Could MOOCs be the answer to free education?

By Mauritz Venter

Higher Education and Training Minister, Blade Nzimande, announced on 19 September 2016 that free tertiary education would not be possible. Following this announcement various student bodies around the country have been up in arms, protesting for the right to free education enshrined in the Freedom Charter. The South African Bill of Rights states, “Everyone has the right to a basic education, including adult basic education; and to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible.”

This implies the state should, through various means, make further education accessible to those who qualify for tertiary education. Even though South Africa allocates more of its annual budget (R297.5 Billion for 2016/17 year) to education than any other department, demand is clearly too high for tertiary institutions to handle.

Could MOOCs be the answer?

A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course, where education material and lectures are made available through digital means. This is open to anyone who qualifies, with virtually no limit to attendance, depending on the additional support required for students. Organisations such as already provide MOOCs at no costs for basic online courses, whilst recognised certifications have been launched on this platform by elite tertiary education institutions like Harvard (in the form of HarvardX), TU Delft or Princeton (in the form of PrincetonX), and can be attended at a fraction of the costs of completing the same course at the institution. This begs the question of whether it would not be more efficient to develop mass learning centres across the country, where potential students could access content such as lectures, course notes and textbooks digitally, as opposed to competing for the limited seats at one of our top institutions? Those who want the ‘campus experience’ would still pay the fees to study at a renowned institution, whilst those without the funds, or who are unable to attain a bursary, would still have access to learning through an online environment.

Costs and benefits of MOOCs

The costs of MOOCs include physical infrastructure requirement, like learning centres and technology, as well as facilitators at these centres who assist with the functionality of the learning platform, or tend to any technical queries or errors that may occur. The credibility of courses is also a contentious factor, and relates to a second major cost aspect. Students would need to complete assessments at the same standard of those attending tertiary institutions, and under the same stringent conditions to ensure no cheating or fraudulent actions take place. This could, however, be achieved in conjunction with existing tertiary institutions, should they be willing to accommodate MOOC learners from time to time. The benefits of MOOCs include the mass nature of this form of learning, meaning courses can be made accessible to virtually anyone with a computer and internet access. Developing MOOC learning centres across the nation will allow students to study close to home, removing the concern of accommodation at an institution. Whilst traditional learning is stringently structured in terms of lecture times, students learning through MOOCs would create their own learning schedule and could shape this around time used for part time work or other activities such as caring for a family. The key benefit is the reduced costs associated to MOOC learning, due to the scalable nature and ability to re-use content whilst it remains relevant.

Completion concerns

A concern often raised around MOOCs is the high drop-out rate (completion rate of below 13%). This was, however, the experience of students enrolled in MOOCs in Developed Nations. The research coming from Developing Nations shows a stark contrast, with approximately 49% of students receiving certification, and approximately 79% of students completing the course. These figures came from a study by The Technology and Social Change Group of University of Washington Information School, titled ‘The Advancing MOOCs for Development Initiative – An examination of MOOC usage for professional workforce development outcomes in Colombia, the Philippines, and South Africa.’ The study further found that low and middle income students were the primary users of MOOCs, comprising over 80% of enrolled users. The majority of users (over 80%) only had basic or intermediate levels of ICT literacy, proving that MOOCs do not require high level ICT literacy. The study further examined the perspectives of government institutions, potential employers and academic institutions, and found that employers held positive views towards MOOCs, and that MOOCs were being considered a viable means of education by government, more than academic institutions.


Through its assessment and evaluation of Digital Transformation across sectors, Frost & Sullivan believes that whilst MOOCs may not solve the tertiary education crisis in South Africa, it may go a long way in bridging the education gap between the wealthy and financially challenged. The use of MOOCs, and their ability to produce accredited graduates through digital means, can bring our nation closer to a reality of free and fair education, though not in its traditional form. In a world where technology is changing every aspect of our lives, would it not be viable to experiment with the use of MOOCs in achieving universal low cost tertiary education?

Mauritz Venter is a research analyst for Frost & Sullivan Information & Communication Technologies (ICT).

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