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.

Generation Rwanda – Transforming Society Through Education

Driven by the goal of furthering the cause of social justice at the international level, the nonprofit group Generation Rwanda has worked to fill a critical gap in Rwandan education. In doing so, it has created a program – Kepler – that has the potential to transform the entire model of higher education not only in Rwanda, but also throughout the developing world.

A decade ago, Generation Rwanda was formed to provide access to higher education for the orphans of the Rwandan genocide. Originally known as Orphans of Rwanda, Generation Rwanda began by providing university scholarships to young Rwandans in need. While other organizations were directing their efforts toward educating primary school-age children and teens, the needs of college-age young adults were not being adequately addressed.

Generation Rwanda realized that a lack of access to a high-quality university education would leave today’s generation of Rwandans without the tools needed to move the country forward socially and economically. Generation Rwanda offered scholarships that covered the cost of tuition, as well as health care support, housing, and employment training programs. The 360-degree approach was designed to improve students’ ability to thrive under the rigorous demands of a university course of study and to prepare them after graduation to grapple with the serious problems of inter-group reconciliation and infrastructure-building that their country still faces.

In the decade since it began, Generation Rwanda has channeled funding from private donors and other nonprofit organizations to help hundreds and hundreds of highly motivated orphans and other socially marginalized individuals. The group has placed a particular emphasis on providing funding for female students. Among its many success stories, the group counts that of Pascaline Umulisa, who graduated in 2011 from the National University of Rwanda. During that year, Ms. Umulisa visited the United States as part of a delegation from the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. While there, she received an invitation to speak on a United Nations-sponsored panel to address the issue of violence against women and girls. Another success story is that of Patricie Uwase, who is now finishing her master’s degree in civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

Notwithstanding its track-record of providing opportunity to many who otherwise would not have had the chance for a college education, Generation Rwanda recognized that if it wanted to create an even larger impact, it would have to transform the very model of higher education in Rwanda. Thus, in 2013, Generation Rwanda transitioned its efforts from offering scholarships to existing Rwandan universities into creating its own university program. Now in its second year of operation, this new program, known as Kepler, offers a low-cost, U.S.-accredited degree through a combination of online courses, lectures, and classroom interaction with teachers and peers on its Kigali campus. The vision behind Kepler – that of blending online learning with hands-on classroom teaching and mentoring – shows the potential to change the very model of higher education throughout the developing world. Kepler has already been so successful that plans are underway to expand the innovative program to two other African countries by 2017.

Rwandan College Degree Program “Flips” the Traditional Classroom

There are countries in Africa in which less than 1 percent of citizens have earned an undergraduate degree. Kepler, a program developed by staff at the scholarship-awarding nonprofit group Generation Rwanda, hopes to increase that number dramatically.

Established in 2013, Kepler has since enrolled hundreds of Rwandan students, many coming from needy families, in its unique undergraduate curriculum. Kepler students earn their degrees through a combination of online study, in-class interaction with teachers and peers, and a competency-based evaluation administered through College of America.

The advantages of the program are many. Thanks to Kepler, students receive a fully accredited degree that signifies mastery of the subject matter at a level that meets rigorous international standards, followed by job training and coaching, and the chance to gain internships and placement with prestigious partner employers through Kepler’s education-to-employment model. All of this leads to a better future, not only for the individuals who graduate from the program, but also for their families and their communities. Kepler plans to expand its program to other nations in Africa and the developing world.

In 2013, the online magazine Slate published an article by Kepler’s co-founder, Jamie Hodari, that examined how MOOCs (massive open online courses) show the potential to level the higher educational playing field considerably. Offered free of charge to anyone with access to the Internet, the MOOC model has already demonstrated its effectiveness in providing scalable educational experiences for Kepler’s students and others throughout the world enrolled in programs run by organizations like Khan Academy.

The article points out that the type of blended online study and in-person seminars that Kepler makes available is replicable beyond any single program. Kepler’s open-source course materials have been incorporated into Rwanda’s national higher education system and are available free of charge to anyone eager to use them.

