Virtual higher education: investing in tomorrow’s leaders

Pebl (1)

To build strong leadership for tomorrow, we must invest in young people today. As we celebrate the contribution of young people to our societies on International Youth Day, this message is particularly relevant and urgent for the Commonwealth. 60% of its 2.4 billion population is under the age of 30, and one in three young people aged between 15 and 29 live in Commonwealth countries – a vibrant, dynamic community with enormous potential to drive positive change.

In all parts of the world, however, socioeconomic factors remain a major barrier to accessing higher education. When talented individuals are denied the chance to reach their potential, all of society loses out.

COVID-19 has fostered the adoption of new technologies, with the surge in online learning opening up opportunities to learn for those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access them. As universities have switched to online teaching at unprecedented pace and scale globally, blended learning may well become standard practice, but to fully realise the potential of this, we need to bridge the digital divide in terms of both technology and skills – providing students and staff with the means to access and deliver online learning.

Virtual learning cannot merely act as a new channel to relay information. It must also be designed to broaden minds, fascinate and motivate, enable meaningful dialogues, and help young students build the skills and confidence to thrive in times of social and economic change. That’s why the present and future needs of the student are at the heart of the ACU-led Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning (PEBL) programme funded by DFID SPHEIR, which works closely with 24 east African universities to design and share virtual learning resources, increase the capacity of staff to deliver virtual courses, and expand access to higher education.

These courses, designed and developed in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda, have been made available to universities around the world – over 17,000 students have already accessed them. To date, over 700 academic staff in the region have also been trained on various aspects of module design and delivery.

Dr Maryam Ismail is Dean at the University of Education at the State University of Zanzibar (SUZA) in Tanzania, where PEBL helped lecturers respond to shifting student needs. ‘We trained teachers on the power of reflection. Most teachers skip this step, but we found peer review and class discussions very useful,’ she said. PEBL team members at SUZA have also trained lecturers to hold virtual office hours to give students the guidance they need to succeed.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where growing demands for higher education are exceeding what many institutions can accommodate, the virtual university was steadily becoming the new normal even before COVID-19 campus closures. At a time of rapid virtual learning uptake, PEBL is helping lecturers integrate student needs into the educational development process. It also ensures that students graduate with the relevant skills and knowledge needed for the workplace in a dynamic and changing economic climate.

Dr Yaz el-Hakim is the founder of VerifyEd and co-chair of the Staff Educational Development Association (SEDA), a technical partner of the PEBL programme: ‘Education is so powerful, and the impact of what we’re delivering can have such a longstanding impact on individuals’ lives,’ he said. ‘It’s really important we all understand how we can be more flexible, and able to quickly collect evidence and build off that in iterations of future learning experiences.’

Two years on from the start of PEBL, university partners are translating student-centric approaches into tangible benefits in the classroom. Earlier this year, we received positive feedback from undergraduate students enrolled in the first batch of PEBL modules. For many students, these modules exposed them to online study tools for the very first time. Students used online discussion boards to engage more frequently and meaningfully with peers and lecturers, while others reported being more interested in the course content as a result of the new format. For those juggling work and family responsibilities alongside their studies, the modules offered the flexibility they needed to obtain credits under difficult schedules.

More recently, a preliminary survey of lecturers and students using PEBL modules indicates that 75% of students were satisfied with the PEBL modules, and many reported acquiring technical skills by participating in the virtual classroom.

Meanwhile, 82% of lecturers reported that PEBL modules were having positive impacts on student learning outcomes, with 67% agreeing that the new mode of learning impacted their students to a large extent. Lecturers are observing a range of immediate student benefits, such as improved access to courses, greater learner engagement and enthusiasm, and even financial savings for students who no longer need to travel to campus on a regular basis.

Going forward, promoting student-centred approaches to virtual learning development will be essential for universities to engage more young people and help them build the right skills, knowledge, and confidence to meaningfully engage in local and global action. As we gradually enter a post-COVID-19 landscape for universities, the ACU will continue to work alongside PEBL university partners to position quality virtual higher education as a tool to unlock the full potential of students.