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Online Learning in South Africa

Studying in cyberspace: it’s on the rise, but can it compete with on-campus instruction?

With the World Wide Web having long replaced the beloved canine as man’s best friend, anything from browsing shops’ shelves virtually to dating in cyberspace is a common reality today. And now, in 2013, increasingly, South Africans are turning to an online platform for education too.  

Of course, the notion of electronically supported instruction (known as e-learning) is far from new to our nation. Nor is studying by correspondence a particularly novel concept here – indeed, Unisa, one of the world’s largest distance learning institutions, has been operating on Mzansi shores for 140 years now. But intensive Internet-based education, which is a form of both of the above but is far richer and more interactive than either static computer-driven training or correspondence courses, has a much shorter history in SA.

While the phenomenon took off overseas in the early-1990s and has all but exploded internationally since (a recent survey indicated that 32% of higher education students in the US were taking at least one course online in 2011), it was only in around 2007 that it began to take hold locally and only now that we’re starting to see its proliferation. 

And the reason for this recent shift? Well, as Irena Wasserfall, who’s been instrumental in getting some of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) law modules on the Web, explains, “The old way still has merit, but there’s a whole other market you can reach by doing things online.”

That is, colleges are beginning to recognise that, thanks to the great flexibility that virtual education affords, by offering Web-based courses they can cater to all those out there who want to learn but simply don’t have the luxury of being able to take years off to study at a physical campus full-time. With online education as an option, such individuals can fit learning into a slot that suits them, and they can do so more affordably to boot, as the cost of textbooks, petrol and all the other extras is removed.

Not to mention, the option of enrolling virtually opens up new worlds for those living far away from higher learning academies.

“Suddenly, students sitting in places like Pofadder who’ve never even dreamed about going to a substantial university can connect with renowned institutions,” asserts Rob Paddock, co-managing director of GetSmarter, a leading Cape Town-based online education company that collaborates with prestigious bodies to present a diverse range of virtual courses (incidentally, the organisation has serviced over 18,000 learners since its inception in 2007, and these numbers are ramping up exponentially every year).

In essence, Internet-based instruction is going some way to democratising learning and improving access to sound education in SA. And this is precisely why we are seeing not only revered traditional universities, like UCT, embrace the Web, but even colleges that specialise in more practical training, like The International Hotel School (IHS), make the virtual move and launch productive online campuses.

But can it compete?

This is all well and good, and the prospects certainly seem promising, but the question still remains: Is online education as effective as conventional face-to-face instruction, and is it as likely to help people climb the ladder in the offline working world? Simply put, is studying virtually worth it?

A sizeable number of studies that have come out of the States and the UK strongly suggest ‘yes’. For example, in 2010, the US Department of Education reviewed the results of 50 relevant investigations and reported that, on average, the performance of students who study at least in part online tends to be superior to that of students who learn the same material in traditional environments, and this is particularly the case when a blended (combined) approach is adopted.

One potential reason for this finding is that, thanks to options like Skype and digital discussion forums that connect virtual communities of learners, cyber-courses (if designed well) can be even more engaging, enriched, interactive and supportive than their on-campus counterparts.

“Our students reckon that they have much more interaction with each other and with the course lecturers online than they would ever have sitting in a hall with 500 other learners,” says Rob, offering up a little slice of comfort for anyone who’s terrified that studying digitally means being left entirely alone in the scary world of cyberspace.

Plus, quite unlike correspondence courses, and even some contact-based programmes, that leave scholars feeling like they don’t know where to start or end, Web-based modules have the potential to be comparatively more monitored and well-organised, offering constant guidance to keep learners on track.

“Online courses are very structured; there are activities every week and a lecturer constantly following up, saying ‘tomorrow we’ll be doing this and that’, asking ‘how’s it going, do you need help’,” says Chanelle Steenberg, business development consultant for IHS, which made a number of online hospitality management courses available to the public in mid-2013. “You’re definitely not left on your own.”

Then, of course, there’s the fact that with advances in technology and the vast possibilities that exist on the Internet, virtual educational content can be far richer and more dynamic (think animations, videos and the sort) than anything that can be created in the ‘real’ world.

The holes in the Net

But the picture isn’t only pretty and positive. For one, all of the above only holds true for online programmes that have been well constructed. A poorly planned digital course is as bad as the worst of all distance modules, so it’s important to pick your virtual provider carefully.

Not to mention, studying via the Web has its drawbacks too. Technology and the Internet can be daunting at best, completely unreliable at worst. Plus, no digital learning environment will ever be able to replace the kind of fun, vibrant student experience that physical university campuses offer, and despite all the chit-chat and communication that can be done in cyberspace, online learners are bound to miss real-world human contact at some point.

Finally, there’s not as much benefit in taking a course that’s not taken all that seriously by the people doing the hiring, promoting and firing, and there are still a few old-school employers that are rather opposed to the mysterious, contemporary concept of being taught through the Net. However, both Rob and Chanelle stress that most of the big bosses today are very receptive to qualifications earned this way (particularly if they’re accredited by a reputable institution), and this potential issue is certainly a small, dwindling one.

At the end of the day then, which learning mode wins out really comes down to a matter of personal preference, at least for those who have the luxury of choice. As for those who are pushed to take the distance learning route, well, they can take great comfort in the fact that there’s now another promising option available to keep ‘connected’ with new knowledge.

Studying online through GetSmarter or The International Hotel School

Those keen to enrol for a virtual course with GetSmarter can consult the company’s website (Getsmarter.co.za) or contact them on +27 (0) 21 447 7565 or at info@getsmarter.co.za. Enquiries about The International Hotel School’s online programmes can be directed to Chanelle Steenberg on +27 (0) 21 555 6000 or via chanelles@hotelschool.co.za.

By Dayle Kavonic

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Read more about another growing virtual phenomenon: online dating in South Africa.

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