Online learning – Are attitudes holding universities back?

Adapted from University World News

Five years after a new national information and communications technology (ICT) policy was unveiled in Uganda, bringing with it hopes of a revolution in higher education teaching and learning, there are concerns that institutions have failed to grasp the opportunities offered by online learning.

When engineer John Nasasira unveiled the national ICT policy for Uganda in 2014, the Ministry of Information and Communications technology hailed the move as the beginning of a new chapter, a digital era that would revolutionise the nation going forward.

For higher education, in particular, it was anticipated the strategy would mean investments of ICT infrastructure and software as well as broadband connectivity for institutions of higher learning.

It would also usher in the training of academic staff with the necessary ICT competences to encourage them to start using electronic information and communication technologies in their teaching. It would foster a new culture and learning environment characterised by online education.

Attitudes

Fast-forward to 2019, however, and experts are not entirely convinced there has been a change in attitudes and that institutions of higher learning in the country are ready for online learning.

“Sometimes I feel we [students and institutions of higher learning] are not ready [for online education],” said Michael Niyitegeka, programmes director at Clarke International University and International Computer Driving Licence (ICDL) Africa Country Manager for Uganda.

“We have not really changed our attitudes to start looking at online education as a serious opportunity and to give it a chance. We are still excessively inclined towards the conventional face-to-face mode of instruction,” said Niyitegeka in an interview with University World News.

“Our foundations and education systems in Africa generally do not encourage students to learn on their own and to be independent and proactive,” he said. “We have grown up knowing a student moves into a lecture room and waits for a lecturer to tell them what to do. This hasn’t changed.”

Internet access

The fundamental lack of trust on the part of society towards online education is a feature not only of Uganda, but of the East African region and the continent, particularly because internet penetration, speed and cost is “narrow, unreliable and expensive”, according to Niyitegeka.

“Effective online education requires a reliable and affordable internet. But how many Ugandans have access to the internet? How many Africans?” he asked. “Most of these teaching modules are in video format. If you are a student who buys data in KB/s (kilobyte per second), how many videos are you going to download? You are likely to not download anything.”

According to Internet World Stats, internet penetration in Africa is relatively low, with only about 19 million people (out of 45 million) accessing broadband in Uganda. In Tanzania, there are 23 million users out of a population of 60 million while there are 43 million users in Kenya out of a population of 52 million.

Despite the low penetration and usage, Professor Venansius Baryamureeba, a computer scientist and former vice-chancellor at both the Uganda Technology and Management University and Makerere University, said he believes attitudes are changing and African universities are starting to incorporate ICTs and adopt online education or e-learning.

Changing perceptions

“Perceptions are changing,” said Baryamureeba in an interview. “We now have universities doing both: they have programmes delivered in the traditional face-to-face [mode of instruction] and others delivered online.”

He said Makerere University, the biggest institution of higher learning in Uganda, incorporates e-learning under its MUELE (Makerere University E-learning) platform and the Virtual University of Uganda (VUU) delivers all programmes online.

“We are transitioning [towards online education]; we only need to move a little faster,” said Baryamureeba.

Dr Vincent Ssembatya, director for quality assurance at Makerere University, said online education and specifically the institution’s MUELE platform facilitated research because “many students can access all types of information using all kinds of technologies and gadgets”.

“Students can also study away from the campus, which can increase enrolment without congesting the university,” said Ssembatya.

He said the world was transitioning and the internet today was basically in every sphere of life, and schools and institutions of higher learning could not afford to be left behind.

How to accelerate online education

So, what can the schools and universities do to accelerate online education?

Baryamureeba called on ‘top universities’ on the continent to lead the ‘online era’ and to be the ‘role models’ for other institutions of higher learning.

“We need Makerere University championing this [online education] in Uganda. The University of Nairobi is doing the same in Kenya, as are the big institutions in South Africa and Nigeria,” he said.

“When we have these big universities saying they are going to conduct 80% of their instruction online, they are going to shift their libraries and assessments online, we shall start to see other institutions following,” he said.

The educationist encouraged tutors and lecturers to be more creative and to develop content that is more learner-centred and engaging and can be shared “even on social media platforms such as WhatsApp”.

“We know our learners love social media. It is the age. So develop content that can be shared via the networks,” said Baryamureeba. “The big challenge for online education is that it can remove that important face-to-face interaction between lecturers and students. That is where instructors have to develop engaging content for online.”

Niyitegeka called for more IT literacy in Uganda and the region.

“We may assume more people are IT competent today because they own smartphones and can tweet. But that is not the reality … People need to learn how they can use the internet for research and for data analysis and creation of new knowledge.”

He challenged universities and institutions of higher learning to increase incentives for online education.

“Learners, like many people today, will always go online when it is about social networking; it has almost become natural. But it is not yet natural for learners to go online when they are actually seeking knowledge. The facilitator has to influence this,” said Niyitegeka.

He also called on African governments to subsidise broadband for institutions of higher learning but said institutions could also create data centres or caches, where they can host teaching materials and other modules that can be accessed not necessarily via the internet.

Prioritising quality

Saul Waigolo, spokesperson at the National Council for Higher Education in Uganda, said universities and institutions of higher learning looking to play a role in online education need to prioritise quality.

“It is only when these [online] programmes are relevant to societal needs and graduates [of these programmes] have skills and can be employed that we will start to see real change in attitudes [towards online education],” said Waigolo in an interview with University World News.

“Online education or e-learning is the future because of our demographics. Africa has more young people yearning for education than the number of universities. So online education is very relevant. It is also cheaper and convenient. But we need to focus on quality,” said Waigolo.