Investigation, data needed to develop online learning

Further investigation and more data are needed to develop the knowledge, management and skills needed to drive effective online learning practices at universities in Southern Africa, a meeting of higher education leaders heard last week.

Vice-chancellors affiliated to the Southern African Regional Universities Association, or SARUA, discussed their needs and how the organisation can support them at a Leadership Dialogue on Global Trends in Technology and E-Learning held in Somerset West in South Africa from 8 to 9 September.

SARUA is a membership-based organisation, open to all public and private universities of the 15 countries that make up the Southern African Development Community.

The organisation – whose mandate is to contribute to the revitalisation and development of leadership and institutions of higher education in Southern Africa – had vice-chancellors scrutinising global trends in education technology and the opportunities and challenges they present to African universities.

“It is clear from this opening dialogue that data is required to assess the scope, scale and depth of e-learning in the teaching and learning landscape in the region in order to inform the design of strategic initiatives,” Piyushi Kotecha, chief executive of SARUA, told University World News.

"The integration of e-learning is very high in European universities and several regional case studies were presented. But a comprehensive quantitative and qualitative survey of current practices, policies and challenges would be advisable."

Building capacity

Kotecha said that what emerged as the key priority was capacity development for strategic programmes including advisory services, instructional integrated course design, further interrogation of implications for internationalisation, institution-wide governance, policies and coordination, infrastructural investment, staff development and quality assurance.

A key interest for almost all universities was identifying and training experts who can specialise in online teaching materials.

Some university leaders requested SARUA to facilitate training on innovative management approaches in higher education teaching and learning, while others called for universities with well-established policies around online teaching to share their expertise.

“SARUA should remain a platform for discussion of issues of ongoing concern, but the organisation could be instrumental in getting funding for instructional design,” said Professor Andrew Crouch, deputy vice-chancellor (academic) at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Dr Max Price, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, suggested that SARUA could facilitate the design and designers of online materials.

“There is a rapid growth of institutions offering online courses and SARUA could help by finding out what is out there in Africa and let members know if there are good instructional learning courses,” Price told University World News.

If not, vice-chancellors could ensure that such courses were created and shared, and institutions could also collaborate to identify and jointly fund course creation.

Price said exchange visits between universities, particularly of technical staff and senior leaders, to units that offer e-learning to study good practices should be facilitated by SARUA.

The very positive relationships among members of SARUA were partly credited by Price to the fact that the universities do not compete with each other for students.

But with the advent of e-learning, competition for online students was bound to become tense. There would be no geographic advantage for universities, and dialogue should be facilitated by SARUA on how university leaders view such competition.

Peer review, sharing, guidelines needed

A peer review mechanism to aid quality assurance must be established, said Dr Kaviraj Sharma Sukon, director general of the Open University of Mauritius.

“We also need a database of specific experts, whom we can call upon from the region,” said Sukon, adding that a blog on the SARUA website, which continuously updated members on developments in educational technologies and e-learning, would also be helpful.

Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences in Tanzania called for help from health institutions in the region to share online health materials.

Professor Wendy Kilfoil, director of the department for education innovation at the University of Pretoria, said data analytic efficacy studies should be done. Studies would need to learn about a country’s infrastructure, what kind of delivery would be suitable, and audit available institutional infrastructure and what devices are used.

“Offline capability, where students get online download material, will be helpful in terms of electricity outages and it could help with lowering bandwidth costs,” she said.

Sarathiel Chaipa, information and communication technology director at Bindura University of Science Education in Zimbabwe, said SARUA should help to come up with standard guidelines that could be adopted regionally when implementing online education.

Chaipa also called for a working group on online and e-learning courses to enable easier sharing of knowledge.

Eduardo Mondlane University in Portuguese-speaking Mozambique receives 20,000 candidates for 5,000 places every year and this is common for all universities, said Dr Ana Monjane, the deputy vice-chancellor. She said the quality of education was not the same in the region, and agreed that guidelines on online training and credit transfers were required.

Monjane was concerned about academic dishonesty, which also happens in face-to-face teaching and learning. In some cases, for instance, people were hiring others to write theses for them. “These are big issues in Mozambique that with growth in online education may grow even bigger. We need help,” she said.

She said initiatives to share resources were important, like a regional programme that would be delivered in all countries – including Lusophone and Francophone countries – under the auspices of SARUA.

“We need to know what’s going on in other universities. In our case, it’s the same faculty member who teaches residential learning and e-learning, and in instances he is the same person who prepares instruction for e-learning. There is clearly a need for more capacity building,” she said.

Delegates argued that there was a role for enlightened funders such as the Carnegie Corporation and Mellon Foundation to enhance education for citizenship and improve access, throughput and success. Interrogation of the increasing role of private providers such as Microsoft, Google and many others was also deemed important.