Sub-Saharan Africa’s perspective of distance learning

The 49th DEASA Conference jointly held by the Distance Education Association of Southern Africa and the Open University of Mauritius from the 4th to 7th December 2014 was an interesting platform on distance learning in sub-Saharan Africa, which is now a region for the development and growth of learning opportunities.  With a growing middle class having better access to education, sub-Saharan Africa will definitely make important advancements in this field.  The objective of the conference held in Mauritius focused on Open and Distance learning for sustainable development with emphasis on innovative learning, research and the need to expand distance-learning opportunities within the region.

The early form of distance learning
If someone looks back at distance learning from a Mauritian perspective, he/she would recall those days when distance learning was popularly expressed as ‘correspondence course’, pioneered by the University of London, Wolsey Hall Oxford and the Rapid Results College. These institutions took into consideration the importance of sustainable development by developing learning programmes for people at work, who could not afford taking leave without pay to learn in England or any other European country. Obviously, correspondence courses focused on academic subjects like Accounting, Mathematics, Business including English language which were never offered as degree-based programmes in Mauritius.  One could then hear of graduates having done their BA Inter, Matric or any other programme through distance learning.

The low profile of distance learning
Despite the fact that correspondence courses met the needs of a niche market of enthusiastic learners who obtained diplomas and certificates without going to a university, such qualifications were usually questioned by employers and the Public Service Commission as being ‘low value’ or ordinary qualifications compared to the prestige of stepping into a university with its faculty, alumni and the range of activities and programmes prior to completing a degree.  Correspondence courses were meant for the lower middle class and those not having the exacting qualifications to earn a degree.  Added to these was the low pass rate through distance education where students ceased to learn from a lack of support after failing in some introductory courses.  

The development of Open and Distance Learning platforms
By skipping directly to the present situation, correspondence courses have been revamped as distance learning programmes.  It is through the development of the Internet and Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) that distance learning has become all of a sudden a vital tool for education. Universities from Europe were sceptical of this idea maintaining that traditional attendance and instruction from their campus was a means to show how prestigious and unique their qualification was.  
New universities sprouted in the face of the inertia of traditional universities.  By developing online and regional accreditation, such universities grew as new hubs for learning.  The University of Phoenix, Walden University were among the first to move to Masters and eventually Doctorate programmes followed by others from Europe choosing ACBSP accreditation for distance learning programmes.  Since these institutions reaped success, many traditional universities started to develop a variety of distance learning programmes.

The African perspective of Open and Distance Learning
It may be naïve to state that sub-Saharan Africa has stayed behind in this avenue.  Regarding correspondence courses, University of South Africa (UNISA) stands as the most successful university in this field offering correspondence courses since the 1890s and widening their access to the Southern African Development Community.  The unique offering of UNISA could not be contested because other countries could not afford offering hundreds of programmes in different fields.  In a period of apartheid, UNISA could challenge the segregation system by offering access to any student regardless of his race, gender or colour.  This is a fascinating area where distance learning overcame barriers to learning.

Open and Distance Learning adapted to Africa
The development of the Internet could not leave any African institution ‘on the bench’ or staying as laggard in the area of distance learning.  DEASA as an independent organisation has organised International Conferences to sensitise public opinion on the importance of education within sub-Saharan Africa.  Internet entered the region in a short time lapse compared to developed nations but was accessible only to the rich at the beginning.  The divide between the rich and the lower classes was gradually bridged through the creation of platforms like Wi-Fi, cloud computing, Skype, and a panoply of social networks like Facebook, etc.  Although there was questioning about the informal nature of such Open and Distance Learning platforms regarding security, communication breakdowns, hacking to the system, among others, the distance learning concept emanated as some novel way of developing and broadening education access to sub-Saharan Africa.  
Mauritius, being one of the most developed nations, took an important initiative by creating the Open University, a similar concept to the Open University UK, from its earlier concept ‘Mauritius College of the Air’ which initiated correspondence courses through learning materials and audio-visual production.  In today’s context, the programmes stretch from tailor-made courses for corporations to Doctorate programmes.  In another manner, the University of Mauritius through its Centre for Virtual Learning offers both stand-alone and full-fledged degree programmes.
At the sub-Saharan African level, development is underway with universities embracing distance learning after being shielded from traditional on-campus attendance.  Taking into consideration that young Africans are more literate than their elders and that the diffusion of technology through mobile phones and other support systems like Internet, cable technology and satellite transmission has become a reality, institutions of higher learning now appreciate the importance of distance learning.

Building Capacity in sub-Saharan Africa
Far from considering distance learning as degrading and of low value, sub-Saharan African governments now value this concept.  Illiteracy is still high among the huge young population of Africa, and without education, the region would fail.  This alarm signal has encouraged African universities to react and become pro-active.  Capacity building firstly relates to developing capable and learned individuals who can enter the job market but also fulfil the higher-skilled jobs that are now in demand in Africa. Secondly, there are areas where capacity could be consolidated.  These could be in sectors like teaching and research, information technology and new sectors demanding skills like environmental and sustainable development, ecological development, etc.
Distance learning in sub-Saharan Africa becomes an opportunity since education can be offered in different ways.  Tailor-made programmes for corporates and individuals develop special and focused learning for this audience with ready-made skills for specific jobs.  Academic programmes could develop capacity for individuals looking for higher-ranked jobs.  There might also be the possibility of creating courses for employability.

Open learning and sustainable development
Since traditional learning limited the number of graduates, open learning could look for other objectives but essentially pursue the key founding principle-sustainable development.  More and more people need to be trained and as the population of sub-Saharan Africa rises, more people will need education.  Open learning broadens this avenue by offering learning platforms for long-term, hence sustainable development. Either through sponsored or self-financed learning, open learning democratises education without raising too formal barriers to entry. We might unfortunately live in an ultra-competitive world boasting the elites or the ‘cream’ of society but DEASA’s commitment to open and distance learning must be saluted. This can range from the peasant ploughing the fields in Rwanda to the top brass executive demanding a Master’s programme in Corporate Financing in Pretoria.  There is a place for everyone and through education without fear, duly supported by open and distance learning, capacity building in Africa might not be a myth.