Online and distance centres advance tertiary access

Malawi’s higher education may have suffered through COVID-19, but the pandemic has bolstered efforts to expand online and distance learning, in some instances reaching students through special satellite centres run by universities and colleges. Out of Malawi’s 19 tertiary institutions, five have made significant progress in such services, with Mzuzu University, in northern Malawi, leading the way.

Mzuzu University (known as Mzuni) pioneered online and distance learning (ODL) as far back as 2006, when the institution was just eight years old.

The inspiration behind this initiative was the fact that thousands of talented secondary school leavers had in the past been unable to further their education because of economic challenges.

UNESCO’S Malawi Education Statistics 2017-18 highlighted this reality, saying that Malawi’s universities – both public and private – were able to admit effectively just 13% of secondary school leavers, with ODL the best alternative for the remaining 87%.

Mzuzu’s Centre for Online and Distance Learning opened in 2011 and offers bachelor degrees in education, in arts, sciences and French; and a bachelor of science in tourism, and more, and allows various entry pathways, including for mature students.

Entry pathways cater for school leavers and mature students, with admission through both generic and mature entry.

A network of satellite centres

Apart from the Mzuzu central campus ODL centre, which has 640 students, the university has, since March 2020, set up four ODL satellite learning centres around the country: in the capital, Lilongwe, and in Balaka, Mulanje and Karonga, resulting in the university’s entire ODL enrolment of students to double compared to the 2019-20 academic year.

The university now has 7,637 students – 4,581 receiving face-to-face education, while 3,056 are participating in ODL. All the ODL students use Moodle, a free open-source software package aiding online learning.

The Lilongwe study centre, based at the capital’s Lilongwe Teachers Training College, has 783 students; the Balaka study centre is within the Balaka Secondary School and has 531 students. Karonga study centre, within the Karonga Teachers Training College campus, has 554 students; while the Mulanje centre is located at Mulanje Secondary School, with 413 students.

Each centre has a library, internet connectivity, computers and staff comprising an administrator, ICT manager, librarian and head of centre.

They draw their monthly funding from the university’s main campus budget, but plans are under way to create autonomous budget systems.

Yielding positive results

Donex Chilonga, the Mulanje study centre manager, whose base is in southern Malawi, 675km from Mzuzu, says the university’s decision to invest in satellite centres is yielding positive results.

“The operationalisation of these satellite centres has made Mzuni’s ODL complete. The ODL students only go to the Mzuzu campus for orientation for two weeks,” he said.

“From there, they go to their various centres where they remain for the rest of the programmes. They only return to the Mzuzu campus for graduation.”

Albert Ntungambela, who manages the Karonga study centre, about 300km from the main campus, said his centre “is now fully operational and everything is up and running. From orientation, the students go to their homes. They only come to the centre to access the resource centre,” he said.

For a communications bachelor programme student such as Wongani Msowoya, who had to secure leave of absence from her employers to travel from her home in Lilongwe to Mzuzu main resource centre, 350km away, the operationalisation of the Lilongwe satellite centre is sweet news.

“I will no longer have to grapple with asking for leave of absence from my workplace because the resource centre is within our reach,” she said.

From orientation to graduation

Mzuni ODL Deputy Director Paxton Zozi explained that the satellite centres enabled Mzuzu University to deliver on its goal that students should never come to the main campus unless absolutely necessary.

“But it was a bit tough to do this with just the main ODL centre here in Mzuzu. The students still had to come here to access the resource centre, which defeated the concept of ODL,” he said.

The satellite centres have now overcome that problem. Lecturers also record lectures for later viewing in case some students have internet challenges at home.

“Apart from those at the Mzuzu centre, all other ODL students’ physical contact with the main campus is now completely unnecessary – from orientation to graduation,” said Zozi.

Even a recent graduation ceremony was staged virtually, using ODL facilities: “The students will only come here to collect their [diploma and degree] certificates,” Zozi added.

Student experiences

Mzuni ODL Student Union President Masozi Kasambara, a final-year humanities bachelor student, urges the university to ensure that the quality and quantity of ODL teaching content is maintained.

The university needed to “ensure that the kinds of services offered to students at the main hub are exactly the same as those that will be offered at the satellite centres,” he said.

Another student, Patrick Mhone, an education student at the Karonga ODL centre, stressed that the university needed to focus on quality information communication technology (ICT) at the centres to avoid troublesome glitches.

Indeed, ICT needs to be “improved and should be of quality standard”, he said, stressing that managers had to make sure the academic calendar was followed carefully.

He said “some cohorts finish their learning programmes earlier than expected”.

He suggested that Mzuni conduct regular surveys to check on how other academic institutions with ODL were managing.

“This will enable improvements as time goes on,” he said.

But Chilonga, who is also a geology lecturer, insisted that the centre had an excellent internet connection, effectively delivering lectures: “It's an interactive programme which also allows the students to give feedback either live or by posting comments.”

Going the open-learning route

Other Malawi higher education institutions have followed – with Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) establishing an ODL directorate in 2016.

From the first 441 students it enrolled that year, the numbers have swollen to 1,500 as of January 2020, representing 10% of the student population.

The university’s ODL centre offers BSc degrees in agribusiness management, agricultural economics, agricultural education and agricultural innovations through three ODL centres nationwide, in Mzuzu, Lilongwe and Blantyre.

LUANAR ODL Coordinator Joshua Valeta says the institution is partnering with local and international institutions in course delivery to boost quality. It is also partnering with private businesses to source key services such as telecommunications delivering ODL programmes.

Meanwhile, Malawi Polytechnic, currently a constituent college of the University of Malawi, embraced ODL last year (2020) following the construction of an ICT ODL and Business Centre at its Blantyre campus, which opened in September 2020.

Currently, the polytechnic’s ODL offers a university certificate of education and a bachelor degree of education in business studies, and more programmes are planned, said Dr Rabson Mgawi, the centre coordinator.

Targeting unemployed youth

In the private tertiary education sector, ShareWORLD Open University, founded in 1994, offers distance learning to students who could not gain entry to public universities.

These services are coordinated from the university’s three campuses in Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu.

Looking ahead, Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST), though less than five years old, is investigating the expansion of the ODL it is already offering – a business management and entrepreneurship short course via ODL for 108 students.

The university’s ODL director, Dr Bertha Bangala-Chikadza, is leading plans to introduce wider degree programmes via ODL.

Despite this progress, most Malawi universities have yet to embrace remote instruction through blogs, wikis, YouTube, multimedia, telephones, electronic manuals, television or radio, with many still heavily relying on printed materials for teaching and assessment.

This is why Strengthening Higher Education Access in Malawi Activity (SHEAMA), a USAID programme, supported by the University of Arizona in the USA, matters.

Partnering with Mzuni university, LUANAR, Malawi Polytechnic, the University of Malawi's Chancellor College and MUST, it helps rural school leavers enter ODL programmes.

SHEAMA offers scholarships as well as acquainting the students with online skills necessary for ODL – something rural students may lack.

“There are more than 80,000 students who are just idle in Malawi. We are targeting them, whereby they will be imparted with employable skills so that they are able to fend for themselves and employ others,” said Dr Zikani Kaunda, the head of SHEAMA.