Online learning needs a well-trained faculty

On 14-16 October the University of South Africa, or UNISA, will host the 26th ICDE World Conference – the first of its kind to be held in Africa.

As described in its brochures, some of the key objectives of the conference are “to promote the importance of open, distance, flexible and online education, including e-learning (ODeL) in educational policy”, to “improve on the quality of delivery of education” and to debate “the role of ODeL in building social, political and economic development of the world”.

My interest in this is in the quality of the delivery of education and the ensuing professional development of teachers.

There is no doubt that in today’s increasingly complex and globalised digital economy a well-trained and educated workforce is required to enhance economic growth. But access to education, although lauded as an inalienable right for all, is still a challenge to poorer countries that are not able to enrol more than a small percentage of their population in higher education.

According to a report presented to the UNESCO 2009 World Conference on Higher Education: “Many of the developing countries still educate fewer than 10% of their population” and “with only 5% of the age cohort enrolled, sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest participation rate in the world”.

ODeL has played an important role, particularly in the developing world, to meet the high demand for access to education and, according to a more recent report, The Africa Market for Self-paced eLearning Products and Services: 2011-2016 forecast and analysis, the Sub-Saharan Africa statistics may well be changing because of online learning.

It says: “The boom in online higher education enrolments in Africa is nothing short of astonishing. Many countries are adopting eLearning as a way to meet the strong demand for higher education – a demand they simply cannot meet with traditional campuses and programmes.”

How to make a difference

In fact, when applied properly, distance education and information and communications technologies, or ICTs, have the potential to train and educate large populations and impart much needed ICT skills.

For Africa and the ‘Global South’, distance eLearning provision remains an imperative if we are not to be left behind because of educational systems that remain rooted in outdated traditional formats.

And yet the change is challenging. Massification is putting enormous pressures on institutions of higher education: not only do we want to educate diverse learners in very different contexts with very different skills, but we also want to do it sufficiently well to get the results we aim for.

It has been argued that pedagogy and teaching are ‘wicked’ problems, a term originally coined in the field of urban planning. These are the kinds of problems planners deal with – societal problems that are ill-defined, and that, as Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber argued, "are never solved; that at best they are ‘re-solved’, over and over again.

In other words, they are problems that are each unique and contextual; problems for which there are 'one shot' solutions which are neither right nor wrong, just better or worse; problems for which it is hard to measure success and which are never solved indefinitely.

And hence, the argument goes, teaching has many of the characteristics of a ‘wicked problem’: it needs to take into consideration the students’ background knowledge, the curriculum, the inherent diversity of students in a course, the culture of the institution, the pedagogy of the discipline, the accreditation process, the learning space etc.

Throw into the mix the integration of technology in the teaching and learning process as well as the cultural context and you would get an even ‘wickeder’ problem.

Teaching vs research

This very important ICDE conference will tackle various facets of this ‘wicked’ problem, including issues of educational policies and economic models for ODeL and technology-enhanced learning; issues of social justice; of broadening access and success; of the changing role of faculty; of quality, curriculum development, pedagogy and assessment; and of faculty professional development.

My personal interest revolves around faculty professional development, whether in face-to-face settings or whether in blended, web-enhanced or online learning settings.

I have found that the greatest challenge that faces us as faculty developers is to change institutional cultures from teacher-centred models to student-centred ones (whether face-to-face or online) and to support faculty in using ICTs, not as add-ons but as catalysts to redesign the teaching and learning experience.

The disconnect that exists between adopting ICTs and the leveraging that they bring to enhance quality is a phenomenon that is present (to different degrees) in both developing and developed countries.

Faculty resistance to change comes from various quarters, but one of the prevailing reasons is the age-old competition between teaching and research. In most cases, research is perceived to be more important or more prestigious than teaching and instructors are not incentivised to develop their skills.

However, in the last two decades or more, several developments have transformed teaching, learning and assessment in institutions of higher education.

The escalating cost of higher education, the demand for greater accountability and quality assurance and the results of research on how people learn have provided incentives for institutions to pay more attention to the quality of teaching and assessment.

Many have responded by establishing centres for teaching and learning that support faculty in their teaching. Expert support is particularly needed to train faculty on how to transition from face-to-face teaching to online learning and achieve quality in ODeL.

Dr Aziza Ragai Ellozy is professor of practice and founding director of the Center for Learning and Teaching, and associate dean for learning technologies at the American University in Cairo. She will be speaking at the ICDE conference in South Africa in October.