Online learning has taken root. Now, let’s turn to quality

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought greater awareness of the benefits of blended tuition in Africa and beyond, the focus is turning away from the technical stability of learning management systems (LMSs) to concerns about how to support people to get the most out of these edtech platforms and enhance the quality of teaching and learning.

In an article published last year in the International Journal of Higher Education, Bongani Gamede and colleagues from the University of Zululand in South Africa argue that, while LMSs provided the best alternative to face-to-face learning during COVID-19 shutdowns in South Africa, their effective use is anchored on the availability of technological resources that give users (both lecturers and students) the required support.

LMSs are platforms for the delivery and storage of learning materials and activities used by teachers to design, manage, organise and present learning materials for online access. According to Gamede and colleagues, there are more than 100 LMS platforms available in Africa, including Moodle, Author, Blackboard Learn, Forma, Learn Afrique, Google Classroom and Schoology Learning. Some universities have also developed their own unique systems.

This article is published in partnership with Anthology to focus on the use of learning management systems in higher education institutions. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

While there has been an increased appreciation of the role of LMSs and technology in education in the wake of COVID-19 despite connectivity challenges, Dr Melvin Govender, country manager for educational technology systems company Anthology, South Africa, said there is a need for staff to be “digitally competent to enable the creation of learning material that allows students to have exceptional learning journeys”.

He said that, in partnership with UNESCO, Anthology has trained more than 12,000 educators in North Africa and the Caribbean on effective use of LMSs in teaching.

“You can have the infrastructure for proper functioning of LMSs but, without training of the subject experts, it becomes useless,” he said, adding that having regular meetings through user communities “provides a platform for course facilitators to share their concerns and learn from each other”.

Emergency interventions

As it became clear that the pandemic might drag on, so did the need to embrace online teaching.

Dr Ndidi Ofole, a lecturer at the University of Ibadan’s faculty of education in Nigeria, said that, before the COVID-19 outbreak, her university had an e-learning programme for distance learners but the programme was rarely used by regular students.

When the pandemic struck, students and lecturers at the university were caught off guard as the capacity to use the e-learning platform was poor on the part of both lecturers and students.

Like those at many institutions of higher learning in Africa, Ndidi and colleagues began with ‘emergency’ interventions, using mobile phones to share learning materials with students and conducting rudimentary assessments.

Ndidi was fortunate to have received training in online facilitation, course design, assessments and support of students led by Nairobi-based Partnership for African and Social Governance Research.

“I had gone through intensive training in online delivery, using Moodle. The skills I acquired made it easier for me to design interactive courses. Many of my colleagues who had no training were struggling to design learner-centred courses. Students were also struggling,” said Ndidi.

For Ndidi, a key challenge her university faced while transitioning to online teaching was the attitude of faculty members who did not believe that Moodle could deliver enhanced quality learning.

“What they did not know about were innovative teaching methods such as e-case studies, group work and role-plays to facilitate learning online. The platform [Moodle] offered interactive platforms such as wikis and discussion forums for students to actively participate in class,” said Ndidi.

An emphasis on quality

Professor Tashmin Khamis, vice provost quality, teaching and learning at the Aga Khan University (AKU) in Kenya, said that COVID-19 put the spotlight on teaching online with tremendous progress from African universities but with little emphasis on the quality of learning.

“The question of concern should be quality. Are university students getting quality teaching?” she said. “We are seeing awareness that we need to use what LMSs give us to better teach the learner,” Khamis told University World News in an interview.

When universities first adopted LMSs, Khamis said, many lecturers were using them as simple repositories to post learning materials for students.

“But, with time, the students demanded interactive teaching, not only with the course facilitator but also among themselves,” said Khamis, adding that this prompted the need to train and support faculty to meet student needs.

Now, through AKU’s Network of Quality, Teaching and Learning (QTL_net), “we are supporting faculty to look at the designs that engaged the learners through blended teaching ... [such as] a flipped classroom”, she said.

