The Business of Learning

CAPE TOWN — With technology rampantly destroying old skills and creating new ones, success in the future -the near-future – will require continuous education. The Web, it is said, is the best tool for the job. And this is where South African company eDegree thinks the smart money is.

According to the IDC, 47% of American Tertiary Education institutions offered distance learning of some form, with this number expected to grow to 90% by 2004 as institutions capitalize on the increasing comfort students have with e-learning.

While South African conditions are significantly different from those in first world countries, we can expect a similar trend among local institutions. With a large sector of the population illiterate and the problem of the “brain drain” well publicized, education is a critical national priority. Indeed, recognizing this, the Government, has made into law the Skills Development Levies Act, requiring most businesses to pay a 1% levy on taxable income, refundable if the business can prove it spent a like amount of money on staff training.

Obviously, there is a lot of money to be made in South African Education, but not easy money given the barriers, the most significant of which is content. Content from educators has to measure up to standards, has to create something. But for eDegree, part of the Johnnic Group, this isnt a problem.

The company is an infomediary, helping Tertiary Education Institutions offer distance learning via the Internet, neatly solving the content-generation problem. Any assignments and courses completed through eDegree are marked and accredited by the actual institutions, leaving eDegree to handle web-administration and content-delivery.

Course material is available online, bolstered by multimedia support that includes text-with-voice, video presentations, computer animations and real-time chat with lecturers.

EDegree eventually aims to address all levels of education needs, from Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET) to final year of school (eMatric) to postgraduate degrees. They also hope to tape into the business market by offering similar services to corporations seeking to train their employees.

Helping educators to bring their courses online and taking a cut is a credible business plan. Being among the first to market, eDegree is able to associate itself with powerful education brands -e.g. the Universities of Stellenbosch and Orange Free State- while establishing itself strongly in the market place still without significant competitors. And without the difficulties creating credible content brings.

Being part of the Johnnic Group is a distinct advantage, allowing them cross-marketing opportunities with the likes of the Sunday Times and CareerJunction, never mind the benefit of tapping the business savvy within the group.

The question is, how do they prevent tertiary education institutions from eventually side-stepping them and getting their own IT departments to handle the intricacies of web-based education? Perhaps the answer is simply professionalism, the ability to develop, manage and market a web-presence more effectively than an academic institution; but history will judge.

What cannot be debated is the necessity for knowledge in a knowledge-based economy. Knowledge that gets outdated faster with every passing year, requiring us to unlearn what we know and begin afresh. In other words, those wanting to get ahead had best be getting back to school.

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