Pursuing the Rwandan Dream with online and low-cost learning

New methods of education are creating new middle classes around the world, reports a La Roche College professor

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KIGALI, Rwanda -- In Kigali on a warm summer night in the outdoor area of a local restaurant, we talk. One’s now a banker. One’s an IT consultant. One works for the NGO Worldvision and so on. They are all graduates of the first class of Rwandan students invited to be part of La Roche College’s Pacem in Terris Program in 1999, which brought students from war-torn countries to Pittsburgh to earn bachelor’s degrees.

I haven’t seen all of my Rwandans, but I have seen a few, and the results are stunning. Successful, beaming, grateful, they are optimistic about the future of Rwanda and their children, but they do miss Pittsburgh.

We reminisced about Pittsburgh, its incredible comforts and joys, the Steelers, snow, La Roche and their college years — all while eating fantastic grilled beef kabobs, the meat so good and tasty that one of the students said the cow probably was killed while we were placing our orders!

But these former students are not the main reason I am in Kigali in the summer of 2014. I’m here to work with students taking the online MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) from Coursera, “Understanding Media by Understanding Google.”

Right now they are working on an analysis of some charts I picked out to illustrate one of the points in an online lecture they already viewed: Internet advertising is growing faster in the Middle East and Africa than in North America and Europe.

I am at a new college in Kigali called Kepler, started by some pretty bright venture capitalists under the auspices of their Generation Rwanda organization. It ties together just-in-time learning — schooling that will be applied right away — with online learning through the College for America of Southern New Hampshire University.

Let me explain: There are going to be millions of young people clamoring for a college education in the growing middle classes of the developing world. And Rwanda is a good example.

Rwanda isn’t just about the poor vs. the elite anymore; it is about the middle class: people buying houses, washing machines, cars, nice clothes and French pastry. They want their kids to excel beyond their own amazing accomplishments, creating an organized, safe country with a justice system, schools and national health care against the backdrop of the horrific genocide 20 years ago.

Rwandans have created a unified society, albeit one that’s held together through less-than-democratic political practices. To discourage ethnic separation, high “privacy” fences around houses are banned, as are non-biodegradable plastic bags at grocery stores, which has greatly reduced litter. Crime and muggings have gone down to an almost negligible level. Indeed, I walk unworried on the dirt road back to the staff house from the school in almost total darkness.

I am deeply interested in the concept of leveraging online learning with face-to-face facilitators to create low-cost college-level education for the masses of young people who want to learn. We cannot create enough colleges and universities at a low enough cost to provide this level of education around the world, so Kepler is funding an important experiment. When I found out about it, I volunteered to help and ended up writing lesson plans (from Pittsburgh) that would help the local facilitators expand on the material from the MOOC. When the class was moved to the summer, I decided to meet the students and see the plan in action myself.

A few days into my visit, I see that the students get it: The media industry is complicated and going through a painful transition. An important part of the consumer and political economy, media may not always provide what some think is worthwhile material, but they communicate significant social and cultural information, help advertisers inform, if sometimes manipulate, consumers and provide a way for people to simply pass the time.

The Internet has disrupted a media system that was far from perfect and is making it more comprehensive and efficient while introducing its own controversies. It has undermined traditional media finances but also has opened the marketplace to more diverse enterprises, and this brings opportunity.

I ask the students, “What opportunities might there be for you?” They respond enthusiastically with unending ideas. I’m not worried about these students.

Back in Pittsburgh, I’m less sure about the U.S. college students paying for school with loans they might not be able to pay back while holding jobs that don’t fit the middle-class view of themselves they had when they entered college. But I will bring home my experiences, and perhaps we’ll find ways to improve the four-year college experience here at home, to make learning more effective and efficient, to lower costs and open new opportunities, like we always have. You know, the American Dream.

Of course, with online learning and new models of high-quality, low-cost higher education, American college graduates will be competing with young people around the world as they pursue the Rwandan Dream, the Sudanese Dream, the Chilean Dream, the Malaysian Dream … But all those dreamers also will become customers for high-value products and services that Americans provide better than anyone in the world.

This new educational era has the potential to create a rising standard of living to people everywhere and, along with it, more peace and stability.

Jeff Ritter is a professor and chair of the Communication, Media and Technology Department at La Roche College (ritterj1@laroche.edu).

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