May 12, 2017 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

In our recent report on Globacom’s pledge connect West Africa to the global online learning stage, we highlighted the goal: to connect African universities to European institutions.

Good news: it’s happening—and it’s having a positive effect on learning goals for the continent.  Let’s look at five ways that Africa is using educational technology and online learning to make its mark—and make online learning accessible for just about everyone.


1. Affordability

Thanks to online learning, higher education is finally more affordable in Africa.  Once reserved for primarily wealthy families, higher education is now accessible to anyone who can get internet access.  UNESCO recently called on governments to make higher education more affordable and accessible.  Several African governments have student loan funding programs undergoing revision to ensure the equitable and fair distribution of financial assistance for those students who need it the most. 


2. Geopolitical Distance

Online learning minimizes it—for the student without internet access or a computer, but with the availability of a smartphone, higher education is a possibility.  Cheaper and easier to operate than laptops, smartphones offer opportunity to people who previously didn’t have it. 

Smartphone usage in Africa has skyrocketed, mainly because they’re relatively inexpensive.  Currently, there are more mobile phone users in Africa than there are in the US. 

Tech companies have noticed.  This year, Google released a new smartphone aimed at the African student market. 

The benefit of widespread access to mobile technology in Africa?  Delivery of content and the ability to interact with it. 

While not a panacea, smartphones offer a way in for those who previously thought they couldn’t have access—because of where they lived, the political situation in their country, or their access to internet. 


3. College-educated population expansion

Online education is currently the only way for Africa to expand its college-

educated population (See #2).   Recent statistics predict that by 2050, 2.4 billion people will live in Africa.  The only way to reach all of those people?  Online learning.

Currently, 8 percent of sub-Saharan Africa is enrolled in higher education.  The goal is to increase higher education participation to 50 percent by 2063.  How will that happen?  Online education.  eLearn Africa is at the cutting edge, pledging to offer its 1,000+ courses to the Association of African Universities (see #4 and #5).


4. Rapid-growth e-learning market

Africa is the fastest-growth e-learning market in the world.  Why?  Part of it is sheer need—students who want higher education can have it now with e-learning tools (see #3).  Fiber optic connectivity has allowed Africa to blossom, and the increased access to internet has allowed more students to participate, especially those students in cities. 

Traditional campuses, while still popular, are less accessible to students because of cost—and sometimes distance and family situations.

The beauty of elearning?  Students can learn from anywhere, anytime—and all they need is a smartphone. 


5. MOOC innovator

Due to interest, demand, accessibility, and cost, Africa is becoming the world’s top innovator in MOOCs, Massive Online Open Courses. 

Consider GetSmarter, based in Cape Town, South Africa.  Founded by two brothers, Rob and Sam Paddock, to help their father to extend his teaching to students unable to attend classes, they created short courses through the University of Cape Town.  And then they took off. 

They’re going international, helping to develop short online courses for the University of Chicago and MIT, in addition to a few in the UK. 

One key to their success?  Unlike MOOCs, their courses have teaching support for every 20-30 students.  These teaching “coaches” keep track of student progress and serve as facilitators for students.  Having person-to-person contact in an online course makes a difference. 

Africa is becoming a model for online higher education throughout the world.  By making higher education more affordable accessible, the continent has the opportunity to educate large numbers of people easily and quickly—and can continue to innovate to improve the lives of others.


Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

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