This article is from the In-Depth Report Learning in the Digital Age

Free Online Courses Bring "Magic" to Rwanda

An inside look at a daring global experiment: using freely available online courses to bring top-tier instruction to the neediest parts of the planet


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Tujiza Uwituze worked hard and ranked near the top of her class in her Rwandan secondary school, but her education was poor by international standards. She had instructors who made her memorize and regurgitate information, and the school she attended had no computers for her to use. As a result, Uwituze's English is imperfect, and her computer skills are weak. She lives with a great-uncle in Kigali and has $75 in savings. Despite hard work and an intense desire to succeed, her dreams are out of reach—or might be if not for an innovative project that could radically change her life.

The goal of the experiment, called Kepler and conducted by a small nonprofit called Generation Rwanda, is to use massive open online courses (MOOCs) to deliver a top-tier education to young Rwandans who were born around the time of the 1994 genocide. The first test began in March with a “prepilot” class called Critical Thinking in Global Challenges, an online offering from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. A dozen students viewed video lectures downloaded from a MOOC platform and attended small seminars and coaching sessions in a Kigali classroom with an on-site teaching fellow, a form of education called blended learning.

For a student like Uwituze, who was an infant during the slaughter by Hutus of some 800,000 Tutsis and their Hutu sympathizers in 1994, this was an extraordinary opportunity. Her family fled during the genocide: first to Burundi, then to Tanzania, then to Kenya. “We lost our money, our house, everything,” she says. Schooling was all that Uwituze really had after years on the run. She returned to Rwanda at the age of 14 and graduated from secondary school last November. The annual tuition at Rwandan public universities is about $1,500 a year for a substandard education, which is more than Uwituze's family can afford. Her mother is jobless, and Uwituze has three younger siblings who look to her for support. When she was turned down by an organization that helps aspiring Rwandan students get scholarships at American universities, an official from that group suggested she join Kepler. She became one of 15 students invited to attend the prepilot course to test the MOOC format. She then applied to be accepted into a larger class, which will be enrolled in a full MOOC curriculum in the fall.

Kepler received 2,696 applications for just 50 slots in the fall program. Six hundred students were invited to take an exam in April, of which 200, including Uwituze, made it to a final round of cuts. Those 200 were interviewed in person and took part in group activities observed by Kepler staff to gauge personality traits such as leadership qualities, ability to work well with others and problem-solving skills. The aim was to put together a class that combined a range of personality types: outgoing and shy, funny and earnest, creative and conscientious. The stakes were high. Jean Aime Mutabazi did not make the first cut for the fall session and felt adrift. Most of his male relatives, including his father, were killed in the genocide. He lives with his mother, who has a mangled leg and sells charcoal from a cement hutch to earn a living. “Can you imagine what it's like when you have a problem, and there is no one to turn to for help?” Mutabazi asks. “Education is a kind of magic power that can open any door in the world. If you are educated, you can control the situation you are living in.”

Uwituze made the final cut. She originally wanted to be an airline pilot but now considers that beyond reach, so she has settled on banking as a possible career. She will be able to study business and finance through Kepler. “Education is the only way I can survive,” she says, “the only way I can take care of my sisters, who need me.” Those accepted to the fall session will take online classes from leading universities for free—with support and mentoring from American teaching fellows in Kigali—and will also have their living expenses paid for. Generation Rwanda's executive director Jamie Hodari estimates that after an initial outlay of $100,000 for curriculum design and evaluation, the annual per-student tuition costs to his organization, including laptops and teachers' salaries, will be around $2,000. He hopes to bring that down over time to $1,000. Initially students will be on one track: toward an associate of arts degree in general studies, with a concentration in business, from Southern New Hampshire University, which has a cutting-edge program that awards degrees based on proved competencies, not the number of hours spent in a classroom. After associate degrees are completed in the second year, Kepler plans to offer bachelor's degrees in business administration, computer science and perhaps engineering from a variety of institutions.

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This article was originally published with the title "Hype and Hope."

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