Unicaf University: remote classroom higher education for Africa

Unicaf University is a successful African institution that offers online degrees in fields such as business, education and health care management. The university reaches tens of thousands of students – often working adults – across the continent with the convenience of anytime, anywhere study. Seven years after it was founded, Unicaf offers a viable alternative to regular universities with ‘remote classroom higher education’. Meanwhile, the online university also has its challenges, Unicaf’s Dr. Kevin Andrews insists.

Unicaf University offers a number of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in a great number of areas. Although the university offers education largely online, it boasts several campuses and centres in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Uganda, Egypt, Morocco, Somalia, Zambia and Malawi. Students are welcome to come and study here, assured of constant electricity supply and internet connectivity, which was made possible after investing in generators and IT facilities. Already more than 20,000 students have taken advantage of the Unicaf scholarships and registered to one of the partnership programmes.

How did Unicaf – supported by key international investors such as CDC Group, Goldman Sachs and University Ventures – manage to become successful in Africa? Dr Kevin Andrews, Chief Academic Officer of Unicaf and Federal Vice Chancellor of Unicaf University explains:

“Our unique approach has expanded accessibility to higher education for thousands of individuals, who would not have any viable alternative otherwise. Higher Education across the African continent is suffering a massive capacity crisis. Millions graduate from high schools each year, but the supply of traditional university places is severely restricted; as an example, the shortfall in Nigeria alone is some 1.2 million university places per year. Travelling to another country for private university education is beyond the financial capabilities of the vast majority of eligible candidates, who do not manage to secure a place at one of the state institutions of higher education in their homeland.”

What does it take to offer online education maintain a high university level?

“We utilise the latest online learning technologies in our Unicaf Virtual Learning Environment integrated, virtual system, which combines teaching resources with extremely efficient administrative data processing. The digital platform provides everything a student needs from admission to graduation. It includes digital libraries, support services, registry updates, transcripts, financial transactions, discussions with peers and tutors, contact with student advisors, teaching and learning materials, participation in formative assessments, submission of summative assessments and, feedback (and feed-forward). The majority of our registered students also receive a complimentary tablet, to allow them to study wherever they may be. All teaching materials have been designed to be used across all platforms, so that candidates can engage with their coursework using a tablet, a laptop, a PC or even their mobile telephone.

“Courses are delivered asynchronously, and students do not need to be online at specific times to access classes. Similar to social media engagement, students and tutors can interact through the discussion forums across time zones, keeping in touch with each other, but also having the freedom to accommodate their job and family commitments. Our students can ‘earn while they learn’ They can keep their jobs and salaries and support their families throughout their studies.”

What programs do you offer?

“Unicaf offers over 50 programmes of study through its international partners and its own, growing University network. The courses range from short professional courses through undergraduate and postgraduate degrees including MBA, MSc, MEd, MPA, LLM degrees, to doctoral programmes, both professional and PhD. A growing portfolio of subjects, including Business, Marketing, Finance and Accounting, Education, Public Health, Psychology, Hospitality, Computing Science, Information Technology and Law are on offer.”

How do you shape your offer to make it suitable to online pedagogy?

“Unicaf takes validated on-ground courses and converts them for online delivery. Subject experts, working in tandem with dedicated online instructional designers, prepare the online teaching and learning materials that we use. Topics are broken down into structured active learning vehicles, topic overviews with interactive materials, a rich selection of auditory and visual information, supported by e-books and a digital library waiting to be explored. “

What are the advantages of the online approach?

“Students engage with the material at their own pace and have a variety of tools available to generate a personal portfolio of learning. In the e-library students have the freedom to make notes in their books and to virtually tear out pages to read later – they can take notes, exchange ideas, watch videos, undertake self-testing quizzes with instant feedback and have a permanent record of their learner journey at hand. Feedback from lecturers is posted to them. They can ask questions that their whole peer group will benefit from and contribute to answering the questions of others. In short, the course conversions to online materials, combined with the resources and tools available create a beneficial community of learning that is not possible to have on campus.”

What are your next steps to further develop Unicaf University?

“The major challenge we face is convincing the often conservative and traditionalist regulatory bodies in different African countries that online learning is equivalent to, (and indeed often superior to) campus-based learning. It is frustrating when local educational authorities will not recognise a degree programme, unless there is an adequate number of printed books on shelves for auditors to inspect. Our e-resources are updated instantly and are always up to date; publishers have in fact begun to announce that they are phasing out printed editions of textbooks, which illustrates how out of date and out of step some regulatory authorities may be.”

“One of the most exciting aspects of working in Africa, however, is the phenomenon of ‘leapfrogging’, where technological advances that may have taken decades to develop elsewhere in the world, are instantaneously adopted and even improved upon, when investments in infrastructure are taking place. Unicaf is confident that with advances in internet penetration and increasing investment, our own developed model of online learning will rapidly close the gap between supply and demand in the higher education sector, offering universal access to university studies.”

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