Online education is here to stay

29 March 2018

Dr. Adalbertus Kamanzi​

Director of Programmes

“Wakati ukuta” is a Swahili saying meaning that “time is a wall”. This proverb alludes to the fact that if one fights against time, he/she is fighting with something as hard as the wall; lets say you punch the wall, the consequences are that you will hurt your hand. Online education is here with us: it is the thing of the time.

With the digital revolution, there is no way we can deny the fact that human beings are facing large-scale disruptions in many areas, and hence need for essential adjustments. The digital revolution has to do with different transformations that have occurred due to the widespread progress use of computer technologies, with primacy of Internet. This revolution is proving to be a structure that is significantly and universally transforming humankind lifestyle and the systems.

The digital revolution, however, has been received with mixed feelings in Africa. Some people contend that it is another imperial era whereby Africans have to, for another time, bow to the Western powers; there are others who have seen it as an opportunity in so many ways, leading, for instance, to politicians getting wary about which preparatory policies to pursue to make use of it, economists pondering about how to make it productive, and business people thinking about how to embed it in entrepreneurial potentialities.

But what does the digital revolution and its impact mean for higher learning in Uganda? What does technological change mean to educational instruction at university? And what kind of policies could be pursued in order to address these new challenges?

These questions are important to pose and address because much as the digital revolution is a reality, if we are not careful, we risk to leave out a big chunk of the population who would like to make use of it for furthering their career, something that would be a disgrace for the individuals and a state as a whole; we need, in higher learning circles, to go beyond realizing that the systems and technologies in life are becoming digital and reach a point of integrating such systems and technologies into our everyday education business.

Online learning is a way of carrying on studies without needing to attend classes on a campus. The teaching materials in form of reading materials and media are incorporated on a platform that serves as an interface. In some advanced systems, there is incorporation of live classes whereby a tutor can hear and see his/her students wherever they are. In other words, online learning can be interactive.

The online learning substantially deconstructs time and space, our two vital coordinates in understanding reality. Try to imagine a professor who is in Dar es Salaam, giving an online lecture as a staff of the Virtual University of Uganda in Kampala, for example, to students who are in Dubai, Accra, Manila, Amsterdam, Sao Paolo, and Washington DC. All these students can see and hear him/her live from wherever they are in their different time zones.

When, for example, in Dar es Salaam it is 6:00pm, it is 7:00pm in Dubai, 3:00pm in Accra, 11:00pm in Manila, 4:00pm in Amsterdam, 12pm in Sao Paolo, and 8:00am in Washington DC. The professor and all these students are in different spaces and have different time zones, but are participating in the same lecture online. The professor is present wherever he/she is seen and in the different times. In actual fact, time and space are so compressed by online learning that you would, in most cases, not even know where the professor is, and very less know the time zone he/she is in (does such knowledge matter, anyway?): the professor is actually everywhere at the same time wherever the students are.

Online learning has the capacity for availability and accessibility of abundant information through the Internet. With search engines, such as Google and Google Scholar, for instance, information out there is more than enough; not only are the online students privileged in the training to integrate such massive information in their education process, but they are more and more in charge of their learning process (self-paced e-learning): when to learn, where to learn from, and how to learn.

It is estimated that the overall growth rate for self-paced e-learning in Africa is 15.2%, with Senegal having the highest growth rate in Africa at 30.4%, followed by Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya at 27.9%, 25.1% and 24.9%, respectively. The willingness of the Ugandan society to embrace online is seen on the mushrooming of online programmes to be accredited and some which are already being offered. Uganda is even more privileged to have the first online university in Africa, the Virtual university of Uganda, with its offices in Kampala.

Uganda getting into online education is not without challenges. There is still an attitudinal question of looking at online education as of less quality compared to the traditional face to face educational systems. This is a challenge that is coupled with another challenge whereby the higher learning regulatory systems are still caught up in framing the online education provision modes as the traditional modes. Another practical challenge is that the willing, wishing, and hoping beneficiaries of online learning are faced with infrastructural hick ups, particularly the insufficient electricity coverage and the expensive and sometimes poor internet connection.

Wakati ukuta: time is (like) a wall; you cannot bang the wall with your feast; you will hurt yourself. There is no way that higher learning institutions and the institutions to regulate them (if they still want to be part of the education process) can run away from online learning. Higher learning institutions have been part and parcel of the digital revolution through research and dissemination, for example. It is now time for universities and institutes, for example, to produce knowledge and skills on how to uptake the fruits of the revolution, specifically the online learning.

Policy-makers need to get more exposed to the online operations; these should become part and parcel of their routine procedures of work. For instance, why should they not hold meetings online amongst themselves or with the different stakeholders? Not only will such practices make them know how to conduct business online, but also to appreciate the power of the online interface.

Practicing the use of online facilities and appreciating them is a strong and sustainable basis for the policy-makers to make, promote, and enforce digital online friendly education policies and regulations. For example, it is time to put articulate policies and regulations regarding online education.

The media has a role to play with regard to online education, which is to engage in mass sensitization on online education to transform negative attitudes against online education, on the one hand, and to give more concrete information on where credible and trustworthy online institutions are for many people who would like to study online, on the other hand.