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The PEBL project boosts universities’ capacity to manage campus closures

Published on 05 May 2020
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The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare a digital divide in Sub-Saharan Africa’s higher education sector, with faculties lacking infrastructure, bandwidth and staff capacity experiencing greater disruptions to teaching and learning. Collectively, these challenges may affect a large proportion of the continent. 

As many universities enter their second month of campus closures, the ACU reached out across the PEBL (Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning) network in East Africa and invited partners to share insights on their experiences resuming teaching via virtual platforms. Led by the ACU, PEBL is part of the UK-Aid-funded Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform (SPHEIR) programme, which aims to improve the performance, governance and influence of higher education systems in low-income countries.

The encouraging responses we received paint a picture of resilience through hardship. Despite common difficulties such as low connectivity, gaps in internet access and over-burdened virtual learning environments, campus closures have presented an opportunity for universities to quickly improve existing ICT operations.

“We have managed to move all courses online within a week, using a mix of tools such as Microsoft teams, Zoom and Google Classroom,” reports Dr. Ian Wairua, Associate Director of the Centre for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation at Kenya’s Strathmore University. “Training has been rolled out for faculty to increase the capacity of lecturers in the use of online tools. In this, the Strathmore PEBL team has been instrumental in training faculty to mount and deliver courses and online materials. The training they received through PEBL equipped them with important knowledge and the confidence to train others, and this has been recognised by University management.”

Lecturers have also cited the first batch of modules uploaded to OER Africa as major teaching assets during this time, enabling students to continue to study important topics ranging from critical thinking to numerical analysis. These courses designed and developed in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda are accessible for universities around the world as valuable complements to existing curricula, and they have already been accessed by over 17,000 students. By summer 2020 the second batch of modules should be released. To date, over 700 academic staff in the region have also been trained on various aspects of module design and delivery. 

“We have a greater appreciation for PEBL because of the lockdown, since the training we received through the project has allowed us to be better prepared for the COVID situation,” says Dr. Lucy Ikiara, Director of Quality Assurance at Kenya Methodist University (KeMU). “Faculty are shifting efforts to online methods through the LMS and infrastructure, and although this is a bit challenging, we are managing to move courses online using what the KeMU PEBL team have been taught through the project. The PEBL team has also been training faculty on use of the LMS to be able to reach out to as many students as possible, as well as training our students.”

Multiple partner universities are also observing growing interest from senior management in PEBL and blended learning infrastructure. Support from senior staff creates an enabling environment for virtual learning, making long-term institutional investments in skills development more likely.

“The ultimate success of blended learning rests upon long-term institutional commitments to training educators and responding to evolving student needs,” says Fiona Khandoker, PEBL Programme Manager. “Initiatives like the PEBL project are important because they lay the groundwork for collaboration, resource-sharing and capacity-building, enabling universities to turn challenges into opportunities for growth.”

In the light of recent successes, there is strong potential for PEBL’s collaborative model to be scaled upwards and transform the wider practice of technology-mediated learning with renewed impetus. By building momentum for collaboration, skills training and stakeholder engagement in virtual learning, we can work towards a future of resilience and preparedness for a greater number of universities.  

Over the coming weeks and months, PEBL will continue to gather feedback from universities to generate insight into best practices in shifting online. To be a part of the conversation, we encourage universities to access PEBL modules and find out more about the Partnership. All comments and feedback may be directed to the ACU PEBL team at Alexander.Schwarz@acu.ac.uk​.