Is Online Learning the Future of Higher Education in South Africa?

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Student online learning on their laptop

Authors: Dr Aradhana Ramnund-Mansingh, with Dianne Souls and Nikita Reddy

Slow and steadily, global education prepared for a staged transition into online learning. The defined time frame was a decade in order to maximise efficiencies and tweak technology to suit the makeup of the digital natives. This 10-year preparation was suddenly fast-tracked in a space of two to 10 weeks, as structures and curricula of higher education were flipped on their head.

While in South Africa, public higher education saw a suspension of all courses and programmes for a period of 10 weeks in order to train staff on online platforms and teaching models, as well as the transition of existing curricula to online, private higher education seamlessly transitioned with no time lost in the academic year. MANCOSA investigates the growing claims that the future of higher education in the country may be online study options.

What is online learning?

Online learning is a modern educational approach where students and teachers follow a structured curriculum programme using advanced information technology that is mediated via the Internet. Modes of instruction include platforms like virtual study portals, apps and social media. Students are not required to attend on-campus classes and so are able to participate in this method of learning from a distance provided they have suitable hardware and software to facilitate the mode of instruction.

In many international higher education institutions, there have always been options of online platforms readily available, but academics preferred physical student interaction. Therefore, subsequent to the onset of COVID-19, they were able to seamlessly make use of these existing resources.

South Africa, on the other hand, has predominantly face-to-face classes. In public higher education systems, these include some first-year classes of 1500 students, packed into lecture halls, which seat a maximum of 400-700 students. COVID-19 has created new-found respect for the term online learning as meetings, training sessions, social events, empowerment activities and facilitation of lectures have become synonymous with the words Zoom, MS Teams and webinars. Formal education programmes, short courses and skills modules are all conducted online. Students can view material at their leisure, take assessments and obtain certificates of competence on completion.

What is the difference between online and distance learning?

The phrases “online learning” (e-Learning) and “distance learning” are often used interchangeably, but are misunderstood and are completely separate components of learning. The difference stems from the location, interaction and the purpose of events. The figure below illustrates the differences in the two definitions and the impact on the learner.

Differences between online learning and distance learning

Why the future of education has gone digital

While a blended learning approach existed globally, the preference was for face-to-face learning. In South Africa, with the historic gaps in education and language barriers, the face-to-face approach is beneficial. However, with large classes and the lack of university infrastructure to manage these, online options may be more suitable.

Why online study options are growing in popularity

Academics agree that the global reality, as indicated by McKinsey surveys in 2019 and 2020, forecast a predominantly individual classroom experience by 2030. These included collaborative platforms which would allow individuals to study from any location. The best tutors, virtual experience lessons and gamified learning experiences will be the order of the educational day. Workplaces will transition to virtual spaces and gig economies will allow the greatest minds to share their expertise with diverse organisations globally.

Historical inequality of education poses challenges

It is difficult to benchmark South Africa globally especially with regard to education. Firstly, while the world continued to embark on readying themselves for a 4IR (Fourth Industrial Revolution) classroom in 2030, South Africa found itself trying to equalise systems in the aftermath of Apartheid. The struggle for educational equality continues as the numbers of under-resourced rural schools have not decreased almost three decades into democracy. Currently, the challenge to improve the curriculum continues.

Pre-COVID-19, the process towards 4IR trends and the 10-year online education plan in line with the rest of the world, were not high on the agenda for South Africa. With current bleak unemployment statistics at 31% and expected to increase to 36% by December 2020, and an existing reality that over 1 400 000 South Africans aged 18-24 meet the requirements of post-school education but are unable to study due to the lack of funds (Statistics SA); one begs to question: Is the future of education in South Africa, digital?

COVID-19 accelerates online education

A pandemic that has gutted world economies and impacted people physically and emotionally, has been the best possible driver for improvement in an education system rife with challenges. At some stage in the near future, we will embark on a post-COVID-19 journey and debrief. The challenge of things returning to “the way they were” remains. Public higher education confirms that a blended approach is necessary as practicals and lab work are required for STEM modules and programmes.

The reality and challenges of a fully online programme are that of the socio-economic background of the majority of the students. Students do not have access to infrastructure such as digital hardware, library resources, and the most important, data connectivity. Proper consideration needs to be given to students who live in geographic areas that do not support data connectivity infrastructure as yet, as well as the likely choice of spending R15 on 500mb of data or a loaf of bread.

MANCOSA’s blended digital approach transforms learning

Consideration must be given to the choice of synchronous learning (live online meetings when the whole class or smaller groups get together) and asynchronous (instruction and learning that is available for the student to manage on their own time). MANCOSA offers students this blended digital approach. Furthermore, the 4IR workplace is a rapidly transforming space, supporting and aligned to the latest technological trends. Employability in this workspace demands graduate attributes for strengthening competencies such as critical and creative thinking, effective communication as well as cultural and social awareness. Check out what we are doing in this space with our first ever iTeach lab currently underway…watch this space for further details.

Focus on employability readies students for industry positions

MANCOSA focuses its endeavours on student employability as this not only readies students for industry, but they also partner with leading organisations and brands in order to secure graduate employment. Students’ exposure to online learning on varied platforms will strengthen their skills as the millennials are firmly placed in the workforce and the digital native (Generation Z) graduates are ready to enter a market where recruitment has transitioned from the traditional interview of “naming strengths and weaknesses” to gamification psychometrics and interviews.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of online learning?

Learning is convenient.Online learning requires efficient time management skills.
Online learning offers flexibility, “learning in the palms of your hands.”It is mandatory to be an active learner.
Accessible at your home.Procrastination becomes harder to overcome.
Offers individual attention.It requires more responsibility for individualised learning.
Promotes lifelong learning.You need to create or find your own path to learning.
Teaches self-discipline.Online courses may create a sense of isolation.
Building a global network and meeting new interesting people.There is no instructor chasing you to stay on track of your course.

How do online classes work?

MANCOSA offers a blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning models which gives students a fully functional a la carte menu which they are free to utilise in whichever manner that suits them.

Depending on the stream the student is registered under, they have access to:

  • weekend workshops on Zoom
  • weekday facilitation three days a week (13-week period) on MS Teams

Students can lean on a robust support system, which makes use of asynchronous models including content with:

  • voice-over presentations
  • case studies
  • several types of self-paced online activities

There is an online chat functionality which places student support at their fingertips, in real-time, to assist with questions and queries.

The “ask the tutor” facility has full academic support for the academic structure and content queries. A wide range of assessments has been established to ensure student understanding of the subject matter. The traditional examination is replaced by an online summative assessment. Students are well-supported during this process, as they undergo information and mock sessions prior to the final assessment which allows them to familiarise the navigation of the system and process.


Online education in South Africa is weighed against a number of challenges as discussed. However, it is a positive process that is making good progress. A country where private higher education has grown over 400% within a decade due to the hunger for knowledge and progression is consistent with a student population that yearns to be prepared for employability and skills in a global environment and a digital, 4IR workspace. If you believe you meet this progressive student mindset, waste no time…contact our Student Service Team to find out how you can be part of the new generation of online students today!