XuetangX, the leading Chinese Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) platform created by Beijing-based Tsinghua University, has broken new ground yet again. After having reached more than 7 million users worldwide in May, XuetangX has now become the first Chinese MOOC platform to offer its online education services in Africa.
XuetangX and the African Engineering Education Association (AEEA) reached an agreement to build a virtual private cloud platform for the University of Lagos, Nigeria. Nigerian students are now able to access 12 courses in English free of charge given by the best teachers of Tsinghua, China’s top ranked university.

Funso Falade, President of AEEA and Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at University of Lagos, spoke to ChinAfrica reporter François Dubé in Beijing on how this new breakthrough can potentially be a game changer for online education on the continent.

ChinAfrica: How did the idea of cooperating with XuetangX to establish a MOOC platform at University of Lagos come to be?
Funso Falade: Last year, there was a commitment by the Chinese Government, through Chinese Academy of Engineering and Tsinghua University’s Center for Engineering Education, to assist Nigeria in capacity building in the field of education. My colleagues and I were invited to visit the XuetangX headquarters in Beijing, and we were impressed by the infrastructure and convinced of the value to engineer a similar landscape for distance-learning education in Africa. This is how the idea of using such a system in Africa was born.

In September last year, the Sixth African Conference on Engineering Education took place in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Professor Yuan Si, Executive Director of the International Center of Engineering Education under the UNESCO, Lin Jian, Professor at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education, and Nie Fenghua, Vice Director of Research Center for Online Education of the Ministry of Education of China, attended the conference and made a presentation about MOOCs. We then started to discuss more specifically about our project to introduce this platform to Africa, and we agreed that it could be done.

How can MOOCs help students in Nigeria access world-class education?
The beauty of MOOCs is that they allow a large group of students to access information simultaneously. They do so by enabling diverse people from different backgrounds to come together, learn, share and exchange in the same MOOC [platform]. We believe that by being engaging and interactive, the platform can allow millions of students to have easier access to education at a low cost.

Interestingly, once the platform is fully established, the MOOCs will cover not only engineering, but also arts, business administration, social sciences, law, and even medical courses. We now have 12 classes available in English, and more courses will be uploaded later, including engineering. It is a very rich platform, and together with its engaging and flexible nature, I have no doubt it will raise the quality of education across Africa once adequately implemented.

Will MOOCs be available only to students at University of Lagos?
University of Lagos is only the first step. Africa has five subregions, namely north, south, east, west and central. We agreed with XuetangX to set up the MOOC platform infrastructure at University of Lagos as a case study. Once the infrastructure is in place, our university will become a hub for the region.

The concept is that University of Lagos will become a beaming center for the XuetangX platform in Nigeria and in the West Africa region. When we are finished in Nigeria, we will move to another subregion, until we cover the five subregions of Africa. How far we can go will depend of course on the strength of the beaming center in Lagos, because the infrastructure has yet to be put in place.
Once this is done, we may add an offline supplement to the MOOCs, and later we may even expand into French-speaking countries. But for now, our focus is on increasing online access to education in different English-speaking countries. As of today, anybody can access that platform free of charge – all you need to do is to enter the website.

Many world universities also offer MOOCs. Why did AEEA choose Tsinghua as its partner to set up the first MOOC platform in Africa?
We chose Tsinghua because of our long and well-established relationship with China. The Chinese Government has long demonstrated its commitment to assist Africa in the development of its engineering and distance learning education systems. The whole idea was discussed back in 2009, when I came to Tsinghua University with 20 other Africans from 10 countries for three weeks to take part in workshops on online education and project management.

After that, an MoU was signed between Tsinghua University’s Center for Engineering Education and AEEA for long-term capacity building in engineering education in Africa. We simply do not have this kind of long-term relationship with other countries. China has shown and proven its willingness to assist us.

How will MOOCs influence the quality and methods of teaching?
At University of Lagos, we have been advocating the use of innovative teaching methods for a long time. The pedagogy concept that we have now is mostly [teaching] traditional and lecture-based courses. Online or multimedia teaching methods are still lacking. Every year, we try to organize expert workshops for our teachers to bring more innovative methods, such as those that are project-based and problem-based. In this aspect, MOOCs can be useful, because they allow students to access courses using an innovative pedagogy and expose them to different information.
MOOCs will also help compensate for the lack in facilities and human capital that we see in universities across Africa. A major problem we have is human capital flight, so-called brain drain, as our experts are leaving for the West. I think this project can fill the gap, as it enables experts to transmit knowledge back to their country.
As always, MOOCs are not meant to replace in-classroom teaching, but to complement it. As such, I am certain it will bring a lot of value to the education system in Africa.

Do you think one day University of Lagos will produce and beam its own MOOCs across Africa and the world?
Yes, that is totally possible, since capacity building is an important part of this cooperation project, and we are just getting started. We definitely want to make the most of this relationship and get the maximum benefits from it.
Behind the courses, this project is really about building links between Chinese and African universities. It shows that knowledge is power, and this project is all about sharing and bringing knowledge to people. Naturally, this creates a link between the two countries and an appreciation of the value of that relationship. Through this project, African students will be able to see the results of partnerships between Africa and China. Not only that, they will also appreciate that this information, this knowledge or this class is brought about by our Chinese sponsor. This will allow for our two peoples to better understand each other.

After the Launching of Unilag.Xuetangx MOOC platform on 23rd May, 2017, there was a follow-up meeting where the leadership of Xuetangx announced that it would offer scholarship to fifteen (15) Africans to pursue Masters in engineering Management. The programme will be both on-line and offline. Interest applicant should apply. The candidates are to be selected from Nigeria and South Africa.

On the 26th June, 2017, the President of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) among others, announced the signing of an MOU with the African Engineering education Association during the opening plenary Session of the 124th ASEE Annual Conference and Exhibitions in Columbus, Ohio State, U.S.A. A follow-up meeting between the President of AEEA and the Leadership of ASEE unfolded the desire of ASEE to help out in some identified areas.