The successful implementation of blended and digital learning can open new frontiers for universities, and pave the way for greater regional and international collaborations for research, innovation, and pedagogical development.
The success of the Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning (PEBL) comes down to its people: the academics, students, educational developers, IT technicians, and quality assurance experts who are committed to making digital higher education a reality for all. Read on to discover how the leaders and advocates of PEBL east Africa have supported the digital transformation of teaching and learning at their universities.
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Prior to joining PEBL, lecturers found it difficult to deliver online courses as students were not trained on the use of platforms like Google Meet and Zoom. In addition, Riara University did not have a uniform platform for online learning, resulting in a great reliance on face-to-face lectures and assessments.
'The PEBL project was an eye-opener to our young university,’ reflects Wanjiku G. Thuita, PEBL team member, Coordinator of Student Affairs, and lecturer at Riara University. ‘Thanks to PEBL, our university had fully implemented blended learning before COVID-19, and therefore it was possible to move from blended to pure online learning with ease. Our university staff were well trained by the PEBL team and the effect has been good and positive.’
Wanjiku notes a few key areas in which PEBL had the most impact. Firstly, PEBL technical trainings made it possible for the implementation of a university wide LMS. Combined with in-person lectures, the LMS helped lecturers easily deliver large classes with limited physical classroom space. Meanwhile, students taking blended courses also became more independent; they have given positive feedback on the effectiveness of the blended approach, and are increasingly proactive on the LMS.
As a result of these efforts, Dr Thuita notes a marked increase in student admissions to the university. ‘Our admissions before the introduction of blended learning was stagnating, but now we have 50% increase,’ notes Wanjiku. ‘I believe use of blended learning will go beyond the program because PEBL introduced the project to both the private and public universities.’
‘It has been a memorable milestone for me, to have been introduced to blended learning,’ she adds. ‘My teaching career has been made easy because, unlike face to face, blended learning does not limit delivery to my students despite the prevailing conditions.’
‘When our university started the concept of online learning 4 years ago, there was very strong resistance from the faculty in general, and older faculty in particular,’ recalls Korso Gude, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of East Africa Baraton (UEAB). Blended learning uptake at UEAB was slow to take off, due largely to students’ belief that online learning was an inferior product. Very few faculty members in the Department of Technology and Information Systems tried to deliver full courses online, and those who did were not teaching intensively.
UEAB’s efforts to implement blended programmes gained momentum when the university joined PEBL. Academics accessed intensive skills training to use the learning management system (LMS) – and help guide and sensitise their students to the benefits of blended learning. Currently, all courses offered at UEAB are also available via its LMS, and PEBL training helped faculty members build the skills to deliver full online examinations.
Most importantly, Korso notes, there has been a major sea change in lecturers’ and students’ attitudes towards blended learning – a process no doubt reinforced by the emergency of COVID-19 in 2020. ‘People started seeing the need for online learning,’ he recalls. ‘UEAB moved aggressively to teach all courses using a blended approach.’
The combined impact of COVID-19 and PEBL helped UEAB academics make breakthroughs in blended learning programme design and implementation. Today, UEAB offers 1,417 courses online – a 96% increase compared to 2017.
Prior to PEBL, KIU’s journey to implement blended learning was relatively slow, due to major challenges such as a lack of personal access devices and unstable internet at the institutional level. Low levels of digital literacy among both staff and students also made it difficult to gain support for blended programmes.
After joining PEBL, 30 KIU academics were initially trained on pedagogical development and LMS navigation – before cascading their expertise to other faculty members via in-house training. By embodying the train-the-trainer approach, KIU developed a sustainable mechanism for capacity-strengthening and blended learning optimisation across all faculties. ‘With the enhancement of the KIU digital platform, it is evident that PEBL training will be rolled out to many other staff,’ Elizabeth Walabyeki Kyamanywa, Campus Administrator and PEBL team member at KIU.
PEBL also improved networking between faculties and collaboration between KIU and other project partners and facilitated the exchange of resources and best practices. By the time the KIU School for Online and Distance Education was formally established in 2019, the university already had a pool of expertise to support blended learning infrastructure – and were equipped to achieve remarkable success in remote teaching during COVID-19. Today, over 80% of students are studying online.
Since joining PEBL, various ANU faculty staff were trained on pedagogical development and received support to produce their own quality-assured, degree bearing blended modules. Through the train-the-trainer approach, PEBL training benefitted nearly 95% of part- and full-time faculty members responsible for online offerings at the university. Since May 2020, all ANU programs were migrated online and, in January 2021, ANU adopted a blended mode and fully online modes, with about 600 units being offered.
