Online learning should be a mandatory alternative

The global economy and world of work and education are changing; it is essential that online learning is more formally integrated, supported and embraced by our public education institutions. Our young South Africans are being denied the opportunity to grow and learn, and with so many school leavers not being able to enter the tertiary education system and with so many others unemployed, online learning offers an extremely fertile ecosystem. But, will it ever bear fruit?

The advantages of an online learning culture

Complimentary online learning platforms are a very big part of the world’s system of education, offering students unique and experiential learning journeys that support their personal study and career objectives. South Africa lies far behind, with only a very small offering and also voice and data service providers that are much more interested in bottom-line profits than open platforms that build capacity for the future. Given the challenges facing the education system in South Africa, online learning offers some significant complementary advantages to the restrictions facing teachers and lecturers in the classroom.

The advantages that cannot be overlooked:

  • You can deliver great content quality as standard for all – whereas in classrooms the quality is directly linked to a teacher’s competence;
  • Thought leaders, experts, great teachers and lecturers can be accessed by all students at scale – either through shared content or through online direct interaction;
  • You can work at your own speed;
  • You can be thoroughly tested in the content either through short tests or through assignments that show competence in the material. These methods should also pave the way to credits and recognised certificates that can be used for accessing the workplace, accessing further education, or even supporting applications for finance for small business development capital;
  • You can access, engage and learn remotely. As long as there is a reasonable internet connection; and
  • The content can effectively grow capacity (skills, knowledge, mindset, interconnectedness) as well as help with interests and passions driving directions and opportunities, making it possible to follow a customised learning journey approach to education which is very difficult in our current system.

We should be obsessed with how we can help our young South Africans access and utilise systems of secondary and tertiary entry education that achieve three key things:

  1. Opening the doors to formal, focused education where students cope well with the rigours of study, and that they feel strong and focused and aligned;
  2. Connecting into a well-thought-through system for accessing jobs across the spectrum, especially entry-level jobs for school leavers; and
  3. Given the economic challenges, the platforms should also grow capacity around young South Africans growing their own initiatives. This needs to be done at scale.

What experience has taught us:

In November 2020, we launched ACTIVATE! Academy, which is a free platform for young South Africans to strengthen themselves and grow their capacity to realise a potentially better future. Our scale is just small, with about 3000 students, but we are hoping to grow to over 30 000 students per annum. The response has been really amazing. We are also a part of a national network of over 4000 Activators (young leaders committed to driving change in South Africa), and getting their feedback on this venture, and how it can change their lives, has also been beneficial. The following key elements from the research have emerged:

  • Young South Africans are really hungry for access to trusted platforms of learning that can open opportunities for them;
  • Learning in your own language is preferential and beneficial, making the content more accessible and meaningful;
  • Data is still way too expensive for many, especially from isolated rural communities making accessing even a simple platform beyond their reach;
  • Tailored learning journeys are extremely successful and powerful in growing capacity and strengthening young people in readiness for further study, work or for starting their own business; and
  • Covid-19 has changed the way we feel about learning and working online and it may have opened the door to our closing this gap.

What is holding us back?

Many oppose opening up free access to online, capacity-building content. Government is slow to transform the sector which could open up more competitive environments, greater bandwidth and more opportunities for content providers to deliver content without data costs.  Service providers argue that their bottom lines will be negatively affected and accreditation agencies are finding it very hard to support and enable accredited online study at scale. Also, the breadth of educational institutional growth has been limited to those who can generate enough funding.  The cost to the future economy is far higher than opening up free access to educational content and we should be investing furiously in platforms of learning across the vast range of career possibilities.

What now?

If we are really serious about succeeding as a country, we need to lead Africa in providing young South Africans with access to great online learning journeys. This will grow our people, it will grow our economy and it will open the door to a more promising future. If we fail our young South Africans, we fail as a country.  Given the effects of Covid-19, we cannot afford to fail. We must all come together, business, government and civil society to make this a reality.

This opinion article written by Chris Meintjies first appeared on Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader website on 28 May 2021.

Chris Meintjies is the executive director at The ACTIVATE! Academy, involved in the development of a blended learning journey platform for young South Africans. The A! Academy platform is an attempt to help young people to grow their capacity in life skills and in starting and running small businesses

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