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The impact of PEBL: key takeaways from an external evaluation

Published on 17 September 2021
Daniella Bo Ya Hu
Daniella Hu

ACU Impact and Insight Officer

Supported by the UK FCDO’s SPHEIR programme, the Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning (PEBL) programme worked with 23 universities across east Africa to rapidly scale up blended learning expertise in the region. In 2020, the ACU commissioned the International Network for Advancing Science and Policy (INASP) to conduct an evaluation of PEBL.   

Following a series of document reviews, focus groups, surveys, and interviews, the INASP evaluation found that PEBL has made substantial progress towards its key objectives: 

  • To build a network of blended learning experts 
  • To strengthen lecturer and student capacity for blended learning
  • To improve quality assurance processes for blended pedagogy.

While each PEBL university’s journey is unique, participants largely agree that the programme directly addressed the biggest challenges in their contexts. 

Advancing innovation through collaboration  

One of PEBL’s key successes is its contribution towards building an equitable partnership of blended learning experts. PEBL participants were able to network with other regional universities and open new doors for collaboration and resource-sharing.   

Today, at least 223 departments across PEBL universities are developing or delivering modules and sharing teaching content with each other – a significant overachievement compared to PEBL’s original target of 33 departments.   

Interestingly, some PEBL-trained academics have also proactively cascaded expertise to counterparts in universities outside the network. For example, Dr Richard Kajumbula, PEBL team lead at Makerere University, spearheaded a successful training initiative for 92 staff members in Kenya’s Embu University, a non-PEBL institution. Trained academics at Embu immediately applied their learning to develop new interactive online modules.   

‘After the training we were confident to start developing modules, using a format conforming to PEBL guidelines as per the training carried by Makerere University,’ says Professor Speranza Ndege of Embu University. ‘We thank the Makerere University team for designing a fantastic training – it’s made a huge difference for our colleagues in Embu.’  

Increased uptake of Learning Management Systems (LMS)  

PEBL modules hosted on Open Educational Resources (OER) Africa have been downloaded over 1,000 times by lecturers into their own university’s Learning Management Systems (LMS), indicating the extent to which PEBL-trained staff have invested in LMS use and optimisation.   

Dr Wanjiku G. Thuita, Coordinator of Student Affairs and PEBL team member at Riara University in Kenya, describes how PEBL helped faculty staff navigate and maximise use of their LMS. 'Before PEBL, the online platform was only utilised by faculty to post learning materials to students, and not to give lectures,’ Wanjiku reflects. ‘Our university also did not have a uniform platform for online learning. PEBL made it possible for us to implement an LMS as a platform to enable online learning.’  

According to a recent PEBL survey, average student satisfaction with LMS use was 73% - a lower number than expected, due largely to slow bandwidth creating greater resistance to using online platforms. Nevertheless, on average PEBL academics registered a satisfaction rate of 96%, indicating willingness to continue skills training for LMS navigation and uptake. 

Improved capacity for pedagogical development and innovation  

The impact of Supporting Technology Enhanced Learning (STEL) and Developing Blended Learning (DBL) courses – two training initiatives delivered by the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA) initially to 24 staff across the PEBL network – has been multiplied dramatically via a ‘train-the-trainer’ approach, whereby staff trained under PEBL led further in-house training for wider faculty members. As a result, over 700 academics and educational developers have benefitted either directly or indirectly from PEBL training over the years.  

‘When I acquired the skills to design a blended learning course through STEL, it became easy for me to impart those skills to others too,’ describes Jamidah Nakato, Assistant Lecturer and PEBL team member at Makerere University. She notes that the shift towards online and blended learning is a collective effort in which collaboration within and between universities plays a central role.  

Strengthened QA systems 

There is strong evidence that PEBL strengthened QA systems for blended courses, significantly improving how universities assess learning outcomes from blended programmes. With access to bespoke QA workshops and PEBL’s industry-standard QA tools – developed in partnership with the Commonwealth of Learning (CoL) - PEBL participants noted significant improvements in their understanding of QA and their ability to apply international best practices to their own contexts.  

Some PEBL universities, such as the Kenyan Methodist University, have also pushed for the institutionalisation of PEBL QA tools – a positive outcome no doubt accelerated by increasing demands for blended learning following COVID-19.   

‘I have advocated for institutionalising the QA Rubric in the university and the development of a blended learning policy based on STEL training,’ says Dr Lucy Ikiara, Director of Quality Assurance and PEBL team lead at KeMU. ‘The policy is awaiting approval from the Senate, and management is committed to supporting university-wide implementation of blended learning for all students, in all modes of study.’   

Accreditation and connectivity remain top challenges 

While they have made remarkable achievements, PEBL participants also agree that several key challenges remain in their efforts to implement blended learning. For example, while lecturers, students, and IT professionals require continued skills training to ensure long-term optimisation of blended learning, a lack of motivation and time or high existing workloads may serve as constraints to training efficiency.   

In addition, the development and standardisation of QA and accreditation frameworks across universities – entailing greater engagement with regulatory bodies such as the Kenyan Commission for University Education and the East African Universities Commission – were also cited as crucial for the long-term vitality of blended learning across the region.  

It must be noted that technical issues and internet connectivity continue to be key barriers for many remote students, pointing to the larger challenge of the digital divide. However, a significant number of students across PEBL universities report accessing modules via mobile devices; given that the rate of mobile usage growth across sub-Saharan Africa is one of the world’s fastest, innovations in pedagogical development suitable for mobile devices can provide a workable solution to connectivity challenges. Encouragingly, PEBL universities are also employing innovative approaches to reducing data costs for students, including by forming partnerships with local service providers to distribute free dongles for remote learners.   

Full of the evaluation findings, lessons learned, as well as comprehensive advice for university staff, teachers and policymakers can be found in the final report. 

Future focused: what’s next at the ACU? 

There is considerable enthusiasm among PEBL partner universities to continue collaborating and institutionalising the progress made under the programme. Meanwhile, the ACU is already applying lessons learned through PEBL to the design of new blended learning capacity-strengthening programmes across the Commonwealth – starting in West Africa, where the ACU will be convening 12 universities across Nigeria and Ghana, alongside international technical partners, to rapidly scale up capacity for blended learning under the PEBL partnership model.   

We also continue to convene sector experts in our community to share their ideas on combating the digital divide and enhance our understanding of how universities can best support their graduates to thrive in the modern workplace. 

 ‘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,’ says Fiona Khandoker, PEBL Programme Manager at the ACU. ‘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 ultimately support the development of future-focused students with the skills and know-how to thrive in an increasingly digitalised world of work.’  

Read the full evaluation report