#FeesMustFall will catalyse the debate around new models of education

If #FeesMustFall, it’s time to look at how we can replace traditional education models. The questions go beyond the polarizing debates related to access and cost — it’s not just about educating more people, it’s about making education work better, for everyone, at all levels. To start finding answers, we have to challenge current thinking and get familiar with the new disruptive education models.

How dire is the situation?

Well, two thirds of our youth are unemployed. Less than half of the approximately 1.2 million scholars that enrolled into grade one in South Africa in 2003, made it to grade 12. School leavers and more mature job seekers can’t access skills they need to get a job or a promotion because it is too expensive for most, universities are oversubscribed, or the courses are simply not available.

Clearly, traditional systems can no longer keep up with demand.

Businesses, technology providers and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are thinking ahead. Some great examples of innovative models include:

  • Livity Africa’s Digify ZA and Digify Bytes, courses designed to offer 18–25 year olds a no-cost opportunity to learn the basics of digital marketing and skills development.
  • WeThinkCode’s initiative to train 1 000 software engineering students per year by 2018, a program that is free to learners aged 17 to 35.
  • CodeX’s program to train 100,000 African developers over the next 10 years. It offers a full-time learn-by-doing apprenticeship, with students also building projects for real companies.
  • Accenture’s, Skills to Succeed program, which is partially funded by the Rockefeller foundation, focusses on information and communications technology (ICT) skills development of disadvantaged learners via the Mentec Foundation’s Business Academy of Technology and Systems (BATS) program. It facilitates jobs creation and placement via an impact sourcing model. The learning partnership has thus far resulted in the creation of 1800 jobs. Through Skills to Succeed, Accenture aims to equip 6000 people to get jobs or build a business by 2018.

However, while these models offer some benefits, they are the tip of the iceberg — deeper, more fundamental structural change is needed to improve access to, and the effectiveness of, education.

Digital learning models hold more than a little potential to meet those needs.

According to researcher BMI-T , South Africa’s smartphone penetration rate will reach more than 83 percent of the population (over 16 years old) by 2019 after crossing the 50% mark in 2015. Globally, Ericsson says smartphone subscriptions will more than double, reaching 6.1 billion (70% of the world’s population), with 90 percent covered by mobile broadband networks by 2020. At the same time, bandwidth is becoming increasingly ubiquitous with tech ingenuity overcoming the challenges of bandwidth scarcity and remote access.

So where do we stand right now and how do we move forward?

At present, regimented traditional classroom-led education models that rely on a set syllabus with exams, still dominate primary, secondary and tertiary education. Good or bad, this model is becoming digitized. However, big gaps remain as the digital ecosystems that will make these models fly are not yet in place.

Digital learning ecosystems are a core element of disruptive education models. These ecosystems extend beyond traditional learning partners, encompassing government, NGOs, business, academia and specialist forums, among others. They present on-demand learning, offer algorithm-driven self-paced advancement, and make use of visual, social and mobile content to enrich the learning experience.

Some of the trends reshaping education include the emergence of massive open online courses (MOOCs) — for and not-for profit; flipped classrooms where students watch lectures at home and get individual attention in class; peer to peer learning where students tap into a community’s collective brain; and adaptive learning, which alters the presentation of material based on learners’ progress.

There are schools of thought that advocate making learning fun (and why not) — something that gamification may help us do. There is certainly merit to adding Arts to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning (that’s STEAM if anyone asks) as creativity and innovation gain importance.

While MOOCs may not yet have found the money, they are very very useful. They address many of the cost and access challenges learners face. As a bridge, these courses hold much potential.

Businesses are now piloting their own MOOCs — what better way to increase skills and fish for potential new hires and customers. And, with demand for traditional credentials still high, the big three MOOCs — Coursera, Udacity, and edX (the Harvard-MIT online learning partnership) — are offering their own credentialed courses. They may set the stage for universities that have created or planning to launch their own MOOCs. At present, 22 of the top 25 universities in the US offer free courses and a relative newcomer, iversity, provides a platform for European universities to offer students free credit-granting courses.

The reality is that the traditional (safe, governance-driven) view of hiring only degreed candidates is fast changing. My last five hires — yes, for Accenture Digital — were not degreed; they were selected for their experience and specialist contribution.

What works?

To transform education models, we need to leverage the tools that have been put in our hands, namely the technology; the content; and the interactive, collaborative environments digital has created.

At a sector level, the answer may lie in a multi-facetted hybrid education model. It is certainly evolving rapidly with promising results. For regional development, the lead actors must be business and governments:

  • From business we need impetus. That may mean changing the way we assess employability and how we help our people grow their skills and advance their careers.
  • From government we need enabling frameworks that look beyond structure (devices and connectivity) and that question the current orthodox ‘boxed’ education mentality, removing barriers or, at very least, shifting out the boundaries to encompass global learning platforms.

I welcome your comments, examples of success and STEAM-y suggestions.