If you want to study computer programming at a sub-Saharan African university, bring a pencil, FastCompany reports.

“We used to write programs on paper,” says Ahmed Maawy of Mombasa, Kenya. “Say, write a program that calculates the area of a square. And you write that whole piece of code on paper. That’s the test. It’s so crazy!”

The private technical institute that Maawy attended in 2002-2003 closed the doors to its computer labs outside class hours, giving students little chance to practice executing actual code. For this he was paying 120,000 Kenyan shillings a semester–that’s $3,526 per year in a country where the national income per capita is $816. And at least that college was accredited. Another school where Maawy enrolled turned out to be a scam.

… In the last year the hype around online education, and particularly free Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, reached a fever pitch and met a sharp backlash.

MOOCs, it seems, don’t work particularly well as standalone education solutions; less than 10% of users will finish a typical course without outside support, and most participants are already highly educated.

… But if there’s anywhere in the world where free and low-cost online education has the chance to make a transformative impact, it’s in Africa, where the demand is huge.

Here, a growing network of social entrepreneurs, some African, some foreign, are appropriating free resources produced overseas into a new context: packaging them into a low-cost bundle with moderated discussions, mentorship, and practical experience, sometimes to create complete degree programs, other times on an informal, as-needed basis. It’s a unique recipe with a chance to “leapfrog” traditional, complex university infrastructure and succeed, not just in Africa, but around the globe.

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