Rwandan Degree Program Aims for a 'University in a Box'

Laura Elizabeth Pohl for The Chronicle

Students attend an orientation session at Kepler, a new hybrid program in Kigali, Rwanda, which will use MOOCs and classroom time to help students earn competency-based associate degrees.
September 16, 2013

Agnes Musanabera has all the makings of a university student. She earned good grades at Cornerstone Leadership Academy, a selective secondary school outside Kigali, Rwanda, that she attended on scholarship. Her scores on the comprehensive national exams placed her among the top performers in the country.

But Rwanda has few universities, and those students lucky enough to earn spots are often stymied by fees that run between $1,500 and $2,000 a year—roughly three times the average annual income. In 2011, only 6.6 percent of college-age Rwandans were enrolled in universities, according to the World Bank.

"I really prayed for it," says the 20-year-old Ms. Musanabera, who was orphaned during a childhood that straddled Rwanda and Uganda in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. "I said, 'God, I need a school from America.'"

She gets her wish this month with the opening of Kepler, an education program established in Kigali, the nation's capital, by the nonprofit organization Generation Rwanda. Free for students, Kepler threads together open-source, online content from Western universities, on-site classroom instruction, and an associate degree from Southern New Hampshire University's competency-based program, College for America.

The goal is to build a low-cost, high-quality blended-learning model that can be replicated anywhere, says Generation Rwanda's executive director, Jamie Hodari. Kepler's first four years are being financed by a corporate foundation that insists, at least for now, on keeping its name and the size of its contribution secret. The 10-year plan includes scaling up from the inaugural class of 50—Ms. Musanabera among them—to 100,000 students at replica programs around the world.

"We want people to copy us," says Mr. Hodari, who came to Generation Rwanda after working as legal counsel for an investment fund in New York. "We want people to steal everything and anything we create. Our intention is to create a university in a box, a kit, down to every lesson plan."

Scholars who follow international education say that Kepler's disaggregated approach pushes the frontiers of innovations like massive open online courses and competency-based degrees, and that it has few peers. It is also fraught with potential stumbling blocks. Will it earn the trust of employers and of others in higher education? Will Rwandan students adapt to Western-style instruction in English? Is the Kepler model sustainable over the long term?

On the other hand, some observers point to the program's potential to serve as an example for how educators can structure and transform the amorphous MOOC movement. "It is exciting because they are providing infrastructure and trying to make sense of the MOOC world in a way we haven't see yet," says Jason Lane, a senior researcher with the Institute for Global Education Policy Studies at the State University of New York at Albany.

"In some ways, it could become a model in the United States," he says, "because we have not yet developed a way in which students in the United States can take MOOCs and turn those into degrees or academic credentials."

Scholarships to Start

Kepler was born out of Generation Rwanda's existing scholarship program. Since 2004, it has paid for cohorts of up to several dozen students to attend Rwandan universities while also providing the students with extensive support services. The services include English-language instruction, professional-skills training, and internship placement.

The scholarship program has had near-perfect graduation and job-placement rates, according to program officials, but the quality of education delivered by Rwandan institutions falls well below Western standards. Students face professors who skip class and others who spend entire lectures reading straight from books. Some university facilities lack microphone equipment, meaning that in large auditoriums only the first few rows of students can follow what is being said. The rest are left to borrow notes.

Last year Generation Rwanda officials decided to explore a new avenue with Kepler. They won approval for the experiment from Rwanda's Ministry of Education, its National Council for Higher Education, and its immigration office, which oversees international organizations, Mr. Hodari says.

They also began lengthy negotiations with College for America, a groundbreaking competency-based program at Southern New Hampshire that was accredited in 2012 by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges' Commission on Institutions of Higher Education. Competency-based programs award credit based not on how much time is spent in the classroom but on students' mastery of knowledge and skills, typically demonstrated by successfully completing assignments or tasks.

In March, the U.S. Education Department said it would provide federal aid to U.S. students enrolled in competency-based programs, deepening the toehold of College for America and its peers. Kepler is College for America's sole international partner, according to Paul J. LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire. The new alliance will allow his staff to "test the waters for what we think might grow."

"The idea was to work with partners that could be part of the student's individual learning ecosystem, and for many adults that might mean a range of community-based organizations," Mr. LeBlanc says in an e-mail interview. "We see the Kepler pilot in that light, and we love their mission."