‘ANU has gained a lot from PEBL,’ says Paul Kahenya Njoroge, lecturer and PEBL team member at ANU. He notes that ANU adopted the format of PEBL modules as the standard structure for online courses, and lecturers have started to receive very positive feedback from students. Interestingly, student satisfaction ratings are highest for units facilitated by faculty members who completed PEBL training. Currently, about 75% of students are opting for full online mode.
Paul is confident that the emphasis on online and blended learning will be sustained beyond PEBL’s lifetime. ANU senior leadership is also committed to continuous blended programme development following PEBL, including by institutionalising PEBL tools such as the moderation template for online learning and the QA Rubric. Meanwhile, ANU staff who developed PEBL modules are also participating in key university committees focusing on academics, and it is expected that their opinions will greatly influence blended learning offerings at ANU going forward.
OUT is committed to delivering its core vision: to become a leading open online university supporting the creation and application of knowledge worldwide. Staff across OUT have substantial capacity for online and blended learning design and delivery, with academic skills development reinforced via in-house trainings. However, prior to joining PEBL, in-house staff training was restricted to the parameters of OUT’s LMS – lecturers noted that the learning materials being developed often lacked interactivity, engaging student activities, and consideration for accessibility guidelines.
Dr Lawi Yohana, OUT’s University Coordinator of Teaching and Learning Services Unit, notes that the university must produce effective, communicative, and innovative pedagogical material to remain competitive – and faculty members were eager to take OUT’s online offerings to the next level. ‘OUT was delighted to become a PEBL partner because the project aims to transform higher education systems mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is aligned with our own vision,’ says Dr Yohana.
OUT staff received several iterations of PEBL training on pedagogical development. Dr Yohana notes that courses designed through PEBL were more interactive, and resulted in greater engagement of students and instructors, compared to previous course offerings.
Meanwhile, OUT academics have adopted PEBL’s QA tools for course development. The university is also reviewing its own QA policy to feature blended learning, which has already gained approval from the university senate. ‘I am personally grateful for participating in this project,’ adds Dr Yohana. ‘I have also benefited in many ways – for instance, I am now more knowledgeable on blended learning, I can design high quality pedagogical approaches, and I am better able to identify students’ and staff roles in blended learning.’
‘With the coming of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and universities were forced to close, and there was an urgent need to find a safe way for students to continue learning,’ says Jamidah Nakato, Assistant Lecturer and PEBL team member at Makerere University in Uganda. ‘Then, in came blended learning!’
While there were distance learning programmes at Makerere University prior to COVID-19, Jamidah notes that these were not widely embraced until the pandemic hit. Currently, she notes that most universities in the region are already using the internet, television, radio, and social media to carry out assignments, classes and assessments - and it was imperative that Makerere University did the same.
A member of Makerere University’s PEBL team, Jamidah played an instrumental role in supporting her colleagues through their efforts to digitalise courses during COVID-19. Equipped with new skills from PEBL training, she helped lecturers and students alike to navigate e-learning platforms and learning management systems with greater ease. Through her leadership, Jamidah has also become a blended learning expert herself - while gaining a strong appreciation of the importance of mentorship, collaboration, and mutual support in times of rapid institutional transformation.
‘When I acquired the skills to design a blended learning course through PEBL, it became easy for me to impart those skills to others too,’ Jamidah describes. She notes that the shift towards online and blended learning must be a collective effort across faculties.
When KeMU first implemented its LMS in 2016, academics focused largely on reaching remote students – who made up 25-30% of the student body – and used the online platform for uploading assignments and notes. As a result, academics were largely disengaged with pedagogical innovation and the optimisation of the online learning experience.
After joining the PEBL programme in 2018, over 200 KeMU faculty members accessed training which exposed them to key LMS navigation and IT skills needed to support pedagogical development and effective course delivery.
Meanwhile, KeMU’s PEBL team added momentum to the university’s digitalisation journey by actively promoting the benefits of blended learning to all levels of management and undertaking comprehensive reviews of blended programme implementation. ‘Technology adoption and proficiency among faculty and students have increased drastically,’ notes Dr Lucy Ikiara, Director of Quality Assurance at KeMU. To date, over 4,000 students at KeMU are using the LMS and trained on its features.
‘The university has also developed policy on blended learning based on PEBL trainings, [which] is awaiting approval from the Senate. University management is committed to support University wide implementation of blended learning for all students, in all modes of study,’ Lucy adds. At the individual level, she has taken on a leadership role by supporting teams across the university to implement blended approaches. She is also an advocate for the institutionalisation of PEBL tools at KeMU, and continues to spearhead the development of a formal blended learning policy based on the PEBL training.
‘As a teacher, training on blended learning has influenced my pedagogy,’ reflects Lucy. ‘I embrace more student-centred approaches by incorporating student activities.’