University Education in Rwanda

Kepler, a nonprofit university program based in Rwanda and designed for the needs of the developing world, is leveling the playing field for numerous young adults from underserved communities. At a cost of only $1,000 per year, Kepler’s fully accredited business degree program offers access to a combination of online courses from the world’s finest universities and intensive, in-person classroom discussion. Kepler’s pilot campus opened in 2013, and its flexible learning approach is already being praised not only in Rwanda but by educators around the world.

Rwanda, which was under German and Belgian colonial administration from the late 19th century into the second half of the 20th century, developed a European-style educational system. In 2008, the country designated English as the official language of instruction throughout its educational system. Universities had only begun to offer English as an instructional language in the 1990s. Previous generations of Rwandan university students had learned in French.

In a recent consolidation, the country’s public universities came together to form one system known as the University of Rwanda. Each formerly separate school is now a constituent college, dealing variously with science and technology, finance and economics, the arts, education, medicine, and agriculture. The country also offers three-year diplomas at nine public polytechnic schools.

Admission to Rwanda’s public higher education institutions, particularly those concentrating on law, medicine, and allied fields, is highly competitive. The nation’s private universities largely consist of institutions under the aegis of religious denominations, with the profits from tuition and fees channeled into each organization’s sectarian projects. In 2012, the government of Rwanda passed a law that, for the first time, required private universities to pay taxes on the income they take in.

While Rwanda’s government recently lowered tuition costs at public universities, the country still has a long way to go before higher education becomes widespread. Today, only about one-third of young people of high school age people enter secondary education programs, and a still smaller number go on to attend college.

Kepler points the way to a viable alternative to the Rwanda university system. Early results from Kepler’s pilot program suggest that its educational model offers significantly improved academic outcomes for students at a lower cost than traditional university options. Additionally, Kepler students graduate with a valuable degree from an American university, Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America. Finally, by partnering with Rwanda’s foremost companies and industries, Kepler is designed to help students secure well-paying jobs and contribute to the national economy.

An internationally accredited, affordable, competency-based degree, like that offered by Kepler, could represent the best hope that Rwanda’s current generation of well-qualified, but economically vulnerable young people, have of achieving their full potential.

MOOCs – Gateways to Global Education

Kepler, a nonprofit university program designed for the developing world, aims to assist under-resourced college-age adults in the nations of Central Africa to obtain university-level, internationally accredited degrees. Based in Kigali, Rwanda, Kepler is among the forward-thinking organizations offering degrees at a price of only about $1,000 annually. Students work their way through massive open online courses, or MOOCs, then convene on campus for discussion, analysis, and project-based learning in collaboration with instructors and fellow learners.

While MOOCs have only become widely popular in the last few years, they have changed the face of higher education on a global level. Today’s MOOCs offer large numbers of students much more than the previous generation’s videotaped and televised academic lectures. MOOCs can feature multimedia components and allow for real-time interaction among students and teachers. Most are offered free of charge as a means of democratizing higher education worldwide.

Some of the world’s most prestigious universities, including Yale, Harvard, Stanford, the University of California system, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offer MOOCs. A number of organizations outside the structure of the formal educational system also provide MOOCs. Coursera, edX, and Kahn Academy, which operates with the motto “You can learn anything,” are three of the best-known entities that serve as gateways to free courses from top-level schools. Subjects offered through MOOCs include computer programming, mathematics, the arts and sciences, history, and the rest of the full complement of academic study.

Stanford’s MOOC offerings include courses in artificial intelligence and quantum mechanics. Harvard’s online classes include English Literature and computer science. Moreover, MIT’s OpenCourseWare site recently added a diverse group of new courses focusing on topics such as museums, differential equations, and the social problems accompanying China’s rapid urbanization.

Another MOOC platform is Udemy, currently serving some 6 million customers, providing courses on topics ranging from photography and yoga to business skills and standard academic curricula.

Using MOOCs as a core component of its innovative curriculum, Kepler offers a compelling solution for how to educate millions of students around the world who have great potential but lack the means to achieve their dreams.

Boston Program Parallels Kepler Innovations in Rwanda

In 2013, the nonprofit scholarship organization Generation Rwanda, which focuses on the needs of orphans and other underserved groups of young adults, turned its attention to building a nontraditional degree program called Kepler.

Part of the current international wave of innovative “flipped” higher educational models, Kepler offers low-cost, internationally accredited business degrees to students who demonstrate academic competency in their subject. Students acquire knowledge through massive open online courses (MOOCs) offered by prestigious universities, then take part in face-to-face, project-based sessions with teachers and fellow students to practice what they’ve learned.