'Digestible' Content

Armed with four years' worth of start-up money from the unnamed corporate foundation, Generation Rwanda officials began assembling the Kepler staff. They are a mix of Americans and Africans with diverse professional backgrounds in education, law, and finance.

This past spring, they ran a pilot program using a critical-thinking-skills class from the University of Edinburgh that was offered through the MOOC provider Coursera. Twelve of the 15 students who started the class successfully completed it, says Christine Yarng, director of academic programs at Kepler. Students watched online lectures on their own and then met up in small groups to discuss the material. They attended class once a week and participated in learning activities meant to apply the content on a higher level, Ms. Yarng says.

The academic team is now finalizing two years' worth of curriculum for Kepler. The process starts with selecting an open-source online class, and then designing a course and accompanying lesson plans around it, according to Chrystina Russell, chief academic officer. Kepler students will take online classes from the Universities of Toronto and Melbourne, among others.

"We take things that are accessible on the Internet, like MOOCs, and we create lesson plans that teachers would be able to use to make all of the MOOC information digestible, and to create projects and assessment that allow students to show mastery over that content," says Ms. Russell, who founded and served as principal of Global Technology Preparatory, a blended-learning school in New York City, before moving to Rwanda this year.

The Kepler curriculum is being constructed to complement the 120 competencies that College for America requires students to demonstrate to earn an associate degree in general studies with a concentration in business. The idea is that if the students successfully complete the Kepler coursework, they'll also be able to execute the competencies for the College for America degree. The Rwandan students will do the College for America assignments on their own, to be submitted electronically and assessed by staff members there.

After two years, Kepler officials plan to expand the blended-learning program to offer bachelor's degrees through competency-based programs at other universities.

A Big Bridge to Cross

Kepler received 2,696 applications for the program's inaugural class, which matriculated on September 13. But the 50 students who were chosen face no shortage of complicating factors. The students' English skills vary. Each will be given a personal laptop and training, but many have minimal experience with digital technology. And they hail from a teacher-centric education system.

If you go to a classroom in Rwanda, "it will be a professor talking, maybe reading for two hours, and the students just sitting and taking notes," says Ms. Yarng, who has a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley and previously taught at a charter school in Austin, Tex. "Very rarely do students work in small groups or get asked to offer opinions or asked, 'What questions do you have about the content?'

"That is going to be a big cultural bridge that we are going to need to help these students cross."

The program faces other challenges, say people who follow international higher education. Some American universities have established programs in foreign countries only to struggle to find their place within the local education landscape. There are also worries about the proliferation of a single strain of Western-style education at the loss of diverse practices and approaches.

"One of the questions about the use of MOOCs—which almost all originate from the U.S. or the U.K. or other large, rich countries—is what is the local context in any given country such as Rwanda?" says Philip Altbach, a professor and researcher at Boston College's Center for International Higher Education. "Are they going to be able to have as part of their curriculum courses which are relevant to the Rwanda situation?"

So far, start-up expenses have totaled $180,000, Mr. Hodari says in an e-mail. The current per-student cost at Kepler is about $1,200 annually. At this point, the program is free for students. The goal is to lower the cost to $1,000 or less so that the program can run on tuition income when the start-up money is exhausted.

Mr. Hodari describes it as a "tough goal," but one that keeps the program's mission focused on students rather than raising money from donors.

"Our approach has been to work backward from that cost anchor and determine the level of services we can offer for that price, rather than starting with an impossible large budget and scaling back when we realize that the people we want to serve can't afford us," he says.

Program officials are also trying to form partnerships with local banks to establish a student-loan market, which Rwanda now lacks.

An external research group has been hired to study the academic performance of Kepler students as compared with two control groups—students enrolled at brick-and-mortar Rwandan universities and Rwandan students enrolled in an online-only program.

"We are ambitious," Ms. Russell says. "We have big goals. I won't feel successful until we are at 100 percent of students graduating. But I also think our real marker of success is having those students have jobs that they want."

The stakes are high for Kepler's students, many of whom have few alternatives.

"Rwanda has students who are intelligent," says Erina Kabatesi, a 21-year-old Kepler student. "If I am to have this education, at least I know there is something that will change in Rwanda."