The need for better quality (digital) open and distance learning content in sub-Saharan Africa

By Anna Childs, UNICEF Digital Learning Specialist, Eastern and Southern Africa and Joshua Valeta, Director of Open, Distance and e-Learning, Ministry of Education, Malawi

This blog, based on a background paper for the 2023 GEM Report, focuses on the importance of better quality content for open distance learning in higher education in sub-Saharan Africa.

The volume of students qualifying for admission to higher education in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years has escalated in parallel with heightened demand and increased access to secondary education. However, higher education has traditionally received little attention from development partners and was disregarded in the Millennium Development Goals. In the early 2000s the quality and capacity of national higher education systems typically continued to deteriorate even as demand from students was on the rise.

The importance of higher education to national development was finally recognised in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG target 4.3), by which time the strain on existing systems was already too great and transformational solutions were urgently needed. National stakeholders have therefore looked beyond the conventional brick-and-mortar universities for delivery models that will accelerate the reach of higher education to meet demand.

Open and distance learning (ODL) is well-recognised as a mechanism that has strong potential to provide quality-driven, inclusive, equitable, affordable and relevant higher education at the massive numbers needed. There is much discussion about access to technology. However, it is less well-acknowledged that this potential can also only be achieved with a model of high-quality e-learning that is student-centred, content-led and instructor-supported, creating the necessary economies of scale.

Challenges of an ODL model

ODL is not new to the region, and we give a brief summary of its complex history and growth as well as current policies, practices and trends in our background paper to the 2023 GEM report on technology in education. In this paper, we argue that conventional universities exploring ODL often fail to recognise the different pedagogies required for it to be effective, especially when aiming for an exponential increase in scale. Teaching staff have little or no training in ODL and so offer a blended or remote version of their traditional, face-to-face approach using the same or marginally tweaked content and teaching styles. This is a resource-intensive approach that can only hope to be effective with small groups. At any sort of scale, it results in under-served students and poor learning outcomes. Staff are disillusioned and students fail, perpetuating cycles of inequity and under-achievement and contributing further to what is sadly an already negative reputation of ODL in many nations.

Most recently, of course, ODL was accelerated by the pandemic, as universities everywhere were forced almost overnight to reach all their students remotely or not at all. With no time for strategic planning, this shift simply transferred in-person practices online, but there is a significant risk that these crisis-driven models are now becoming embedded as ODL solutions.

Replicating instructor-led models online will not accelerate affordable access to quality higher education. Institutions will find these foundations entirely inadequate if they attempt to build on them for massively increasing numbers through a dedicated ODL approach. A model that is properly robust at scale places heavy demand on the quality of digital content.

Identifying good practice for digital learning content

To identify good practice around such content we conducted an integrative review of literature relating to the creation and delivery of digital learning content for open and dual-mode universities in sub-Saharan Africa. An integrative review is a systemic method that applies very strict criteria to a search of qualitative literature, resulting in a particularly focused set of results. We found and excluded a lot of papers that were about more general issues with the delivery of ODL in the region, suggesting that many challenges are predictable and providers can learn much from the experiences of their peers.

The few papers that did qualify suggest that content development is not given much consideration within the context of its unique contribution to ODL. We highlight this as an urgent area for more research. We cross-compared the qualifying papers and identified five desirable characteristics of digital ODL content: development, authoring, format, relevance and quality. The question of openness, including use of Open Education Resources, was recurrent.

We then explored the emerging issues in interviews with key stakeholders from ODL and blended universities in the region, articulating the challenges for achieving high quality digital content even within those institutions established on a mission to deliver ODL. Their detailed and thoughtful responses helped us to further refine the framework with themes of institutional context, development, format, relevance and quality management.

Significant findings

We describe and explore each of the identified characteristics in more detail in our paper, but summarise some highlights and recommendations below that practitioners may find useful:

  • National regulatory policies for ODL, including digital content, must be designed by experts and be fit for purpose.
  • Expert ODL institutional leadership and change management is essential to create an enabling environment. Leadership must be adaptive and champion change in a timely and innovative manner, embracing and leading ODL.
  • Deliberate and adequate investment is needed in every aspect of digital content development, using principles of instructional design and with input from academic, e-learning, graphic design, intellectual property, multimedia creation, equity and inclusion, accessibility, and project management experts as well as private sector subject matter specialists.
  • OER can be extremely valuable but must be used with intent, in a context of sound policy.
  • Support for the skills that students need to engage with digital content for ODL should be built into curriculum/delivery.
  • Whilst social networking platforms offer versatility and take content to students in their own space, it is hard to oversee and regulate the content shared in this way. This needs attention as the trend will only increase. New models should be designed rather than allowed to evolve. This includes artificial intelligence driven platforms such as chat bots.
  • There is opportunity to draw in students, researchers, and teachers to experiment and produce user-friendly education technologies or adapt existing ones.


Each of our interview participants faced complex challenges. Whilst these varied according to circumstances and context, they were all recognisably on the same continuum of progress and achievement towards national and, in some cases, world-leading models of ODL. It is thus clear that ODL does have the potential to be a mass solution to the challenge of student numbers for higher education in sub-Saharan Africa if decisions are made strategically and with full understanding of the issues involved for regional, national, local and individual needs. It is also clear that much more high-quality empirical research is needed. Our themes are not broadly generalisable as they arise from a small set of data but, embellished with the additional context from interviews, we hope they will provide a useful stepping off point for further research and exploration of successful scale case design.


Leave a Reply