Technology is playing an expanding role in higher education around the globe. For a growing number of ACU members on the African continent who have established e-Learning hubs over the years, this fact rings particularly true. Innovative pedagogical approaches, such as the use of online learning tools alongside traditional teaching methods, are becoming increasingly important as rapidly growing student populations leave many universities grappling with staff shortages.
This is the complex challenge which the Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning Programme (PEBL), launched by the UK FCDO's SPHEIR Programme in a consortium of 24 participating universities across Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda, seeks to address. The ACU spearheads the Partnership network, enriching East Africa’s growing ecosystem of blended learning users through ongoing institutional capacity-building and resource-sharing efforts.
In early 2019, PEBL’s first batch of online modules were uploaded to Open Educational Resources (OER) Africa for university lecturers to import into their own virtual learning environments. These quality-assured courses, ranging from critical thinking tools to research methodologies, were designed to run in parallel with traditional classroom lectures and equip students with important knowledge and skills applicable to both their studies and future careers. Within a year following the launch, PEBL modules have already benefitted over 17,000 students.
We received highly encouraging feedback. Students are responding positively to what is, for many, an initial experience with online study tools. They are using online discussion boards and chat rooms to engage more frequently and meaningfully with peers and lecturers. They cite multimedia material as highly engaging, and many students have gained important technical skills in the process of navigating online modules. For those who are juggling work and family responsibilities alongside their studies, online modules offer the flexibility they need to obtain credits under difficult schedules. Some students also appreciated the expanded access to online courses from other universities that are in alignment with their career goals. Already, the successes of PEBL’s first year point towards the strong potential of blended learning to expand the impact of, and access to, higher education on the continent.
As the academic year drew to a close, the ACU also asked students and lecturers to answer an important question: what could be done better? With new developments come new challenges which must be addressed before institutions can maximize the benefits of innovation. Taking stock of our experience in 2019, we identified three key opportunities for growth as we move the Partnership forward in the new year:
Addressing infrastructural challenges
Slow internet connections and insufficient numbers of computers are the most commonly cited challenges hampering the efficiency and accessibility of online modules. On campus, computer-sharing in the lab decreases the level of engagement for individual students. Off campus, remote learners who do not own personal access devices may have difficulty accessing notes or taking part in discussion boards. When universities integrate blended learning into their long-term institutional plans, critical resources can be redirected towards overcoming infrastructural gaps.
Strengthening user skills
Adaptation to new systems takes time. The process can be accelerated by providing university staff with systematic training in module design, development and delivery to help lecturers quickly navigate the new format and engage with the range of tools at their disposal. To date, over 150 staff across select partner universities have already received training in module development and technical skills with PEBL resources. The ACU continues to broaden the reach and improve the efficacy of skills training materials.
Sensitizing both students and lecturers to the immediate and long-term benefits of blended learning tools generates greater motivation to use them, particularly when short-term infrastructural concerns may frustrate users. By offering students clear introductions upon enrolment and ample technical support throughout the semester, universities can encourage students to embrace online modules as core components of the learning experience. Regular collection of student feedback can also be useful in this regard, as it helps university staff develop modules suited to the needs and interests of students, thereby generating greater interest and participation.
The ultimate success of blended learning rests upon trained educators and long-term institutional commitments. The ACU looks forward to continuing its close collaboration with university partners to evolve pedagogical approaches alongside technology and develop robust institutional capacities to deliver quality learning experiences to greater numbers of students.