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Optimising virtual learning beyond COVID-19: the PEBL experience

Published on 09 September 2020
Christina Wocintechchat Com L85a1k Xqh8 Unsplash

Universities around the world have transformed themselves at a remarkable pace over the past few months.

In east Africa, universities participating in the ACU-led Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning (PEBL) programme have made significant progress mounting emergency online teaching in response to COVID-19. Many participating academics and educational developers reported using the skills gained through PEBL to help them plan and manage this transition. Now, as they prepare to usher in a new semester, they are shifting efforts away from emergency strategies towards optimising virtual and blended learning experiences in the long run. 

Beyond the current crisis, virtual and blended modes of learning can deliver a range of lasting positive impacts for students and educators. Online platforms can also enhance the internationalisation of higher education by facilitating transnational exchanges and dialogue. Recent ACU initiatives, such as the inaugural Virtual Summer School and our first distance-learning Climate Resilience scholarship, have demonstrated the virtual world’s powerful potential to connect minds and broaden horizons.

However, building universities without walls is not a simple process. To succeed, we will need to fully leverage the creativity of academics, innovators and technical experts within universities. This approach is at the heart of the PEBL programme funded by FCDO SPHEIR, which continues to work with 24 east African universities to nurture a base of academic staff expertise on the use of effective blended learning pedagogy.

PEBL teams in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda have already made significant progress designing and delivering blended learning modules. They have successfully created and rolled out a new batch of nine modules on OER Africa in addition to a first batch of six released in 2019.

To date, over 9,000 students have used PEBL modules to build their skills and gain degree credits, while over 150 academic staff have been trained on various aspects of module design and delivery. Many staff members trained under PEBL have gone on to train others at their university.

While PEBL universities were all working to enhance blended learning capacity prior to COVID-19, they were at different stages in the process and received varying levels of institutional support. We have seen the pandemic change this drastically: campus shutdowns have provided opportunities for universities to quickly improve existing ICT operations, redirect resources to overcome infrastructural deficits, and focus on quickly expanding student access.

Towards a new normal

Many university staff have reported using campus closures to strengthen existing blended learning capacities in preparation for the 2020-21 academic year. PEBL teams have taken a range of strategic approaches to achieve this: some have obtained greater support from ICT and management to build on existing capacity, while others have advocated for more staff training on Moodle and learning management systems. A few PEBL universities have established or strengthened units coordinating blended learning design and delivery. One university reported requiring all faculty to develop online modules. 

In response to poor internet connections and expensive data costs experienced by many students – as highlighted by a recent ACU survey – some PEBL universities have also negotiated comprehensive data packages to give students free internet access to continue learning.

‘A complete virtual learning environment takes a long time to deploy,’ said Ian Wairua, PEBL team member at Strathmore University, Kenya and a faculty member of the university’s Centre for Teaching Excellence. ‘We needed to think of a simple delivery tool to help the lecturer continue classes with minimal disruption. The idea is that faculties should be able to choose from a variety of tools that fit their teaching styles, and that students could connect with.’ Shortly after lockdown began, Strathmore University successfully moved all of its existing programmes online, with lecturers teaching virtually using a mix of simple tools such as Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom. Throughout the process, the Centre for Teaching Excellence has provided continuous training.

‘The process of training and introducing many tools helped us shift the focus from mere tools to the learning process itself and the intended outcomes,’ adds Ian. ‘We shifted from emergency mode to genuine online learning mode to discuss interactivity and student engagement.’

Reflecting on the shift from emergency online teaching to long-term capacity development, PEBL Programme Manager Fiona Khandoker said that ‘COVID-19 has certainly reinforced the importance of virtual learning, not just as a core element of universities’ contingency plans, but as a cornerstone of quality higher education in the long run. By enhancing staff capital and increasing collaboration between universities to overcome common challenges, PEBL aims to lay the groundwork for the sustainable growth of innovative teaching and learning practices in the region, and support blended learning approaches which work for both educators and learners’.

The academics, educational developers, IT and blended learning experts across the PEBL network continue to play an instrumental role seeding innovation within their institutions. If quality online learning can be made a reality for more students, universities can open new frontiers for learning and pave the way for collaborative research between different types of faculties. As PEBL teams have shown us, institutional transformations often begin small and grow into sustained cultures of innovation and change.