic in Industry 4.0, and what it should look like, with cross-functional processes and virtual networks.
‘Of course, we didn’t know it as “Industry 4.0” then, but the concept was certainly in the Germans’ heads already. We saw this coming, and I think that is why Cranefield College now has H+ recognition in Germany, which is the highest academic status that universities are accorded there.’

If you visit the Cranefield College website, you’ll find a banner inviting you to ‘Get educated for Industry 4.0’. The coming revolution is clearly at the forefront of its approach to education.

‘It is purposefully designed to serve the organisational leadership, management and governance required by the Industry 4.0 economy,’ says Steyn. ‘We’ve done a lot of research on this, and it informs the advanced technology that we use in our distance learning.’

When they examine case studies, Cranefield students are required to critique the particular case, and then – as Steyn explains it – ‘come up with a solution and motivate their assertions around how the organisation should be transformed to cope with Industry 4.0’. Yet while Industry 4.0 guides what the school teaches, it also informs how they teach it.
‘Immediately after class, we post a recording of the lesson to the cloud for three weeks,’ says Steyn. ‘So even if you miss a class because you’re not in our timeline, you can still, in your own time, attend that class. The students who are in the class can do the same – re-watching or reviewing the class online. It’s a massive advantage.’

Cranefield uses its online virtual learning environment (VLE) as a platform for its live online distance learning programme, enhancing the learning process for both lecturers and students, and enabling students to attend classes interactively online. As a result, says Steyn, Cranefield has conferred PhD degrees on German and Russian candidates, and many of its students or alumni are based in Europe, the US, Dubai, Qatar, Australia and New Zealand.

There is, of course, more to business education than MBAs and C-suite qualifications. Increasingly, professionals up and down the corporate organogram are benefiting from enhanced e-learning opportunities. This, perhaps, is where the sector’s real value lies.

The Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply (CIPS), which supports the procurement and supply management profession, offers its own bespoke e-learning portfolio. ‘Just like everywhere in the world, there are challenges in the Africa region when it comes to finding skilled and talented individuals in procurement and supply chain management,’ says Abdul Majid Mahomed, head of the professional body for CIPS South Africa.
‘CIPS has an award-winning e-learning portfolio providing organisations with an online learning solution for procurement professionals who need a flexible way to learn and study and increase their knowledge.’ He adds that the platform has seen a steady rise in the number of students using the online system, which offers more than 250 hours of professional training across 27 e-learning units to support studies towards gaining globally-recognised CIPS qualifications.
‘The courses last from eight to 40 hours and are in the form of tutorials supporting the exam syllabus and course books,’ adds Mahomed. ‘These combine comprehensive learning materials with interactive questions, case studies, scenarios and quizzes to check understanding of the learning. That’s a great deal of access to learning, but we strongly recommend that our students not rely just on our e-learning material. There is a range of high-quality, additional material available including CIPS course books and recommended reading lists.’

Even in the CIPS courses, though, there is an unmistakable aspect of big data, and of Industry 4.0. ‘CIPS receives a lot of data from its learners, which can be used to spot almost instantly if there is an issue with a topic, or if system issues are at fault,’ says Mahomed.
‘Being able to process this data and make decisions on future topics and levels of maturity of those topics is valuable data that is used for further enhancement of the resources.’

Perhaps the greatest learning from CIPS’ online education experience, however, is that the approach serves both the end-user (the e-learner) and the employer. ‘There are plenty of advantages for a professional body like CIPS too,’ says Mahomed.
‘In a world where the customer is king – or queen – we have to be responsive to the needs of the changing landscape of learning and create an environment where students can achieve their education goals – encouraging them to keep learning and aspire to ever higher levels of achievement.’

By Mark van Dijk
Images: Andreas Eiselin/HMimages