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AFRICA
Rethinking the university for an online era

When the Virtual University of Uganda, or VUU, was conceived in 2010, we knew a lot of work lay ahead to prepare for the provision of education to graduate professionals who could not afford to leave work to gain a higher qualification.

As the first online-only postgraduate university in Sub-Saharan Africa, a radical approach was necessary to sell the idea of online education to the young professionals we targeted. Changing mindsets is not always easy: trailblazers can have a difficult time.

VUU is built on the idea that tertiary education that is sourced globally and locally, and enhanced through appropriate technology, can provide solutions to the perennial problems of quality and access by transforming the educational experience for students and teachers alike.

This young university is a testimony to the fact that technology-supported learning can save human-power hours and cut costs, it can enhance content quality, it can bring the very best content to more students, and it can enhance the development of critical minds through the provision of education that is truly fit for purpose.

But most of all, it can enable young professionals to add to their skills and knowledge portfolio without sacrificing their salary. We build on the fact that students no longer need a desktop with a dial-up internet connection: cheap tablets, smartphones or even older Nokias can use megabytes to connect to the learning platform. Win-win all around.

Barriers

Globally, online education is being used in a creative and challenging way to provide first-class education that can rival, and even surpass, the traditional full-time programme.

In Sub-Saharan Africa it is a rather different story. In our developing world context, the promise of online learning as a means of transforming the educational experience meets a number of stumbling blocks, not least of which is the problem of electrification, especially if our students are in rural areas.

To set up VUU we achieved a lot with a creative hat on our head and much less money than you would think in our pocket. We went the 'open source' route and were the first fully cloud-based university in Africa. We use the OSS Moodle as our virtual learning environment or VLE, and we make the most of wikis as shared work spaces to host our administration files, our curriculum and the documents for and minutes of our meetings.

We have no servers on site and use Google Apps for Education for mail, chats, documents, hangouts and sites and a number of wonderful free apps that enhance our internal networking and our student communication. In order to deliver good-quality online content, we pioneered an IT architecture that is made up of many parts, all of which work together to deliver what we need in a very cost effective way.

But it has not always been an easy ride. Despite the fact that the majority of new and emerging technologies are relatively easy to use, the academic mindset seems reluctant to embrace these and integrate them into teaching methodologies. In the past, the lack of up-to-date academic resources left lecturers to rely on their own class notes and the meagre holdings in the university library.

Today, the amount of information ‘out there’ on the internet is staggering, and it is not only changing how we learn but also what we learn. One interesting fact that is forcing academic staff to change their work methods is the student practice of ‘googling’ assignment questions. We have found that the serious-minded student will often learn a lot about a topic and even get more up-to-date information than the lecturer has. This certainly has to change.

Enhancing student learning

In our way of thinking, the university teacher who is on her toes is more a curator than a repository of knowledge. In trawling the internet for content, our lecturers compile course materials that are a mixture of their own notes, online lectures, videos from the YouTube education channel, scholarly articles and podcasts from universities worldwide.

We have found that putting the content online for students to read as ‘homework’ and then discussing the materials in the live classroom (the flipped classroom approach) makes for a great learning experience.

This approach to higher education is a golden opportunity to make a clean break from the 'Yellow Notes' paradigm of the past, as it challenges teachers to search for innovative ways to enhance student learning. It is in this way that we at VUU are trying to provide creative, reality-rooted education that takes learning today to the level of tomorrow.

And yet we have found that online education still suffers from a certain amount of stigmatisation, both as a result of ignorance and confusing it with traditional distance education. It will take more time before the public and prospective students come to appreciate the value that results from learning online.

As a 'virtual' teacher, I can truly say that the quality of the learning materials my online students receive are much better than the materials I could deliver in a traditional classroom. But despite that, we have fought many battles, none greater perhaps than trying to get students to accept that copying and then cramming lecture notes does not constitute university-level education. We are slowly winning that battle.

And while online learning programmes are still new in Africa, we at VUU are convinced that it is only a matter of time before they are recognised as being equal to, if not better than, traditionally-taught university courses.

Rethinking the traditional idea of the university and its practices will take time. We don't need physical classrooms, lecturers' offices and student hostels, but we do need investment in appropriate technology as a key priority in setting up programmes for tomorrow's student.

Our slim physical infrastructure here at VUU means we can spend more on sourcing the best materials and tutors. We have just celebrated our fifth birthday. We are still a young kid on the block, but we are a kid with confidence, muscle and the chutzpah to make it among the big boys.

Irish philosopher Professor Deirdre Carabine is director of programmes at the Virtual University of Uganda.
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