Technology has been a key driver to educational innovation in a number of Higher Educational Institutions. Makerere University in Uganda has been at the forefront of providing and implementing Online Learning through various initiatives it has undertaken since 1998.
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This mode of education was first introduced by the World Bank, through its African Virtual University (AVU) project, that worked with Makerere as a Partner Institution. The experiences and lessons have enabled the University adapt to the changes within its context.
Emerging trends and best practices
There are emerging trends in ICT usage which can be utilized in the various segments of the Education spectrum.
Ubiquity: The growing ubiquity of mobile devices has provided opportunities for their use in education. The expansion of Smart phone growth in all areas has given rise to more educational opportunities in teaching, learning, supervision and assessment, in the process expanding ICT applicability.
Affordability: In the last few years, there has been a growing interest in lowering the costs of connectivity of telecommunication services to a reasonable level. Competition in the sector has offered more people access and utilization of these services. Outside voice transmission, there are now provisions of banking services, payment of rates and utilities, dissemination of results, electronic applications and many others.
Richness: The mix of digital educational resources has enabled various affordances to be explored. The internet, the mobile phones, the podcasters, Web 2.0 tools are some of the resources which have eased content delivery. This richness allows for users to adapt and use them in education and other sectors.
Opportunities and Challenges
Foremost has been the Development Partners’ willingness and contribution in supporting various initiatives, either in terms of infrastructural development, research, capacity building or piloting emerging online teaching methods. They have been particularly amiable towards ICT related projects. Their role has accelerated Makerere’s rate of adoption and adaptation.
Secondly, the staff members went for further studies or attended workshops outside the country and got exposed to some of the online tools like Web 2.0. On their return, they shared, exposed their colleagues in their use and used them in their teaching, research or in supervision.
Thirdly the proliferation of several affordable mobile devices in the country has created opportunities for inclusion of multimedia content towards teaching, learning and research, in the process enhancing both the lecturers’ and students’ abilities.
However, there have been several challenges in the implementation of Online learning. Foremost has been the slow pace of its full integration in the University system due to the restrictive budgetary allocation. This has affected the rate of implementation of online activities.
The bulk of support has tended to come from Development Partners who have ensured that online activities are functional. The University needs to provide a conducive environment for e-learning support to keep abreast with the current educational trends. This could be in terms of specialized equipment, acquisition of software required for the design of electronic content and a commitment to build the necessary capacity for staff to use it in the preparation of their content.
Secondly, the readiness of academic staff to participate in electronic learning is still wanting despite training over 30% of the lecturers since 2005. Most of those trained never translate their training into developing online courses either as a result of a fixed mind set or fear of extra workload. Presently there are only about 30% of total courses created in the system which can be said to be active.
Thirdly, like most Sub Saharan African countries, the use of ICT in Uganda is still new, rare, and prevalent to a specific age group. Unfortunately, that age group is not at decision making level which makes it difficult for them to make or influence policy. In a recent PHEA (Partnership for Higher Education in Africa) ICT study, usage of ICT was more prevalent among the Lecturers and below than the Lecturers and above categories. Most lecturers are stuck with the chalk and talk teaching method with very low adaptation rate. Sensitization and some motivational methods could be used to reward early adapters.
Fourthly, there is the widespread challenge in accessing and using Internet, despite the Seacom cable promise. While accessibility is intermittent, the regular power outage has not helped the situation either. To date there are many students who cannot activate their emails and usually find it difficult to get around the system despite being given direction by their lecturers. This is either due to a phobia or lack of skills which need to be addressed.
Provision of Content
Most of the content in the LMS is not interactive. A number of lecturers have tended to use the system as a repository rather than as a learning tool. This lack of integration into the teaching process does not encourage students to be enthusiastic about this mode of learning. To date, only 50 courses have been designed and quality assured by pedagogical experts and is being used as model courses. Despite this, a lot needs to be done to reach a level where it is appreciated as fully online courses.
There is need to train more people to handle student support otherwise many who are interested might be put off. The support should be in form of educational counsellors, with empathy and capacity to handle online student frustration.
Furthermore, online support requires much time to be spent on students. This has raised motivational concern from lecturers especially during training. Devising a reward scheme would motivate those involved in the delivery of online content.
Finally, assessment methods have been contentious in terms of inadequacy and policy. There is need to design multiple assessment methods to ensure that trust is built in the entire online process. A well thought out approach needs to be used for its success.
Due to slow internet, streaming and buffering of online sessions and downloading session modules is difficult. This is compounded by factors like power failure and system malfunctioning. In addition, the software associated with online learning requires minimum computer specifications. Its absence, and the large number of people accessing the services, often causes the system to crash. There is need to fit the Institution’s requirements with user capabilities to ensure that online learning is effective.
Lastly, a strong ICT team is needed to support, and make regular system updates to safeguard against intruders and sustain a seamless system. Presently, there is no dedicated team to do so although this falls within the ICT Support Directorate’s mandate.
There are a number of questions which require some answers. For instance, there has been an increase in the use of social networks especially among the students in the university. It is acknowledged that these networks increase collaboration and team work. Within our own context, how much of it can be incorporated in Teaching and Learning especially as there are many lecturers who are not very keen to join these networks? How much creativity does it promote given that most of the students use it for social relations?
In most institutions the use of computers has been relegated to computer literacy (using MS office). This is a common phenomenon in most educational institutions. How much ICT can be integrated in teaching and learning (where technology facilitates learning across the curriculum)?
Of more concern is the present disparity in access and use of ICTs in education. Is it likely to widen divisions along economic, social, cultural, geographic, and gender lines?
I would like to make four recommendations arising from the Makerere experience. Firstly, there is need for ICT policy to be formulated at various levels, for primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. The policy should spell out the road map on how ICT is integrated into education and the role each stakeholder should play in the delivery of content. This will assist many educational institutions including a number of Universities in Uganda.
Secondly, the Intellectual Property Laws need to be well articulated and publicized in view of the online resources which are currently developed under Creative Commons license. Many people in Uganda are not aware of this alternative license scheme and are therefore reluctant to upload their content for public consumption.
Thirdly, the lack of Quality Assurance Framework for Online Education in Sub Saharan Africa is a very serious matter. There is need for an urgent and concerted effort to have this in place if we have to have quality digital learning environment.
Lastly we need to identify champions who are prepared to take Online Education to the next level. In doing this we need to ensure there are adequate ICT facilities in selected tertiary institutions for students and teachers to use. This can be followed by identifying the actual people who are ready to take this process to the next level. The resultant effect will have a multiplier effect and ensure that more people are aware of the potential benefits of ICT in education.