Online Education Could Boost African Development

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


Education is recognized as a major catalyst for human development. During a high-level meeting on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) ( in 2010, UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – pointed out the necessity of making rapid gains in education if all the MDGs are to be achieved. The goals deadline is 2015 – just two years away.

Two of the eight goals are directly related to education systems. MDG2 focuses on boosting universal primary education by 2015, and MDG3 calls for the elimination of barriers to primary and secondary education for women and girls.

UNESCO found that between 2000 and 2007, the share of total government education expenditure devoted to primary education across sub-Saharan Africa fell from 49 per cent to 44 per cent (Rawle, 2009). It also found total aid for education was on the decline and foreign aid for basic education began to stagnate in 2008. This contrasted, UNESCO stated, with the “strong advances made over the past decade.”

Overall, in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, resources for education fell by US $4.6 billion a year on average in 2009 and 2010 (UNESCO, 2010).

With funding for education dependent on fluctuating factors such as foreign aid, government budgets and the state of the global economy, alternatives are needed to retain the gains made in education and to improve them even further.

Thankfully, one new innovative learning tool, dubbed massive open online courses (MOOCs) (, is about to have a major impact in Africa. Rapid improvements in access to the Internet in Africa means that online learning tools could be a growing solution to the education deficit.

MOOCs mean people will have access to a global treasure trove of free online courses in science, technology, engineering and math. Many believe the leapfrog into digital education will do for education what mobile phones have done for African’s ability to communicate and do business.

These online courses vary in approach – some have set start and finish dates and can last from six to 10 weeks, while others are more loosely structured. But they all offer students the ability to learn from online video lectures and use online forums as a replacement for seminars, debates and question-asking.

According to a recent paper by Harvard University Professor of International Development Calestous Juma, “There is a real possibility for Africa to dramatically improve its teaching – especially in science, technology, engineering, and math – through the deployment of MOOCs.”

The diffuse nature of the Internet means many of the drivers behind promoting this trend in Africa will be found at the regional rather than the national level. The Internet helps remove the dependence on national governments and their education policies and funding – or lack thereof – to further education goals. This means the ability to make the most of the powerful new resource of MOOCs will be amplified by innovators within Africa, from entrepreneurs to information technology pioneers.

Their solutions will help make it easier to access these learning resources.

MOOCs are a variation on OpenCourseWare ( university courses, created for free distribution on the Internet. MOOCs bypass the hazard in the past of digital courses going missing or being mislaid: they are online and always available. Nobody can mislay the content by accident.

The Khan Academy ( is one of the best-known popular MOOCs pioneers. It was founded in the United States in 2008 by Salman Khan, who quit his job as a hedge fund manager to run the business full time. Khan is academically highly accomplished – he has three degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard University. The Khan Academy targets mainly secondary school students and claims to have 5.5 million unique users a month. It is run as a not-for-profit and receives donations to keep it going.

It does this with a staff of just 37: proof of how much can be achieved when the power of the Internet is leveraged to pass on knowledge.

The Khan Academy platform greets readers with questions such as “What is the eccentricity of an ellipse?” or “What if there’s a negative exponent?” And if you do not know, you better get cracking doing their problem sets. Students can practice their math skills, answer other students’ questions or watch a video walk-through of the services on offer on the website. The main categories are math, science and economics, computer science, the humanities and help with preparing for various standardized tests such as the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test). There are over 4,000 videos on offer on the website.

“Each video is a digestible chunk, approximately 10 minutes long, and especially purposed for viewing on the computer,” the website states.

“I teach the way that I wish I was taught. The lectures are coming from me, an actual human being who is fascinated by the world around him,” states Khan.

MOOCs offer not just course materials, videos, readings and problem sets but also discussion forums for the students, professors/teachers and tutorial assistants to build a community. This is considered an ideal model for reaching students over great distances and in remote regions. So-called “open” educational resources are used and often no fees or tuition are charged.

The OpenCourseWare (OCW) ( project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) seeks to “publish all of our course materials online and make them widely available to everyone,” according to Dick K.P. Yue, Professor at MIT’s School of Engineering.

Through its website, it offers nearly all of MIT’s course content, a treasure trove from one of the top research universities in the world, a long-standing home for pioneers and innovators in science and technology.

By way of the Internet, anybody anywhere in the world can access this resource. The most visited courses online as of February 2013 included undergraduate “Introduction to Computer Science and Programming,” “Physics I: Classical Mechanics,” “Introduction to Electrical Engineering and Computer Science I,” “Principles of Microeconomics,” “Introduction to Algorithms,” and “Principles of Chemical Science.” There are 2,150 courses and so far 125 million visitors to the website.

Having access to the courses allows teachers to gain new insights into the subjects they teach and benefit from the impressive resources of MIT.

MIT also sees it as a way to aid people to tackle the big development issues of our time, including climate change and health problems such as cancer.

Other MOOCs providers include Peer-to-Peer University (, Udemy (, Coursera (, Udacity (, and
edX (, a not-for-profit partnership between Harvard and MIT to develop courses for interactive study on the Internet.

In the United Kingdom, the Open University ( and Futurelearn ( also offer online courses, as does Open2Study ( in Australia.

Boosting access to MOOCs presents a great business opportunity for Africa’s mobile phone entrepreneurs and its mushrooming information technology (IT) hubs (

“I view online learning as a rising tide that will lift all boats,” Anant Agarwal, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and president of edX, told The Financial Times. “It will not only increase access, it will also improve the quality of education at all our universities.”

All of this matters because it means Africans will increasingly have the tools to participate in the global marketplace of ideas and products and services on a more level playing field. By far the biggest obstacle to competing is the lack of timely information and knowledge about what is happening in the global economy. It is a frequent complaint, from the farmer desperate for the latest news on market prices and trends and innovations, to the strivers in the growing megacities of the continent who have their sights set on global success.

Published: May 2013


1) African Union’s High Level Panel on Science, Technology and Innovation. Website:

2) Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering: The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering is a new global engineering prize that will reward and celebrate an individual (or up to three individuals) responsible for a ground-breaking innovation in engineering that has been of global benefit to humanity. Website:

3) Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs: The Belfer Center is the hub of the Harvard Kennedy School’s research, teaching, and training in international security affairs, environmental and resource issues, and science and technology policy. Website:

4) A place to host MOOC news and information. Website:

5) OpenCourseWare Consortium: The OpenCourseWare Consortium is a collaboration of higher education institutions and associated organizations from around the world creating a broad and deep body of open educational content using a shared model.  Website:

6) Engineering the Future by Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School. Website:

7) Hiobo MoPC: Joining the ongoing push to drive down the price of personal computers in Africa is the latest offering from Mauritian information technology company, Hiobo. Website:

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London Edit

31 July 2013

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator. 

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© David South Consulting 2022

By David South Consulting

David South Consulting is an international development media and consulting service. Designing human development and health. Editor and writer of Southern Innovator.



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