By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
I read a story on the website of a South African newspaper called Business Day Live about an upcoming, multi-campus, technology-driven African university that is touted to be “Africa’s rival to Harvard” and Yale universities. As a US-based university teacher who hopes to return to the continent someday to give back to the community, the story piqued my curiosity.
The proposed university, which will start next year in Mauritius, is the brainchild of a consortium of 25 Pan-African universities, and is being funded by several corporate giants on the African continent such as Coca-Cola, IBM, Boston Consulting Group, Standard Chartered Bank, Equity Bank Kenya, etc. No Nigerian corporation is mentioned in the story as a sponsor of the proposed university, but Nigeria is one of the four other countries where the university’s campus will be located. The other countries are Kenya, South Africa, and Morocco.
I thought the spread of the campuses was thoughtful. The Nigerian campus will cater to students from the West African sub region. The Kenyan campus will be the hub for East Africans. The South African campus will attract students from Southern Africa, while the Moroccan campus will serve students in North Africa. The Mauritius campus is strategic because students from the Indian Ocean islands of Seychelles, Madagascar, Comoros, and Reunion, who are often disaffiliated from the rest of the continent, will have a chance to enroll in the school.
It will cost $100 million to build each of the 5 universities, which are projected to enroll 10,000 students each at a time.
The initiative was birthed by the African Leadership Unleashed, which was founded by a Ghanaian-born, Stanford University-educated entrepreneur by the name of Fred Swaniker. Swanker, who lives in South Africa, co-founded a Johannesburg-based secondary school called the African Leadership Academy (ALA), which trains bright but poor students from all over Africa and helps place them in America’s Ivy League universities. Business Day Live says “more than 80 percent” of the high school’s graduates get placements in America’s elite universities every year.
That’s certainly impressive by any standard. But Swaniker says it’s time for Africa to have its own Harvard and Yale so that talented high school graduates don’t have to leave the continent to realize their dreams. When this project takes off, ALA’s students would no longer need to go to Harvard or Yale after their secondary school education; their Harvard or Yale will be on the African continent. The assumption is, if talented Africans get world-class education on the African continent, along with well-paying jobs upon graduation, they are unlikely to flee to America and Europe as economic refugees.
But the university that is being proposed isn’t a traditional one. Its instructional model will largely be online. Swaniker says he derived inspirational strength to discard traditional models of instruction from of the success that the African Leadership Academy achieved teaching computer science to its students in 2012 through technology and peer instruction. The school, he said, decided to encourage students to download a free, open-access online course in computer science from Stanford University. (These free online courses are called Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs.) The students guided and aided each other through the free online course.
“Within a few weeks, these students were learning how to write computer programs, completely independent of a ‘live’ teacher! Fast forward to sometime in March 2013. I was sitting with one of our students, a young woman from Morocco called Zineb. Not knowing which classes she was taking, I asked her what her favorite class at ALA that term was. Without hesitation, she said “my computer science class!” How is that possible, I thought?—that’s the one without the live teacher! She said, yes—that was her favorite class at ALA. I asked her how she rated the previous class with the ‘live’ teacher – before we started this new method. She rated it a 6 out of 10. I asked how she rated the online, group class she had taken. She rated it 9.5 out of 10. That just blew me away,” Swaniker wrote on the website of African Leadership Unleashed.
He wants to replicate the success of his experiment on a multi-campus, Africa-wide university level. “We want to completely reinvent what universities look like. Building universities on the old model, with expensive faculty, will take too long,” Swaniker told the South African Business Day Live.
And this is where I have a slight problem with this project. First, you can’t claim to want to be Harvard’s rival when you will just be a glamorous moocher of other people’s MOOCs. (A moocher is someone who begs for free stuff from others). A school founded on a model of academic parasitism won’t go too far.
Second, the instructional model of the school severely imposes limits on the kinds of courses it can offer. For instance, you can’t teach medicine, engineering, pharmacy, etc.—professions Africa needs to develop— through an online-only instructional model. Even the inventors of MOOCs never fail to remind us that online education is a supplement to, not a substitute for, classroom education. I am skeptical that an ambitious university such as the one ALU is proposing to build, can rely entirely on an online-only model of education. Maybe I am biased because I am a brick-and-mortar university teacher.
ALU’s university may yet succeed in unleashing some of Africa’s potential, but it has no potential to be in league with America’s Ivy Leagues. Certainly not with its newfangled, parasitic pedagogical model.