Rethinking Online Education

For most visitors the African country of Tanzania means wildlife. Range Rovers, packed with tourists, guides and drivers, the latter often students from Dar es Salaam, gather in endless queues at the entrance of Ngorongoro with its rhinos, lions and elephants. Some tourists visit the historical Stone Town on the island of Zanzibar afterwards or combine dolphin watching with a taste of Mvita Ali’s incredible seafood buffet on a sandbank at Kizimkazi.Dar es Salaam: not enough software engineers

But virtually no one takes much time to voluntarily visit Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s busy trade hub at the coast with its 3 or maybe 4 million inhabitants. The port city is big, loud and not exactly the most beautiful harbor town at the Indian Ocean. While most tourists avoid the city, businessmen do not. A lot of European, American and especially Chinese companies are located in Dar es Salaam. Entrepreneurs from India and the Middle East add to the business community. Banking and financial services like micro-finance, mobile communication, logistics and other businesses thrive and grow comparably much faster than in Europe and even many parts of Asia.

 Dar es Salaam: not enough software engineers

The bottleneck for this growth is education. A lack of technically skilled workers leads to open positions across corporations in Tanzania. Without more graduates, degree holders and skilled specialists for IT, risk management or actuarial science, the economical capital of Tanzania can’t compete with the West, China or other African nations like Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.

Dar es Salaam houses seven universities, among them the Open University of Tanzania and the International Medical and Technological University. The quality of these universities is under dispute though. Even the best one, the University of Dar es Salaam ranks among the worst universities worldwide in terms of research and scientific excellence. As well, these universities do not offer enough study courses in Information and communications technology (ICT) that are in high demand now. And higher education at a university is not available for everyone in a country that is as poor as Tanzania.

Internet connections in Tanzania are comparably good though, given that Dar es Salaam is a landing point of the submarine high-speed Seacom cable, connecting it directly with Mumbai and Marseille.

So, one plausible approach to tackle the issue of higher education is by MOOCs. That is why the World Bank sets up pilot projects for IT and ICT education in Sub-Sahara Africa as a part of their “New Economy Skills for Africa Program – ICT” or short: NESAP-ICT.

Seacom Cable supplies Tanzania with high speed internet (submarine)In Tanzania, the World Bank designated Dar es Salam as a knowledge hub for SMART skills – SMART being an abbreviation for Software, Mobile Applications, Research and Technology. The next step was to define the critical success factors for a MOOC about IT in Tanzania, like a real impact on employment chances or the need to get credits.

   MOOCs are possible: Seacom Cable

(here: undersea near Zanzibar) supplies Tanzania with high speed internet

The Washington-based World Bank choose an American company, Coursera, as its partner, not a MOOC-provider from the EMEA-region like iversity. Together with its partner, the World Bank will design the MOOC over the summer of 2013.  Starting MOOCs in East-Africa might have another preferable effect: stopping the brain-drain from Tanzanian students to Europe and America, where they often stay after graduation.

What the World Bank's EduTech blog article about MOOCs in Afrrica does not mention: the opportunity to take courses outside the “knowledge hub”, to take part in a MOOC anywhere in Tanzania. A huge advantage in a country where many of the most gifted young women and men work at least part-time or for some months outside the commercial capital in the tourism regions to make a living. Especially in a country like Tanzania it makes sense to reach out for prospective students where they are today, not where universities are located for historical reasons. Thus MOOCs can make a difference in developing Tanzania’s economic future.



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American journalist and author A.J. Jacobs is mostly known for putting himself through bizarre self-experiments. Jacobs spent a year living according to biblical rules and tried to become the smartest or healthiest person alive over the span of just a year. He also tried to outsource his whole life to his personal assistant in India, including marital disputes and reading bedtime stories to his children.

For his newest project the stunt journalist spent the last few months experimenting with eleven MOOCs at the same time.  He’s presenting the conclusion of his research on MOOCs in the New York Times article „Two Cheers for Web U!“.

Jacobs talks about Charles Darwin dolls, discussing economic inequality with Brazilian businessmen and a Japanese plan to assassinate movie star Charles Chaplin. The one thing he liked most about his classes, ranging from genetics over philosophy to cosmology: convenience and the option to tailor MOOCs to his learning behavior.

In keeping with the theme of higher education, Jacobs grades the MOOCs and their different aspects. The overall MOOC experience gets a B+ from Jacobs and he’s glad that he attended the courses. The advantages of MOOCS are obvious to him: They offer easy access to difficult topics and a convenient way for self-improvement and learning something new. And, to be able to take Harvard courses even if your home is in Senegal.   

What he didn’t like about the courses: The difficulty in American MOOCs to communicate with professors, who have to take care of thousands of students with just a small team. His advice: never try to become friends with the professor on Facebook.

Here at iversity, we agree that good communication between students and lecturers is one of the most important factors for a successful MOOC. Because of this, teacher-to-student communication is among the criteria for the jury of the MOOC Fellowship in evaluating the courses and awarding the fellowship.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of MOOCS and curious to make your own experiences, you can soon pre-enroll on iversity in the courses of the winners of the MOOC Fellowship. And if you’re interested in more of Jacobs work you can listen to him talk about his self-experiments on NPR.


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By Anna Meixler


Though standards in MOOC production exist, not all MOOCs are the same. Some courses thrive, with hundreds of thousands of active students – like Stanford University’s computer science courses in 2011. Others of similar quality fail, with few students watching course videos and taking tests to complete requirements.

Instructors of successful MOOCs plan diligently and partner with qualified institutions that provide technical, creative, and strategic support. Professors collaborate with experienced teams at specialized start-ups like iversity to not only launch MOOCs, but also ensure their success. Success lies in how MOOCS engage students, promoting community. This requires consistent effort from and interactions between professors and students.

Like in a traditional class, a professor designs his syllabus and writes homework assignments and tests. But he must adapt his teaching to the online medium. Lecturing thousands of students by video is vastly different from a few hundred in a lecture hall.

MOOC instructors divide material; rather than allotting 50-minutes for each subject, professors partition it into shorter clips. Instructors practice lecture scripts repeatedly. Successful instructors do so with unique obstacles in mind: they cannot respond to audience reactions, and also must lecture so that international listeners with different cultural backgrounds understand material.

While recording their videos, instructors polish monologues with partner organization support. These teams mark professors’ mistakes, editing them out. They help instructors navigate MOOC technicalities: computers, microphones, cameras, and lighting are coordinated to produce attention-grabbing videos. Teams also use animators to enliven content.

Professors and students must be active participants. Instructors, with guidance from their partner organizations, make platforms for discourse. They monitor and participate in class message boards, posting feedback and responding to student input. They give frequent assessments, making sure students grasp material.

Students engage in discussion threads, and, if inspired by course discussions, also create their own forums. Active students start Wiki pages with notes, hints and links to supplementary content. They often interact over Facebook and Skype, and give instructors critical course feedback. Professors present material but let students take center stage, discussing course themes on chat forums and Twitter.

Successful instructors are diligent with online forums. Productive exchanges are structured; 40.000 people cannot all participate in the same Google doc, as forum postings can grow chaotic. Professors divide students into groups, in which they discuss different topics in alternate forums. Regardless, message boards can fail if students post early then disengage, or enter discussions late and cannot catch up.

There is much work to be done after MOOC videos are recorded and tests are written. With professional partner institutions like  iversity, instructors create the structures necessary for high-impact courses.

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