Free university is already a cyber-reality

 By Thinyane Molelle, Founding Head: NHLS Academy

The business model and funding norms of higher education require urgent review for the greater public good. The massification, marketisation and monetisation of the university calls for an alternative way to think about free higher education for all. I believe that digital technologies, a networked institutional framework, connected pedagogy and a digital educational policy can produce low-cost universities.

The 1997 government white paper on education says: “Distance education and resource-based learning, based on the principles of open learning, have a crucial role to play in meeting the challenge to expand access, diversify the body of learners and enhance quality in a context of resource constraint. They enable learning to take place in different contexts, at a multiplicity of sites, at the learner’s own pace, using many media and a variety of learning and teaching approaches.”

Can you envision these propositions becoming a tuition-free mega-digital university? It could be named the Oliver Tambo Free University. It could enrol all South Africans anywhere, at any time. Let us ignore for the moment the practical problems facing such a roll-out, including bandwidth availability, and we can take a blue-sky approach.

There are already renowned examples comparable to such a free university. A consortium of 10 Dutch universities established the Dutch Digital University in 2001, and the African Virtual University was initially opened by the World Bank in Washington in 1997 and later moved to Nairobi in 2002. Others include the Virtual University for Europe, the Shanghai Television University and the Open Education Resource University.

The Oliver Tambo Free University could be a towering amalgam of the third-generation universities mentioned in paragraph 38 of the Higher Education Act of 1997.

Professor emeritus Johan Gooitzen Wissema, in his book Towards the Third-Generation University: Managing the University in Transition (2009), describes these universities as commercial and international hubs of expertise that sustain themselves without government funding, support or control. They can be multicultural organisations conducting transdisciplinary research, and doing business through university institutes.

These universities would commercialise their know-how by undertaking scientific research and education projects, and would collaborate with companies on research and development projects, provide professional support to organisations and get involved with techno-starters – knowledge-intensive companies that develop new products, processes or services based on new technology.

They could also get indirect state funding from state-funded research contracts or through state and industry allowances.

Third-generation universities have the potential to accommodate two billion students for free. A massive open online course (Mooc) is defined by the Oxford Online Dictionary as “a course of study made available over the internet without charge to a very large number of people”.

With Moocs come with Moods – massive open online degrees…

As the result of the popularity of and boom in these free online courses, 2012 was dubbed the Year of the Moocs by the New York Times. Among them are Coursera, Udacity, edX and Udemy.

Connectivist learning theory, or connectivism, was introduced in 2005 by George Siemens. The underlying theory of learning in connectivism comes from a book by Gilles Deleuze and Pierre-Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1987), which develops the concept of “rhizomatic clonal growth and propagation”.

Dave Cormier used this botanical term to develop rhizomatic learning theory, and coined the term Mooc in 2008 to describe the first such course, by Siemens and Stephen Downes, covering connectivism and connective knowledge.

These founders foresaw that the “Moocs and Moods phenomenon” would generate a rapid propagation of knowledge by means of the internet. They calculated that 150 participants could become, in very little time, a Mooc phenomenon of 11 175 dyadic relationships. The current xMooc (extended Mooc) diploma –operations management, offered by Alison – has an enrolment of 39 368 students who, together, can amount to 774 million pair relationships.

The current white paper on post-school education (2014) states: “The department of higher education and training will work towards a post-school distance education [model], based on open learning principles. This landscape will complement the traditional campus-based provision. It will consist of a network of education providers supported by learning support centres and/or connectivity for students.

“Such a network will make available a wide range of learning opportunities to potential students that are closer to their homes and at times appropriate to their contexts.

“Other advantages include the development and availability of well-researched, high-quality national learning resources made available as open education resources, collaborative development of learning resources, more efficient use of the existing infrastructure and increasing emphasis on independent study as preparation for subsequent lifelong learning.”

All the requirements to reduce the cost of higher education are in place. Third-generation university features are already sprouting across our medieval university landscape, in the form of business schools and short courses targeting national and international markets, among others. Our universities are already participating in national and international consortia such as the International University Consortium for Executive Education.

Is it not time for the ivory tower to fall and this grail to be embraced?

Thinyane Frank Molelle is a member of the Mooc-SA Group and a signatory to the Cape Town Open Education Declaration. He will speaking at our upcoming Learning & Development Conference on the MOOCsification and MOODsification of Personal Skills Planning. The Learning & Development Conference will be taking place on the 16 and 17 September 2015 at The Hyatt Regency, Rosebank, Johannesburg. To learn more about this event – click here now.

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