An increasing number of African universities are experiencing growing teaching burdens due to rapidly rising student populations and academic staff shortages, resulting in adverse impacts on teaching quality and the student experience.
Blended learning – a combination of face-to-face and online learning – offers a promising approach to address this challenge. However, blended learning uptake is a complex process that presents many challenges, particularly for institutions already facing staff shortages.
Through the Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning (PEBL), one of the SPHEIR initiatives funded by the FCDO, we have witnessed significant growth in the uptake of blended learning across four project countries, (Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya) – thanks to the commitment of the networks’ academics, educational developers, and ICT experts to strengthening university teaching and learning for all.
As PEBL’s east Africa chapter draws to a close, we reached out to leaders to hear their motivations for supporting blended learning and invited them to share their experience of spearheading digital transformations in their respective universities.
Paul N. Kahenya, Acting Director Online and Distance Learning - African Nazarene University (ANU), East Africa
As PEBL team leader, Paul applied his expertise as acting director to the role and has mentored academics, attended PEBL specific training and gained exposure to international best practices on blended content design and innovative ways to put students at the heart of pedagogy.
‘My vision is a fully digitised university, in all aspects, academic and otherwise,’ Paul says. ‘Empowering faculty with relevant technologies is a crucial investment, and this should be coupled with capacity-building, especially in the areas of designing and developing blended content and instructional processes. Blended learning is happening. Africa cannot play catchup again; we are embracing it. It is the future.’
Paul and his colleagues have shared their learnings and spearheaded the development of new online modules, which act as model examples of well-designed blended pedagogy. PEBL training and tools have provided a useful reference point for facilitating staff training for those interested in pursuing this path.
‘PEBL has put me in tune with the needs of students. The preparation is worth the time during the semester,’ Paul recalls. ‘It has helped me focus on how students perceive learning in terms of what is relevant for the learner, now and in the future, and how much thought needs to be invested in designing the learning and instruction process.’
Dr. Elizabeth Mwaniki, Educational Psychology Lecturer and Coordinator, Teaching and Quality Assurance - Digital School, Kenyatta University, East Africa
Elizabeth seized the opportunity to lead on blended learning when the opportunity arose. ‘The PEBL project became a catalyst,’ she states. ‘It imparted in me the necessary knowledge, skills, attitudes, and even the confidence that I needed to facilitate trainings on how to develop content for blended learning.’
Together with the Digital School team, Elizabeth played a crucial role catalysing buy-in for blended learning amongst her colleagues and was the lynchpin for cascading training to over 1,100 lecturers across the university, focusing on the technical aspects of blended learning including design, delivery, and quality assurance. Trained staff have since created over 2,200 interactive modules, educating over 70,000 students.
Elizabeth and the Digital School team at the University, comprising of Dr George Onyango, Dr Rhoda Gitonga, Dr Eric Masika, Dr Samuel Mutweleli and Dr Syprine Oyoo have already started cascading their expertise to other universities in the region and beyond. Elizabeth has harnessed her network to contact African universities looking to strengthen their capacity for blended learning. She recognises that re-tooling staff and students to cope with the dynamic demands of blended and digital learning significantly impacts learner experiences and outcomes.
‘The plan is to move many popular programmes online, tap into the wider market and be more flexible and accommodating to the needs of all,’ Elizabeth explains.
Looking ahead, Elizabeth is looking forward to using her skills and know-how to support colleagues through Kenyatta University’s digital transformation and stresses how efforts must refocus on bridging the digital divide for both staff and students.
Dr. Andre Muhirwa, Director of Teaching and Learning and Economics Lecturer - University of Rwanda, East Africa
Andre is passionate about innovation in teaching, learning, and pedagogy. Having witnessed the proliferation of blended learning across the African continent, Andre sees capacity-strengthening as a priority and despite the challenges posed by the digital divide, believes that the benefits of blended learning will help universities invest in their students’ futures while saving costs and time.
His objective is to build an enabling environment where academics can strengthen their expertise in blended learning, create quality student experiences, and develop future-proof, technology-savvy faculties.
Following PEBL trainings, Andre supported colleagues with blended curriculum development and review, online instruction and assessment, and pedagogical innovation. This did not come without its challenges, and Andre admits many academics were initially resistant to change and lacked commitment to the process.
‘I overcame [these challenges] through continuous sensitisation, trainings, and facilitation,’ Andre explains. ‘The PEBL modules developed under [the programme] were instrumental as they served as models.
The impact of PEBL was particularly visible throughout COVID-19 campus shutdowns, and Andre recalls how PEBL training, templates, and guidance greatly helped academics resume teaching, learning, and assessment activities.
Ultimately, Andre wants to realise his vision - ‘the University of Rwanda we want’ – one that recognises the importance of digital and blended learning and expands it to equip students and future graduates with the skills to navigate a rapidly changing job market.
Dr Lucy Ikiara, Director of Quality Assurance - Kenya Methodist University (KeMU), East Africa
When KeMU adopted its first online learning management system (LMS), the university was focused on distance online learning and few faculties or students understood the potential of online and blended learning. When KeMU joined PEBL, Lucy, saw an opportunity to raise the profile of blended learning as the university’s ‘new normal’.
Understanding the long-term benefits of blended learning for student outcomes, Lucy began advocating for PEBL, led the institutionalisation of the PEBL QA Rubric for blended course offerings, and spearheaded the onsite review for blended learning implementation to better understand the gaps and needs across the institution. In addition, Lucy pushed for the development of a blended learning policy.
As the in-house source of expertise, Lucy answers questions on the blended format and helps academics to understand and embed new pedagogical approaches.
Lucy’s PEBL training and leadership role influenced her understanding of pedagogy and teaching. ‘I embrace more student-centred approaches by incorporating student activities,’ she describes.
With the university recognising the need to strengthen academics’ capacity to develop engaging, interactive, and student-centric blended content, Lucy notes how KeMU must also provide continued funding to support content development and address the gaps in students’ and lecturers’ access to internet and devices.
‘I believe things will never be the same again, even when we resume normality,’ Lucy reflects. ‘Technology will play a role in learning processes, as will embracing learner-centred approaches.’
The digital transformation of a university, complex and time-consuming, is often a result of individuals who drive the shift. PEBL’s success is a result of advocates like Andre, Elizabeth, Paul, and Lucy. Their advocacy and commitment have laid a foundation for blended learning, built regional networks of expertise and strengthened human capital. They share a vision of blended learning as the future of higher education in Africa, and one which will have a resounding impact on economic and social development across the continent.
While there is work still to be done to ensure students can equitably reap the benefits of technology-mediated learning, our advocates look towards a future where technology can help enable higher education as a reality for all.
The Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning (PEBL) aims to address the critical academic staff shortages many east African universities are currently facing. It enables universities to share scarce teaching resources through quality assured, credit-bearing degree courses delivered through blended learning.