TANZANIA: e-Learning boosts higher education access

In the past decade Tanzania's public universities have witnessed rapid growth in enrolment. But this has not been matched by expansion of existing facilities and development of new ones. With government funding of public higher education continuing to decline, institutions are seeking innovative ways to earn additional income and cater for increasing student numbers.

Today, there are nearly 30 public and private universities in Tanzania.

Demand for higher education is huge: at the country's oldest and most prestigious university, the University of Dar es Salaam, or UDSM - established in 1970 - the student population, which stood at barely 2,000 in 1991, is today estimated at 15,000.

But established universities such as the UDSM are having to compete with newcomers, mainly private universities, which are more innovative, having never benefited from the public funding boom.

Universities are finding that they have to come up quickly with innovative ways to boost their income. But in some of the universities, new facilities have not been constructed for decades because of lack of funds, and resources are very scarce.

The best way to meet such stiff challenges is for universities to concentrate on their core business - offering useful courses that will attract fee-paying students. And with the latest challenge being catering for increasing numbers of new students in the context of facilities constraints, information and communication technology is proving part of the solution.

The most popular course among fee-paying students is an evening MBA course, which attracts middle-level managers keen to win promotion and boost their competitiveness in the job market. Also quite popular are postgraduate diploma courses in accounting, marketing and finance offered at the business schools of UDSM and other universities.

UDSM's Acting Deputy Vice-chancellor (Academic), Professor Florens Luoga, said that due to the combination of limited space and unprecedented numbers of qualified applicants aspiring to enter higher education, the university has been compelled to use ICT as an alternative mode of delivery for academic programmes.

The inauguration of the Open Distance e-Learning, or ODeL, Centre, in the northern city of Arusha - about 80 kilometres from the coastal capital of Dar es Salaam - will enable off-campus students to follow lectures online.

"Using ICT-enabled delivery modes will increase students' enrolment and thus enable more qualified applicants to access higher education under distance learning," he said during the centre's official opening.

Arusha, which is in a major tourism area, with proximity to Africa's highest peak Mount Kilimanjaro and the world-famous Serengeti National Park, is also rich in agriculture. It is an ideal setting for UDSM to scout for new students to study locally instead of having to move to the commercial city on the Indian Ocean and grapple with problems such as lack of accommodation and lecture rooms.

By locating students in Arusha, while they take courses online at the country's most prestigious university, the institution can potentially avoid the congestion problem but increase admissions and brings in more money.

Professor Justinian Ikingura, dean of UDSM's School of Informatics and Communication Technologies, said the plan was to transform and adapt residential academic programmes to digital content "suitable for distance learners and self-learning on campus".

The project has its origins in the university's institutional transformation programme launched in 1994, whose capacity was boosted through an ICT project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The objective of the programme, launched in 2007, is to increase access to academic programmes for a far large number of students through open and distance learning.

Three ODeL centres - in Arusha, Mwanza and Mbeya - have been operating on a pilot project basis until early this year, and have attracted about 50 learners. But as they get more publicised, the number is expected to increase.

According to Luoga, the centres have proved beneficial to distance learners. They offer a bachelor in business administration, a masters in engineering management, a postgraduate diploma in education, and a postgraduate diploma in engineering.

The university has also secured funds under the World Bank 'Quick Win' project, and the landing of the Seacom fibre optic cable - a fast internet cable that has been laid down Africa's east coast - will soon expand and ease internet connectivity.

"It is our expectation that as more regions are connected, more students will be able to study in a cost-effective way, once the national fibre optic backbone is completed," Luoga said.