New opportunities in e-Learning

Opinion of Professor Wim de Villiers, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town (UCT)

For every 20 people in South Africa, there are 13 mobile phones. That’s according to a new report published by the GSMA, the body that represents the world’s mobile operators. That 65.7% penetration rate – the highest in Africa – brings a massive potential for information technology and telecommunications… and health innovation.

Professor Wim de Villiers believes that mobile technology is turning the healthcare industry on its head. “It’s a disruptive innovation,” he explains. “The goal is to deliver better care, more efficiently, and I think this is the way to get there.”

De Villiers recently returned from the US, where, he says, “innovation is front and centre”. Based on the trends he saw there, he has identified several opportunities in the field of e-learning.

He points to the example of MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, where e-learning can occur in a number of ways. “The teaching can be aimed at various levels, from basic to more sophisticated education,” he says. “On one hand, there’s a formal method of this kind of education, where qualifications or certificates may be gained from association with institutions of higher learning. On the other hand, MOOCs can also be run in a more informal way.”

The explosion of free, high-quality, readily available educational content – from recorded lectures to PDF notes – is revolutionising the way teachers and students interact. It’s also changing the way students choose to learn, bringing with it an entirely new generation of learners: plugged-in, switched-on Millennials.

This generation learns in a different way and we need to think of different ways to impart knowledge to them. The innovation lies in finding new methods of content delivery, perhaps via podcasts or similar electronic means. This is especially true in Africa, where we know there’s a much deeper reach via mobile technology like cellphones, smartphones and tablets.

Driven by advances in software and by the boom in mobile broadband, device manufacturers are also producing better, faster, cheaper hardware. These affordable, lower-end tablets represent a massive opportunity for African healthcare innovators, educators and researchers. They take information, “from the bench to the bedside to the bundu,” De Villiers explains.

“We’re seeing it here at UCT, with some pilot projects where we provide tablets to students. I think, in the near future, these tablets will be required or included in the fee structure for students. I think that, increasingly, this is going be a way in which we educate healthcare workers. A lot of learning can occur this way, and it’s viable throughout Africa.”

Adapted from the 2014 Health Innovator’s Review, compiled by Inclusive Healthcare Innovation, a joint initiative between the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Graduate School of Business, and the UCT Faculty of Health Sciences.

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