What is critical, said Khamis, is to help faculty design teaching activities, such as creating quizzes on the LMS that help realise course learning objectives, and designing discussion forums and wikis for students to interact and give feedback.

“We are improving learning experiences for students by doing more asynchronous teaching, which is different to independent learning. The course facilitator could design activities for students to do on their own or as a group so as to encourage peer learning,” she said.

Asynchronous e-learning can be described as flexible learning that allows students to log on to an e-learning system at any time, download study material and interact with teachers and peers, but at a time convenient to the student.

Providing sufficient support

But, for African universities to ensure sufficient support for educators, there is a need to have e-learning developers, instructional designers and educational technologists who help faculty in making decisions on course design for effective delivery online, said Khamis.

“In the Global North, these architects of online teaching are in universities. In Africa and Asia … we do not have these resources, making it difficult for faculty to effectively teach online,” she added. With such experts, she said, faculty can be trained on critical aspects such as how to ensure inclusive teaching and learning, innovative online facilitation and assessment and course design.

She urged African universities to create an enabling environment for blended teaching, not only with respect to infrastructure but also in the provision of support for teaching staff and students.

Khamis said it was also important that faculty and students are not overburdened. A study by AKU published last year in the Journal of Work-Applied Management found that faculty motivation, mental wellness and high workload were critical challenges for those grappling with online teaching.

“We need regular refresher training to upgrade our skills and re-tooling to engage our students,” said Ndidi, calling for the introduction of online teaching into curricula for training teachers at universities.

Gamede and colleagues confirm that “the professional development of academics needs to be not only adequate but regular to address quality online teaching, online classes and assessments”.

Meeting students’ needs

Khamis said learners need equitable access to LMSs and should be helped to navigate them and maximise use of the virtual learning environment.

This is particularly important, given problems of access to technology experienced by students around the world, particularly those in developing countries.

A recent survey by UNESCO and Anthology published in a white paper found that approximately 35% of students and faculty globally said that lack of access to technology is a major drawback to accessing education. In Africa, this situation is even more pronounced.

Mirko Widenhorn, a senior director of engagement strategy at Anthology, and colleagues found that 54% of students and faculty said lack of access to technology was a major challenge.

Govender said an LMS should allow students to use technology for “personalised learning experiences” which means that teaching platforms respond to student needs, especially those living with disabilities, to enable them to maximise learning outcomes.

Govender, whose work involves supporting academics to use Anthology (which merged with Blackboard in 2022, but still offers Blackboard Learn as a solution), told University World News: “Accessibility and inclusivity are important in ensuring that no student is left behind.”

This means that the blind and students living with other disabilities should have LMSs that meet their special needs. One special feature allows blind students to convert a PowerPoint presentation into audio, change the colour of content or convert content into electronic Braille.

Govender said Anthology is set to introduce a data collection feature that collects information about individual students from the time of entry to the end of the course.

“High intelligence experience for our students is what we want to see. Collection of data will make the system proactive and provide timely interventions by the course facilitators to help students throughout the course study … the data will also help students make informed decisions about their strengths and where they want to go,” said Govender.

Regular feedback

As universities go back to face-to-face teaching post-COVID restrictions, the focus of Anthology is “on the course engagement tools as institutions are more flexible with hybrid lecturing, with wider acceptance of students to learn online,” Govender said.

To do this, LMSs engage institutions in getting regular ideas and feedback on what they want to enhance teaching and learning with the product development team using such feedback to improve their system.

With increased efforts being made by universities and LMSs to improve student experiences and meet their needs, Widenhorn and colleagues argue that there are still opportunities to help support learners to improve access, retention, and student success globally.

“By considering student feedback and investing in technology resources to deliver more personalisation across everything from course delivery options to career services, higher education leaders can position their university to provide an experience that meets the needs of today’s learners – and those of tomorrow.”