Some critics charge that MOOCs harm students in developing nations by preventing the formation of an indigenous educational infrastructure. In the Slate piece, the author acknowledged that students would be shortchanged by learning solely through online courses, but went on to point out that Kepler’s model of “flipping” the classroom by using MOOCs as de facto textbooks and combining them with interaction with Rwandan teachers represents a cutting-edge educational philosophy that is increasingly being adopted by well-known universities. According to the article, the biggest problem facing higher education in the developing world is not online learning but the status quo that prevents deserving but under-resourced young adults from realizing their full potential.

Kepler’s innovative model of “blended” learning proves that the Gates Foundation’s vision for education in the developing world can become a reality

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the emerging Kepler college degree program in Rwanda share some important convictions. They believe that education is one of the most significant means of making inroads against poverty. Further, they estimate that people in the developing world are on the brink of gaining greater quality of life and greater equity with their peers in the developed world. Just as Bill Gates and Microsoft created disruptive technologies that transformed the daily lives of people around the world, Kepler aims to change the way people with comparatively few resources educate themselves and transform their societies.

Kepler is an innovative educational program that combines online study with in-class learning to help young adults in Rwanda earn the college degrees they need. Already, since its founding in 2013, Kepler is changing the lives of hundreds of young Rwandans. At a cost competitive with, or below, other options for higher education in the third world, students benefit not only from Kepler’s unique “blended learning” curriculum, but they also take advantage of employment opportunities when they graduate.

In 2015, the Gates Foundation issued its annual Gates Letter. This year’s themes include a focus on how advances in software design and implementation are contributing to leveling the educational playing field for people in Africa and other developing regions. Kepler is living proof that this strategy can work!

Kepler’s curriculum includes coursework through access to massive open online courses (MOOCs) offered by major universities, and then adds a face-to-face teaching and mentoring component as students gather in the classroom to discuss what they’ve learned and to complete projects. The competency-based degrees they earn, awarded through the United States-based College of America, demonstrate their mastery of their subject at the international level.

Does the Kepler approach work? Consider a few data points to shed light on this question. 100% of students entering Kepler since its inception are on path to achieve their AA degrees in 2 years or less. More than 80% of students gain internships after their first year. In the area of Core Skills Mastery (CSM), considered a key metric to evaluate the effectiveness of an undergraduate curriculum, Kepler students have the highest completion rate of CSM out of any organization CSM works with globally.

All of these facts, and more, point to an exciting truth. The future of education is happening now — in the small country of Rwanda. Where the Kepler model is changing the paradigm for higher education in the third world.

Bill Gates Praises Online Courses like Those Offered through Kepler

Bill Gates recently spoke on the future of online learning in a widely viewed video. As head of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the co-founder of Microsoft has played a major role in funding educational projects on a national and international level. Gates believes that online learning offers the potential to deliver high-quality university courses to people all over the world regardless of their income or social status, provided they have access to a cell phone or other mobile device. This type of open, easily accessed education has the potential to even the economic playing field for people in the developing world. Kepler serves this same demographic through its innovative combination of online undergraduate courses and in-person seminars.

Kepler is a project of the nonprofit organization Generation Rwanda, which was originally established to fund higher education for orphans of the war-torn Central African nation. Now, through Kepler, under-resourced Rwandan young adults who show academic promise can earn an accredited college degree at the cost of only about $1,000 annually. Kepler’s program offers students access to massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, and then brings teachers and students together on its Kigali campus for more in-depth discussion and exploration of the concepts they have learned. This type of “flipped” classroom, in which the lecture component takes place away from class and the project-based, hands-on component takes place on campus, is gaining currency in some of the world’s most prestigious educational institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In Gates’ video, he noted the ways in which online courses have transformed over the last decade and a half, from simple video recordings of professors’ lectures into interactive sessions designed to help students practice new skills.

Gates also discussed the ways in which online learning could actually increase inequality rather than eradicate it. For example, there is currently a gender gap in access to smartphones and other mobile telecommunications devices in the developing world. In Africa, women are about 24 percent less likely to own such devices than men are, and in Asia the gap is wider still. Women’s educational levels have a direct effect on the social and economic health and development of their societies, so Gates’ words offer encouragement to leaders of developing nations to promote the importance of higher education for girls and women. Through programs such as Kepler, the gender gap in access to technology and education has begun to narrow.