GetSmarter started off as a family business, with co-founder and CEO Sam Paddock, his father, Graham, mother, Mandy, and brother Rob.
Graham was a sectional title lawyer, who was involved in training property managers around the country, but found that he didn’t enjoy travelling.
The internet offered an opportunity to convert this training into a suite of online property law courses, which Paddock and his brother Rob helped to set up, and which did very well.
Previously, Paddock co-founded an online wine store called GETWINE, and came up with the idea of offering a wine appreciation course.
Created with the assistance of Charl Theron of Stellenbosch University’s department of viticulture and oenology, this too was successful. Soon the fledgling company was providing online learning in other areas, from internet system administration to project management.
Today, GetSmarter’s campus is an unfurling expanse of interconnected open spaces and meeting rooms, each themed with a different slogan or business value.
Throughout, there are chalkboards, whiteboards, pinboards, big plasma screens and, in one instance, a theatrical marquee with the phrase “Play to Win” spelled out in lights.
The open-plan spaces and meeting rooms of this campus are all branded with one, or more, of GetSmarter’s core beliefs.
Paddock explains: “These values help our team make decisions, and answer the question: ‘What should or shouldn’t we do?’. These are statements of what we value at GetSmarter, and give rise to a set of attitudes and behaviours that we hire for, fire for, and reward.”
Today GetSmarter employs 220 permanent staff and 80 part-time teachers, offering some 60 online short courses, in collaboration with the University of Cape Town (UCT) and other partners.
In addition to the short courses, postgraduate programmes currently being offered include the UCT Advanced Diploma in Business Project Management, and the UCT Postgraduate Diploma in Management in Marketing.
Through an initiative called Across Africa, GetSmarter and UCT have made postgraduate programmes available throughout the continent, with applications coming in from countries as far afield as Tanzania and Mauritius.
Students who successfully complete a course are presented with a certificate from the universities that collaborate with GetSmarter – these include UCT (including its Graduate School of Business) and Wits.
In 2015, GetSmarter educated well over 10000 working professionals in online university short courses. “[This] constitutes between 100 and 150 hours of learning each, at a pace of between 10 and 15 hours a week,” says Paddock. Short courses normally take place over 10 weeks.
The company boasts a 94% course completion rate; to date, some 40000 working professionals have done distance learning courses through GetSmarter.
What drives GetSmarter’s success is its unique learning methodology which results in excellent outcomes for students.
This is why Paddock is so obsessed with ensuring that he and his team live the company’s values.
GetSmarter’s blended learning model combines the use of an interactive online platform with high-touch support.
Learners have direct access to their fellow students, a dedicated course coach (an academic) and a course instructor (an industry expert).
Technology is key: every learning activity is online, so everything can be tracked. The system notes when learners log in; when they post questions; when they watch video lectures as well as how much of the lecture they watch; how long it takes for the faculty to answer learner questions and so on.
Paddock explains: “If we see a trend with students watching a particular lecture and then completing an optional exercise, for example, and then doing really well on a specific learning outcome, we can start to piece together what sort of teaching content performs best. This is very powerful when you think about all the potential uses of these learning analytics and how they can help us improve teaching.”
One of the key challenges in distance education, Paddock maintains, is keeping the student motivated and on track.
Students who fall behind at the beginning of a course, may never catch up. GetSmarter’s diagnostic tools ‘flag’ learners who may be ‘at risk’.
“For example,” says Paddock, “we can use data to determine if a learner hasn’t prepared sufficiently for an assignment. The result? We can intervene with an email or a telephone call to highlight the potential risk, and help the learner course-correct.”
Why should industry invest in learning? Paddock says this is a no-brainer because businesses that invest in learning do well.
“Having a learning-focused culture results in increased motivation, better decision making, and the adoption of a testing hypothesis,” he says.
A testing hypothesis is similar in thinking to the scientific method – interrogating assumptions and being open to alternatives that improve processes. It’s about continuously striving for improvement, rather than settling for the ‘tried and true’.
Bridging the gap
While e-learning presents solutions for education in Africa, there are still many challenges.
A pressing problem to making education accessible is bandwidth, which remains a stumbling block.
According to the UN Broadband Commission, Ethiopia, Niger, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Somalia, Burundi, Eritrea and South Sudan are eight of the ten countries in the world with less than 2% internet penetration.
For wealthier African countries, like South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria, connectivity is more readily available, and generally cheaper.
Another issue is that most tertiary institutions in Africa still use textbooks from the UK, the USA or France. Locally developed curriculum content is sorely needed, and still needs to be developed.
Thirdly, educators themselves have grown up in systems that are archaic, insufficient and largely inappropriate.
Political change has sometimes brought failed experiments (think of SA’s Outcome Based Education in South Africa). This has created its own legacy of dysfunction.
Educators need to be trained in using technology, but often governments have poor or nonexistent ICT policies. SA is a good case in point.
E-learning helps bridge the gap and is proving incredibly adept at meeting business demand.
As businesses expand, their demand for skilled human capital grows, and GetSmarter is ideally placed to fulfil this demand.
In fact, since 2012, GetSmarter has annually enjoyed up to 100% growth year-on-year. Revenues in 2012 were R20m – by 2015 this had grown to R128m.
This places GetSmarter smack in the middle of a massive growth sector. International market research firm, Ambient Insight Research, says that the worldwide market for “Self-paced e-learning” reached $47.9bn in 2015.
The global researchers expect e-learning revenues will reach $50.4bn by 2020, and say the sweet spot in this market will be Africa.
“Africa is the most dynamic eLearning market on the planet and has the highest growth rate for Self-paced eLearning in the world at 16.3%,” writes Ambient. “Ambient Insight has revised our forecasts significantly upward for most African countries. Revenues reached $523m in 2015 and will nearly double to $1.1bn by 2020.”
GetSmarter looks set to ride this wave, providing innovation and upliftment for the next era of African entrepreneurs, workers, business owners and executives.
This article originally appeared in the 21 January 2016 edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.