Online learning means fees, not trees, can fall

Publication Sep 12, 2016

In my last article I suggested that the voting system moves into the 21st Century. The same goes for universities and other institutions of higher learning.

Most young people live large parts of their lives online. They do their buying, their reading and communicating worldwide using the internet. Then they go to university and they pay for expensive transport, expensive infrastructure and expensive paper. They attend separate universities each with its own lecturers and if they change institutions they might have to repeat subjects. Young people handwrite exams when most of them have forgotten how to write by hand. If you burn down the library you burn down the brain of that institution.

Perhaps it is because I got my qualifications long ago through UNISA that I see things differently. Nowadays there is no end to the amount of learning that you can do on the internet. If all the money we spend on too many people and too much infrastructure were put into electronic methods of learning, fees would fall. Give every student a tablet or laptop computer or a smartphone and Wi-Fi access and the world is at their fingertips. If the best lecturer in physics is in Cape Town, Harvard or Beijing you can plug into their wisdom at a fraction of the cost. For a local subject like law you only need a couple of lecturers in, say, criminal law in South Africa with tutorial support and not only would costs fall, competition for those positions will improve the quality of any subject.

Although to this day I do not know what one of my UNISA lecturers looked like, I am not suggesting that everybody should do everything remotely. There is a great deal of value in the interaction between young people on campuses and a lot of learning is done by osmosis. Students also play sports and interact culturally. Much of the essence of any nation is gleaned from student interaction.

What I am saying is that costs could be a fraction of what they are now. You don’t need a big library at each university. Most research is now done electronically and should be whilst the books are kept safe and sound. One comprehensive electronic library for all universities would suffice. People will still have to get together to exchange ideas and get individual help but it doesn’t have to come at the cost it does now. One of the local universities is offering online courses but the tuition cost is little different from attending fulltime because all the costs are still incurred.

Most of the ongoing learning practising lawyers do to keep up with the developments in law are learned at their desks staring at their computer screens. I learn more this way because I don’t have to walk to the library three floors down to get access to the latest decision of the Supreme Court of Appeal for instance.

The world moves so fast these days that everyone is bound to do continued education. Most professions make it compulsory to keep up-to-date so that you don’t become the equivalent of a dentist using a hand drill. If we can spend most of our professional lives keeping up to date using the internet why can’t we start our careers in the same way?

This country has many ways it needs to spend its limited resources and simply leaving everything as it is at high cost and giving away free expensive education is not a fair solution to the problem where other people are waiting for housing or healthcare. There are things we need to preserve and things we need to rationalise. It is time that the tertiary institutions and government got together (preferably online) and worked out ways to provide the same education at half the cost.

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