New Technological Horizons: The IDL Program's Collaboration in South Africa

The Initiative on Distance Learning (IDL) has for six years offered courses on international security issues to Russian regional universities via distance-learning technologies. Thanks to a seed grant from the Whitehead Family Foundation, the Freeman Spogli Institute’s IDL program is currently pursuing a promising collaborative project with the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) and the University of Pretoria, which will adapt the IDL program for use in institutions of higher education in South Africa. In the interdisciplinary spirit of FSI, the project affords IDL the opportunity to work with Stanford’s Center for Innovations in Learning, the School of Education, and the Woods Institute for the Environment, forming the eLearning Initiative in South Africa, or ELISA.

ELISA offers an opportunity to adapt the IDL delivery model and academic content to meet the interests of its South African audience, while allowing all three institutions to pursue their common interest in the potential for hand-held mobile devices to enhance the experience for learners in a distance-learning milieu. In South Africa, mobile communication devices have the ability to supplant computers as the technology of choice in higher education, offering advantages of desktop computing while eliminating connectivity barriers. We hope to demonstrate the power of mobile phone devices in improving teaching and learning, providing an important leverage point in student educational empowerment. The project will help our team design cell-phone-based teaching, learning, and assessment activities; evaluate their effectiveness; and yield information to help build a knowledge base for those actively working to integrate technology into higher education.

Mobile, hand-held technologies are nearly ubiquitous in South Africa, making it an ideal environment to assess their efficacy in teaching. More students have access to a cell phone (99.4 percent) than have an e-mail account (0.4 percent) in the Unit for Distance Education at the University of Pretoria1. Wireless technologies are allowing many developing countries to “leapfrog” ahead of developed countries by adapting mobile and flexible communication technologies, rather than investing in costly land-line infrastructures. Distance-learning educators need to take advantage of this new technology, in order to explore ways to enhance the learning process for receptive students.

This is particularly important in South Africa, which plays an increasingly prominent leadership role in addressing the political and economic development issues facing the African continent and the global community. Dedicated to training a cadre of leaders to approach pressing issues from multiple perspectives, South Africa has undertaken educational curriculum reform over the past 15 years. Educators are seeking to make education more widely available to all levels of society: reforming institutions of higher education, experimenting with innovative technology to reach students in remote areas, and participating in distancelearning courses within Africa and from abroad.

Mobile technologies have the potential to bridge the “digital divide,” offering the functionality of minicomputers, with less expense and greater portability. Students who might otherwise not be able to attend classes gain access to course materials, assignments, and learning interactions on demand. Students can use text, graphics, and video to express their ideas through mobile devices. Students can receive guidance and work plans from faculty or collaborate with fellow students; faculty can record their students’ work for analysis and grading. IDL welcomes this chance to study the ability of mobile devices to supplant computers as the technology of choice in higher education in South Africa.

ELISA will offer its first course to Tshwane University of Technology students in 2006, and expand the program in subsecquent years.