MOOCs take off in Rwanda: Accreditation, sustainability and quality issues

 I am happy to be back to blogosphere, after months of silence, and excited to see that MOOCs are now taking off in Rwanda. I have been following closely the MOOC initiative by Generation Rwanda and its Kepler initiative (Leber 2013, Bartholet 2013 and O’Neil 2013). These articles received many comment, but I would like to add my contribution as a Rwandan, and a MOOC researcher. For those who have not yet come across my profile, I am researching Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Open Educational Resources (OER) for Widening Participation in Rwandan Higher Education. My research interest is not accidental. It was inspired by learning experience, face-to-face, on radio and online. A bit of my educational background is covered in my earlier blog entry. My professional profile can be found here. This blog post is the first of several entries written as response to issues raised by O’Neil’s article and the comments it triggered. It addresses accreditation, sustainability and quality of conventional higher education in Rwanda.

To start with the important questions raised in the article: 1. Will it earn the trust of employers and of others in higher education? My response to this question is that I learned English via radios and this did not prevent my learning to be recognized. When I took the secondary education national exams for being eligible to the students’ loan, English in which I had mainly studied on the radio was the exam in which I had the best results. The National University of Rwanda confirmed my achievement in English language learning by deciding that I did not have to spend a year learning this language as did most of students who joined the university the same academic year. These Rwandan institutions’ practices of recognizing my prior learning was accurately conducted. Otherwise, I would not have won the awards which enabled me to continue my postgraduate/graduate education in the USA and UK. I share part of my personal life in attempt to challenge espoused theories of how people learn tend to be promoted globally. However, most of those theories are based on results of studies conducted in settings that are not representative of the entire world realities. Accounts of personal experience often raise skepticism. I would be happy to release some of my records to anyone who would like to verify them and help us understand better the diversity of successful learning.

Competence-based assessment practices and qualification, like the ones Generation Rwanda is planning to adopt, which had been indeed a tradition in some Rwandan institutions, need to be invigorated to reward accomplishment of enthusiastic informal learners and encourage the self-guided learning culture.

The question about whether Rwandan students will be able to adjust to the Western language rate will be addressed in my second blog entry dedicated to MOOCs, language issues and barriers to education. As for the question “Is the Kepler model sustainable over the long term?”, it raises one of the challenges OER and MOOC researchers and practitioners are trying to address. The quest for a sustainable education based on OER and MOOCs is underway. I am highly optimistic that Kepler and Generation Rwanda’s practices will contribute enormously in this endeavor.

Another point that deserves discussion relates to the note that quality of higher education in Rwanda falls below western standard. Of course it does. However, it would be over simplistic and misleading to stop here. We should understand this phenomenon by analysing what cause it and working on them. My paper “Evaluation of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) From a Learner’s Perspective” that will be presented at the 12th European Conference on eLearning later this month discussed two of the barriers to quality education in Rwanda: The lack of access to learning resources and the shortage of teachers. Among the most marked disparities a Rwandan student notices when s/he get the chance to experience western education is the over-abundance of access to learning resources. Classroom interaction becomes more productive, when students had access to learning materials, learned them and come to class to exchange what they think of the materials they have already learned. This is what even enabled Western professors to flip classes. With the lack of access Rwandan students face, it is unrealistic to expect the western interaction from them.  In addition to this, Rwandan students have always struggled to learn in foreign language many of western student have the privilege to possess as a native language. This is the topic of my second blog entry which responds to O’Neil’s article and comments that followed. Aware of circumstance in which Rwandan students learn, I personally commend their accomplishment and encourage them achieve more.

 The shortage of access to learning materials makes the teacher the most accessible source of information for most students. The more learning resources become more available in Rwanda, the less the students’ dependence on the teacher will become. High interaction in western societies was enabled by the ubiquity of internet connectivity and students’ access to learning resources. Without such access in Western schools, students’ interaction might still be there but it would hardly be that rich educational exchange we have in those schools. Unfortunately, this is the fact that many people tend to disregard if they ever think about it. The shortage of higher education teachers’ also leads to similar difficulties. Rwandan class might have up to 200 students as opposed to western ones that have one tenth of this size (20 students on average). Some western classes can even have as few as 10 students. O’Neil also did very well by including a quotation that highlights the lack of microphones and loud speakers which make very few students able to listen to the teacher. If we want to build the western class size in Rwanda, we will have to exclude thousands of students from the system, which would probably create more social problems. Inclusive education, in which the learning of the rich is shared with the poor, and that of the poor shared with the rich should be promoted. Maybe, if the western class size was promoted in Rwanda, I would not be writing this blog entry, because I would probably been excluded. Despite the desperate undergraduate education conditions, many Rwandan students adjust to the western education rhythm when they are offered the opportunity to take their post graduate education there. Unfortunately, the higher education enrolment in Rwanda is still very low. O’Neil claims it to be 6.6 in 2011(we would have appreciated it if s/he had provide a link to this source of this information).

Concluding my comment on this post, I would like to commend the job that is being done by Kepler and Generation Rwanda. Their practices are certainly contributing to a better understanding of MOOCs and how they can be used in developing countries. I would encourage more practices, including those conceived from the developing country’s perspective. Maybe, people can innovate new models to include the 2,646 who were not admitted in the Kepler and Generation Rwanda MOOC initiative. The approval from the Ministry of Education and Higher Education Council is also a good indicator of Rwandan higher education decision makers’ commitment to improve access to and quality of higher education. I am curious to see the link between my current research findings and what Kepler and Generation Rwanda will find out. I will write another blog entry on the common mistake on the current MOOC literature, as a note of caution to the researchers involved in the Kepler and Generation Rwanda’s initiative. I am willing to share two papers I have so far written on MOOCs as well as the results of my pilot study with these researchers, the Ministry of Education, Rwanda Education Board, Higher Education Council and academics in Rwandan higher education institutions who are interested in reading about MOOCs.

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