Match Beyond, a Boston-based counterpart to Kepler, also seeks to make higher education accessible to young adults who otherwise would not have the opportunity to earn a college degree and obtain middle-class jobs. Both programs receive accreditation from Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, which recently earned the distinction of being the first competency-based degree program to receive federal education funding.

While some critics in American academia have expressed concerns that such start-up programs don’t give their students the experience of a well-funded, well-established traditional university, many other observers have praised this educational model for its potential to democratize higher education to an unprecedented extent.

For example, Match Beyond serves a population that overwhelmingly consists of people of color who grew up in under-resourced neighborhoods. These potential students often juggle several part-time jobs and have multiple personal responsibilities. Many have tried the traditional route to a college degree, only to find the cost even of state-run universities out of reach or the demands on their time incompatible with raising children and earning a living. For these students, Match Beyond’s approach to measuring achievement in terms of skills mastered, rather than classroom hours logged, has proven to be ideal.

Match Beyond provides real-time life-skills coaching for students, helping them manage time, stay on track with their studies, and deal with stress. In another move that echoes Kepler’s focus, the Boston students receive extensive career mentoring, as well as assistance transitioning into more promising jobs after graduation.

Record-Breaking Interest in Kepler Enrollment

If popularity is a measure of success, the innovative Kepler undergraduate degree program based in Kigali, Rwanda, is experiencing unprecedented success this year. Applications for entry into the highly competitive program rose to well over 6,500, more than twice the number received in 2014, and included applicants from nearby Burundi, Tanzania, and Uganda. The program currently has room to accept only 150 applicants out of the final pool of 1,200. Kepler has only been around since 2013, but it has already garnered widespread praise for its approach to putting internationally accredited higher education within reach of under-resourced young adults.

Kepler is a spin-off of the nonprofit organization Generation Rwanda, which more than a decade ago initiated efforts to provide scholarship funding for young people orphaned by wars and disease. In turning its focus to providing access to high-quality college education, Generation Rwanda aims to help individual students, as well as the entire country and region, become more self-sufficient.

Students participate in massive open online courses (MOOCs) offered free through leading universities. After viewing the online material, students meet face-to-face with instructors and career counselors to refine their knowledge, and gain practical experience through internships with partner companies. Kepler students earn their degrees, which are fully accredited through the United States-based College for America, upon proving their competency in the undergraduate business curriculum. This method of obtaining a degree replaces the traditional practice in much of the world of simply awarding a degree based on earning passing grades in a set of classes over time, regardless of a student’s capacity to acquire knowledge more quickly.

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees has offered Kepler the chance to recruit students among the population of the Rwandan refugee camps, which are currently the residence of nearly 80,000 people displaced by regional violence and unable to return home. Many young adults have lived in these camps all their lives, unable to access higher education.

Kepler’s 2015 acceptance rate of around 2 percent is lower than that of Harvard, but not by choice. The program would like to offer the same opportunity to all students who qualify, and is only constrained by its current capacity to deliver services. Increased donor participation can make an enormous difference in the lives of deserving young people throughout southern Africa.

Kepler Aims to Expand Access to Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa

Through the Kepler university project, a new generation of young, college-age adults in Rwanda can benefit from an accredited program of study leading to a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Kepler is a recent project of Generation Rwanda, a nonprofit organization that developed more than a decade ago to provide university scholarships to students in need in the war-torn country.

Formerly known as Orphans of Rwanda, Generation Rwanda has focused on assisting a variety of people in need, including women and young people orphaned due to war or disease. Now, with an affordable tuition of only $1,000 annually, Kepler students can access massive open online courses (MOOCs) in combination with in-person discussion and hands-on classroom learning to earn their degrees. The pioneering effort fits the needs of developing nations around the world, particularly in Africa.

The situation in Rwanda parallels that of a number of southern African nations. Higher education, in the modern sense, is a relatively new phenomenon. In previous generations, colonial European powers established systems of education without truly democratizing the university experience. Over the course of the last 40 or 50 years, as most of the nations in Africa claimed their independence, the number of institutions of higher education south of the Sahara has steadily increased. Today, several million students are enrolled in classes taught by thousands of faculty members.

Yet university attendance rates in sub-Saharan Africa are among the lowest in the world, averaging approximately 5 percent. Over the past few decades, the history of other nations throughout the developing world shows that increased university enrollment correlates with significant economic growth. For example, South Korea began its upward economic trajectory after a ten-fold increase in higher education enrollment.

