E-learning makes further education a reality for tens of thousands of Africans
Zuhur Yasin has never been to the United States, but she holds a bachelor's degree from an American university. Part of Yasin's studies in Somaliland, a self-declared independent country in Somalia, were spent in a classroom, lined with computers equipped with webcams and microphones.
The 29-year-old watched videos and took part in live virtual classes at Indiana University as part of her journalism programme at the University of Hargeisa.
The African Virtual University (AVU), an intergovernmental organisation, connected Yasin with Indiana University. The AVU says it has used virtual learning to train 43,000 students since its creation in 1997. Last year, it announced 29 new distance-learning centres like the one Yasmin used to take part in seminars 13,000km away.
Professors use programmes and apps including Skype and WhatsApp to communicate with students, but classes are taught using special software. The AVU may make lectures accessible on mobile phones, which would tap into Africa's estimated 112 million smartphones.
Like Yasin, many students in sub-Saharan Africa are looking for opportunities to attend university. In 2008, the region had the lowest university attendance in the world, with just 6 per cent of secondary school leavers advancing to higher education - well below the world average of 26 per cent, according to Unesco.
Last week the African Union opened the eLearning Africa conference on ICT for development, education and training at its headquarters in Addis Ababa with the aim of closing that gap and nurturing the human resources necessary for economic development.
Rebecca Stromeyer, founder of eLearning Africa, says: "Now is the time when technology can help to entrench the progress many African countries have made in education. If the right decisions are taken now, they will help to sustain long-term economic growth."
Experts say online learning tools can connect Africa's students to massive open online courses (MOOCs) such as Coursera, an education platform that provides free virtual tuition from some of the world's top universities. In March, the AVU enrolled 1,698 African students in its first MOOC, which explored using technology to enrich learning.
Mark West, a mobile learning expert at Unesco, says: "[Virtual learning] is a portal into educational opportunities that, frankly, hadn't existed before, and some of those opportunities - if you can afford the broadband connection and the hardware to use that connection - are free. For really self-motivated learners, it's remarkable."
Virtual learning is an ideal solution to the barriers that face African students in accessing university education, according to Bakary Diallo, rector of the AVU. Taking classes online can address some of the bigger challenges for the continent, he says. "In Africa, the need for education is so important. Poverty, violence, extremism - I think the root of these problems is lack of education."
The AVU partners with dozens of African universities and foreign institutions to help students get degrees in ICT, maths and science. Starting next year, it will offer its own degrees, but for now it simply links students to local and regional universities. Some programmes are taught completely online, while others require attendance at classes and practical assessment at nearby campuses.
Africa's politicians are awakening to the potential of virtual learning. So far, 19 African countries have signed a charter that establishes the AVU as an intergovernmental organisation and the AU has prioritised virtual learning in its long-term development strategy .
But with many parts of Africa facing irregular power supply and poor internet access, Diallo accepts that it will take some time for virtual learning to be rolled out across the continent.