Getting a quality education is typically governed by the cost of accessing that education, so if you look at all the Ivy League universities in the United States, for example, they cost an incredible amount of money to access.
An interesting recent development has been the move taken by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the most prestigious, private research universities in the world.
Since 2002, MIT has been opening up access to intellectual property that previously universities would jealously guard and keep closed.
“The idea is simple: to publish all of our course materials online and make them widely available to everyone,” said Dick K.P. Yue, Professor, MIT School of Engineering.
This revolutionary move was born out of the idea that knowledge must be unlocked. Today, anyone who has internet access can find materials from 2,260 MIT courses at the repository, which is called MIT OpenCourseWare at the address ocw.mit.edu.
Some 175-million visitors have been doing exactly that, and OpenCourseWare is now a permanent MIT Activity.
Here is a classic example of one of the most important universities in the world giving away much of their content for free, because they believe in the bigger picture and the principle of equal access to it.
This is a big deal because typically top universities have tended to have been built in affluent environments, and it has typically been easier to access these universities based on the proximity of your location to it.
This means there’s a geographic as well as an economic barrier to accessing learning that has grown out of old-world structures.
Internet access, of course, changes all of this. If you have access to the internet you can gain free access not only to MIT courseware, but to a massive range of modules and courses from some of the greatest learning institutions in the world.
These include Stanford, Oxford, Yale and Harvard. This is a big deal because Stanford is about 17,000 kilometres away from this country, and at today’s exchange rate an undergraduate course at that university would cost a lot more than R600,00.00 for the tuition alone.
Cost and geography have created a massive education divide, but the internet and OpenCourseWare have disrupted this.
What this means is that someone from Polokwane can access MIT’s Introduction To Computer Science and Programming or Single Variable Calculus – which are are MIT’s most popular open courses – and start studying regardless of their economic or geographic disposition.
But open information and knowledge is one thing, the other is the cost of accessing this data. The big question is whether a person has access to free Wi-Fi, or whether they are relying on an expensive mobile connection when they access the internet.
The other issue that’s important when thinking about a free and open internet for Africa, is what devices one connects to the internet with.
With the growth of smartphones, ease of access to the internet has greatly improved, but one still sees that the majority of South Africans are on a device like a feature phone or a BlackBerry.
Although smartphone numbers have grown, whether or not someone has a smartphone tends to correlate with their level of income.
There has been a lot of talk in the marketplace about cheaper smartphones set at the R500 price point, but it is critical to think about perspective.
R500 is not cheap for people living in certain income brackets, or those who are unemployed.
The big difference between smartphones and feature phones is that one gets a far more enriched experience when accessing information on a smartphone. The apps can be built in a more intuitive way, and it’s less cumbersome to use than a feature phone.
#Internet4All is one of the most important policy decisions we can take, because it is about giving individuals the power to make life-altering choices without a dependency on a traditional system.
It is about a very real, life-altering freedom.
To take a very extreme example, a highly-committed person living in a very remote area, assuming they have some kind of mobile access, could be educating themselves through their phone, in the absence of a school or a good teacher.
Or there could be a learner who’s stuck in a very troubled school where there’s not much education happening.
They might sit in that physical school surrounded by the bricks and mortar, where the teachers are absent and it’s a highly-disruptive learning environment. But they could be educating themselves using their phone, and this could change their life and their future.
#Internet4All is about being able to access information through the internet by bypassing the physical, geographic and economic constraints that may be holding that person back.
Andrew Rudge is an economist who is passionate about early childhood development. Rudge is the CEO of The Reach Trust, which has helped more than 10 million people transform their lives through access to free education, health, and counselling services on their mobile phones.