Turn to online learning shows varying degrees of readiness

In the wake of closures that took effect at midday on Friday 20 March, a number of universities and higher education institutions in East Africa are revitalising existing e-learning platforms, while others are tentatively migrating into uncharted territory.

Uganda had confirmed nine cases of COVID-19 as at 25 March.

Uganda Christian University has operationalised its e-learning platform and started to deliver student notes and coursework online over the weekend so the learners can complete the semester “uninterrupted”.

“Through the utilisation of our online, e-learning and e-resources, the academic office shall work to ensure that those classes that have not yet completed their syllabi for this semester are remotely facilitated to do so,” said Dr John Musisi Senyonyi, vice-chancellor of the university.

“The lecturers concerned will be encouraged and supported to ensure that students receive the remaining notes, e-resources and materials to facilitate their learning this week,” he said.

Senyonyi said the university would also establish online consultative channels to enable students and lecturers to interact and called for “cooperation and understanding” from staff and learners.

“The purpose is to ensure that our students complete their semester uninterrupted,” he said in a statement on Friday.

Senyonyi said Uganda Christian University would issue more guidelines on the shifting of programmes online and on the completion of the “Easter semester”.

Lecturers would upload student examinations on the institution's e-learning platforms. Students would be given a deadline and guided on how to proceed with examinations, he said.

Open, distance and e-learning models

Makerere University said its programmes, which have implemented open, distance and e-learning (ODeL) models, would continue during the period the institution was closed.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Barnabas Nawangwe said Makerere University’s e-learning system (MUELE) would continue functioning and the institution’s directorate for ICT (information and communications technology) support would continue to render end-user ICT support.

Students with ongoing research projects would continue with their work off-campus but stay in contact with their respective academic supervisors via the internet.

Nawangwe called on academic staff to make use of the digital technologies at the university to provide research and project supervision to students.

He said laboratory research work which could not be halted would continue but under the confines of Ministry of Health guidelines to lessen the spread of COVID-19.


Dr Mouhamad Mpezamihigo, vice-chancellor of Kampala International University, said the institution was working out how best it could attain continuity of university business, including delivery of academic content and continuous assessments, in a manner that would not breach government guidelines to contain the spread of COVID-19.

He said the university was looking at the feasibility of “shifting some programmes online”.

Dr Muhammad Kiggundu Musoke, manager for communications and international relations at Makerere University, said students and lecturers would utilise the online platforms at the institution to facilitate ongoing research activities, which were time-bound.

He said the university would also fast track online applications for admission of students to privately sponsored graduate and undergraduate programmes. The university’s academic registrar would design mechanisms so as to continue to receive applications for special pre-entry examinations for the bachelor of laws.

While the university library would be physically closed, its electronic library services would remain accessible, he said.

Challenges to online learning

Other universities in the East African region are charting ways to migrate programmes online in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Kenya, for example, has reportedly directed its lecturers to develop online teaching modules for its programmes in response to COVID-19.

Moving classes online, however, has its challenges, more so when it is in response to the threat of disease and is urgent. In Uganda and the region, attitudes are often a challenge, and slow internet speeds and penetration as well as data costs can hold back online learning.

When Vice-Chancellor of Bishop Stuart University in Mbarara, Professor Mauda Kamatenesi, called for internet-based learning during the closure of the university, students at the institution of higher learning objected, reportedly saying they did not have the appropriate equipment and means, including laptops, smartphones and reliable data access for e-learning.

The abrupt closures also presented a number of logistical challenges.

University campuses were scenes of chaos last Friday as students rushed to vacate their halls of residences and hostels to beat the midday closure deadline.

A number of foreign students at Makerere University were also stranded until the institution decided to accommodate them.

“The university has also had to accommodate international students who were residing in its halls of residence and couldn’t return to their countries after [President Yoweri] Museveni’s directive. The students will be accommodated in Livingstone Hall (males) and Africa Hall (females),” said Makerere’s Kiggundu Musoke.

And while Makerere University has had to adjust its academic semesters (this semester, which was expected to conclude on 16 May, has been extended to 30 June to factor in the 30 days the university will be closed), students who were set to graduate at Cavendish University on 27 March have been told they will graduate on 21 May – if the pandemic has been contained by then.

Meanwhile, Makerere University had said its postgraduate students in clinical disciplines and staff who provide clinical services to hospitals as part of their training may continue to render these services with permission or at the request of the Ministry of Health.

Limiting the virus spread

Explaining the one-month-long closure of all educational institutions last week, President Museveni said it was “wise that we temporarily remove concentration points by closing all the primary and secondary schools as well as all the universities and tertiary institutions for one month”.

“All these institutions, without exception, should close so that we deny this virus those concentrations [of people],” he said.

Uganda has approximately 15 million young people distributed across its education institutions, including 314,548 students who are distributed in 49 universities and 1,543 tertiary institutions.

Dr Monica Musenero, consultant epidemiologist and senior presidential advisor on epidemics in Uganda, said spreading out people across the country and reducing their concentrations in specific places – such as schools, churches and bars – and social distancing minimised spread of the virus.

“We don’t want people, including school children and students at universities who are likely to contract and spread the virus, concentrated in one place. We could have an epidemic which we are unable to contain,” she said.

Musenero said “spreading out” people also enabled communities to develop herd immunity naturally in the absence of a vaccine.

A typical Ugandan homestead has about 10 people, for instance, said Musenero.

But these are only about four, usually the very young or very old, when children and other young people are at school and universities.

“These [the four] are very vulnerable in case of an epidemic,” said Musenero. “But if we move the six [school children and young people] back to the homesteads, all the 10 [people in a homestead] are likely to get social and other forms of support [in case of an outbreak] and develop herd immunity.”

“The 10 people in a homestead might contract the virus. But of these, only about two or three might get sick. The other eight or seven are likely to shed the virus and develop immunity and they won’t infect the other people they get in contact with,” she said.