Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, took the world of higher education by storm in 2012 and 2013. Updates on available courses, new providers and related opportunities quickly became a weekly event. The hype has died down – the potential hasn’t.

MOOCs are free online courses, many of which are offered by some of the world’s best educational institutions, and tens of thousands of individuals are able to enrol for each one. They use algorithms to give grades, keystroke analysis to verify identities and webcam proctoring to make sure students attend class.

This is education meets sci-fi, and MOOCs are sitting in the cloud, waiting for Africa to embrace them.

Without education, there is no development. In countries like Ghana, there is a market for expensive private colleges and universities. However, most ECOWAS countries (Economic Community of West African States) suffer from an alarmingly low rate of enrolment in higher education. Most people can’t afford private schools. Public schools lack capacity.

So who will train the region’s future leaders of industry and government? Will the rich get richer, the poor get poorer? Will the highly trained human capital pool remain at 5% of the region’s population? Not if governments, citizens and corporations are willing to embrace the opportunity that MOOCs provide.

Between the major MOOC providers of edX, Coursera and Udacity, there are over 500 free university-level courses available. This dwarfs the number of courses offered by universities in West Africa. So why is adoption in the ECOWAS countries so low?

For starters, these courses are not accredited. Also, access to sufficient bandwidth in the region is a struggle for most people. If MOOCs were to gain accreditation, knowledge of these valuable resources could spread virally.

People of all ages can learn how to be (or be better) farmers, doctors, engineers, policy-makers, and so on. And all this from a cellphone, tablet or laptop. Public universities should adopt these free courses and contextualize them. Students could meet in rent-free high schools, churches, mosques, parks and ministries. A development revolution would follow.

Entrepreneurs equipped with the necessary know-how, global connections and a massive pool of qualified human capital to hire would emerge. Yields on farms would increase. People would be healthier and thus more productive. Government incomes would also increase.

Roads improve. Trade increases. And all from what? Not, for a change, a huge loan from the World Bank or the discovery of a massive oil reserve. Instead – MOOCs.

Free higher education from the best universities in the world, delivered from Takoradi in Ghana to Timbuktu in Mali, all on something as affordable as a smartphone.

This can become a reality. It will require an acceptance of a lack of ability in ECOWAS to meet the needs of the citizenry, and a willingness to let go of preconceived notions of how things “ought” to be done. It will take coordination and the adoption of non-traditional forms of accreditation like competency-based degrees. If government, technology companies, the telecommunications industry and public universities join forces, high-quality online education could be made available for free.

If national accrediting bodies, ministries of higher education and corporations get on board, then everyone stands to benefit. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and the choices couldn’t be clearer.

Author: John Roberts, Co-Founder and President, Open University of West Africa, Ghana; Global Shaper

Image: Students use computers to study in Cape Town, November 7, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings