Digitising higher education: challenges for low income countries

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May 1, 2020

...realising the full benefits needs to be associated with a bundle of institutional reforms, including organisational and cultural changes and nurturing the required digital skills.

The impact of ICT and Internet access on the education sector, particularly higher education, in the last 20 years has been enormous. For students, broadband Internet access offers opportunities to improve personal circumstances, including better access to learning materials, software tools, distance learning and job markets.

For educators and researchers, it facilitates international collaboration, improves access to teaching and research resources, extends outreach to distant communities and engages communities in lifelong learning programs. On the administrative side, access to broadband improves productivity, connectivity with other government entities and potentially leads to significant reductions in administrative costs.

Ubiquitous high speed connectivity is also changing the nature of research. While research has always been a networked activity where scholars build on and improve the work of others, digital technologies have enabled findings to be disseminated more rapidly, making research more productive. The number of networked devices, highspeed networks and increased computing power has enabled the collection and analysis of large amounts of data that was unimaginable 20 years ago.

A changing landscape

Similar to other industries, universities are slowly undergoing digital transformations far beyond mainstream computerisation of administration and multimedia distance education. Some of the new innovative applications include: using advanced analytics to analyse and improve student performance and retention, applying artificial intelligence (AI) in admission processes to ensure fairness and reduce human bias, automatic grading, and using AI to power digital assistants and adaptive online learning customised for student profiles (Exhibit 1). Augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are also starting to be used to teach complex topics, such as anatomy, enhancing student understanding and engagement. These technologies not only improve learning experiences but also solve existing problems and bottlenecks in educational and administration resources.

Exhibit 1: Applications of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning in education [Source: Network Strategies]
AI solutions. [Source: Network Strategies]

However, the rapid development of digital technologies and the continuing need for learning and training over professional life-times are also reshaping the role of the university itself. A number of alternative delivery modes have started to emerge over the last decade, including massive open online courses (MOOCs), ‘learn now-pay later’ courses, alternative digital credentialing and bootcamps. As these models continue to gain popularity and become increasingly recognised by employers, higher education providers are adapting their course offerings as well. Physical resources such as books and scientific journals are becoming increasingly digitised, with libraries shifting books into basements and converting halls into spaces for collaborative and project based work. eVersity, a fully online university originating from the University of Arkansas system, is now fully reliant on open educational resources (OER) for course delivery. While these trends may never substitute traditional campus universities, they address many skill gaps in the labour market and enable provision of affordable education at scale.

Challenges facing low income countries

Most of these developments are taking place in more advanced economies. With their potential to improve quality and access to education at lower cost, these technologies are also desperately needed in low income countries. However, adopting these technologies appears far beyond the reach of many countries due to the lack of essential digital infrastructure. This includes inadequate broadband connectivity in educational institutions, bottlenecks in the domestic telecommunications infrastructure and limited international Internet capacity. The digital gap between low and high income countries in terms of access is best indicated by the international Internet capacity per user, with the median being around 10kbit/s in Africa compared to over 90kbit/s per user in North America (Exhibit 2). Many of these low income countries are either land locked or small island countries with no direct access to cost-efficient Internet capacity via submarine cables.

Exhibit 2: Median international Internet capacity per Internet user in 2018 [Source: ITU]
Median international Internet capacity per Internet user in 2018 [Source: ITU]

Sustainable business models

These countries, as well as many other developing countries, have used a variety of financial models to fund ICT infrastructure, including government finance (largely from international loans), private investments and international donor funding, public-private partnerships and even engaging local communities in construction work. However, sourcing the capital and building the infrastructure is often less problematic than maintaining connectivity.

There are many international precedents, such as in the Pacific Islands, where donor funding was used initially to establish Internet connections in educational institutions. However, funding for ongoing costs has proven to be uncertain in many cases. Public universities in low income countries are typically teaching only institutions which rely on government funding for operation. Many of these institutions are either tuition free or demand relatively low tuition fees from residents. Due to their limited financial resources, such institutions are likely to rely on governments or third parties to sustain connectivity. Sustainable financial models for operating costs are key to success.

Leveraging economies of scale and having an efficient national strategy is instrumental in these contexts. Higher education institutions need to negotiate favorable rates with vendors by collaborating with others seeking similar devices and services. One way to achieve this is by establishing or extending the scope of National Research and Education Networks (NRENs). An advantage of such networks is that governments can aggregate demand and negotiate lower data traffic rates for universities. They also facilitate interconnection with international universities.

To date public-private partnerships (PPPs) and cross-sector collaboration were mostly limited to local partners and often unsystematic to say the least, with examples of support including device donation, establishing satellite Internet terminals in rural areas[and IT training. However, to meet the connectivity challenge, PPPs need to extend to global scale. Much of the drive for spreading educational technology is corporatised, such as Apple pushing iPads into schools, Google’s online classroom and Microsoft’s education tools. As such, these companies may be motivated to develop the digital infrastructure to stimulate demand for their products and services. Companies, such as Google and Facebook, have already shown interest in developing innovative solutions to bring Internet to undeserved areas, such as Google’s Loon Project and Facebook’s Aquila. NRENs can play a critical role in identifying and collaborating with international partners to develop models for the cost efficient use of services.

In order for these potential investments to take place, countries must have national broadband plans and ICT regulations that address the key barriers to the deployment of high-speed networks and services in higher education. Educational institutions also need to have clear and efficient plans as to how to leverage broadband connectivity. Priorities should be set to meet the most pressing needs such as ensuring access and equity to foster inclusive higher education, developing links to employment and establishing learning management systems. Deploying digital systems within budget is also critical for success. The most expensive and sophisticated solutions are not necessarily the ones most fit for purpose, particularly in a world full of free and open source resources. And finally, it is important to note that the mere availability of technology is not a sufficient condition for its uptake and successful use. As in any digital transformation project, realising the full benefits needs to be associated with a bundle of institutional reforms, including organisational and cultural changes and nurturing the required digital skills.