The passion for education, as well as for the greater freedom and opportunity it brings, remains strong throughout Africa. Parents often struggle financially in order to send their children to college, and overcrowded university classrooms vividly demonstrate the demand for higher education. Yet traditional models of educational delivery may not be sufficient to keep up with demand. This is the reason why innovative programs such as Kepler offer so much promise. Kepler’s competency-based degrees signify that a student has mastered both theory and practice, and is ready to succeed in a variety of positions in sub-Saharan Africa or any other emerging economy.

Kepler’s Innovative Education-to-Employment Model

One of the most talked-about terms on the higher education scene is “education-to-employment.” The idea is that colleges and universities unite with partner businesses to serve the needs of today’s young adults, many of whom often have difficulty in finding high-quality employment after graduation. Others postpone their education out of necessity to work in less-challenging jobs.

Kepler, a project of the nonprofit group Generation Rwanda, leads the way in “education-to-employment” by both providing a first-class university education to its students and steering its students into internships and work-study positions with well-known companies which, in turn, benefit from access to well-educated and highly trained workers. As a 2012 Forbes magazine article recognized, the “jobs crisis” will not be solved by the traditional concept of vocational training, but instead requires a focus on the “skills crisis.”

In a recent study conducted by the McKinsey Center for Government, researchers found that on an international level, more than 12 percent of young adults were unemployed. In addition, more than half of employers reported not having access to qualified applicants for their vacant positions. Forty-six percent of the youth surveyed said they had decided to skip college because they lacked sufficient funds to pursue it, or they lacked the time to study while holding a job. Moreover, a large number of youth reported that they do not have the information necessary to enable them to make informed decisions about the best field of study to meet their long-term goals.

Kepler’s students – who pay only about $1,000 in annual tuition for an internationally accredited college degree – receive lectures from major world universities in an online environment, then use what they’ve learned in face-to-face classroom discussions and project creation sessions on campus. This hybrid learning experience , utilizing the best of online tools along with intensive and collaborative in-person learning, has the potential to transform education. Kepler builds employment skills directly into the educational model. Moreover, it anchors theory more firmly within the practical world that students will encounter after they graduate.

At Kepler, students also have the advantage of rigorous career coaching, employment training, and counseling on developing the traits that can make them successful in the workplace. In addition, the fact that Kepler-sponsored internships and work-study plans immerse these young adults in real-world job situations means that they will be able to make a smoother transition into the corporate world.

MOOCs – A History of Democratizing Education

Generation Rwanda’s new project, Kepler, offers affordable, American-accredited undergraduate business degrees to students in need in the Central African nation of Rwanda. Through a combination of massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, and classroom instruction and discussion, Kepler’s students can take advantage of a blended approach to learning that prepares them to enter the workforce as fully competent and engaged thinkers and problem-solvers.

While MOOCs have only been around for a few years, their popularity is growing among students from economically challenged communities who might not otherwise have access to a university education. MOOCs are becoming more sophisticated, utilizing cutting-edge technology to develop into more than videotaped lectures. A MOOC in finance, technology, science, or cultural studies offers interactive, multimedia content, and real-time online interaction and discussion with instructors and other students.

While MOOCs are a relatively new phenomenon, they have a long history. Correspondence courses became popular in Europe and North America during the 19th century, as postal systems developed sufficiently to support efficient communication. The London School of Economics was among the first major universities to offer what is now distance education.

In the 20th century, students benefited from radio and television as a way to access courses at a level previously unimagined. Yet the lack of contact with instructors and fellow learners continued to present a challenge. In the United Kingdom, the Open University offered an innovative solution to the technological limitations of the time. Through a combination of correspondence classes, residential short courses, and multimedia, the Open University succeeded in delivering a high-quality educational experience to a generation that came of age in the 1970s.

Fast-forward to the early years of the 21st century, when the Internet and more sophisticated, content-rich applications evolved. In 2008, George Siemens and Stephen Downes offered the first-ever class to be called a “MOOC” through the University of Manitoba, where educators brought Facebook, blogs, wikis, and other platforms into the mix. More than 2,000 students enrolled in the class. Three years later, Stanford University professors Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun offered a free online class in artificial intelligence that drew 160,000 students, making it the first truly “massive” open online course.

By 2015, several major companies and organizations had crystallized around the ability to provide access to MOOCs. They included EdX, Coursera, an Open University-initiated project called Futurelearn, and Norvig and Thrun’s own Udacity.