Makerere University Vice Chancellor Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe has outlined the steps the university is taking to leverage advanced technologies to make learning more accessible to its students, especially during this time of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The vice chancellor shared the university’s plan during a high-level dialogue organized by the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) to look at how universities can realign towards online teaching and learning.
During the dialogue, Prof. Nawangwe, who was the lead speaker, was asked to give an overview of and discuss how the integration of digital technologies can be effected in African universities’ systems to cause meaningful impact.
He was also requested to share the key challenges universities have recorded in mainstreaming online teaching and learning in the Higher Education System in Africa.
Delivering his presentation in the context of Makerere University, Prof. Nawangwe said that despite numerous technological advances and increased penetration of smartphones in Africa, the digital divide is still real and is further compounded by factors such as unreliable electricity supply.
He nevertheless pointed out that the Makerere University E-Learning Environment (MUELE) is a Moodle-based Learning Management System (LMS) backed by some of the best ICT infrastructures with a bandwidth capacity of 0.5Mbps.
MUELE had 791 well-designed, interactive, activity-based courses before April 2020 and 157 have since been added.
The Vice Chancellor said that Makerere University opted to embrace blended learning, which makes use of a combination of technologies, approaches and methodologies, to deliver courses to learners separated by time and space from facilitators as well as fellow learners.
He added that the University Open, Distance and eLearning (ODeL) Policy was approved by the University Council in 2015. The policy paved way for the creation of an ODeL pedagogy support Unit, the Institute of Open, Distance and eLearning (IODeL).
Prof. Nawangwe shared that both the previous and current (2020-2030) institutional Strategic Plans had recognized ODeL as a major strategy and as such, put in place quality assurance systems as outlined in the Quality Assurance Policy.
He said that whereas the current institutional budget of Shs200 million per annum to support ODeL was still low, support towards the enabling environment; ICT Services and Internet bandwidth costs, is close to US$1 million.
Sharing results from the E-Learning Readiness Tracer Study conducted by the University prior to emergency ODeL rollout, Prof. Nawangwe noted that 75% of over 12,400 student respondents had expressed willingness to continue their studies online.
Some of the challenges cited by students unwilling to continue learning online included high data costs, lack of laptops and poor connectivity in rural areas, among others.
To help support the emergency ODeL rollout and ensure that these genuine concerns were addressed, the Vice Chancellor had negotiated with telecommunication companies to effect zero rating of Makerere University’s E-Learning and other related websites.
The University has also negotiated with equipment manufacturers to help secure affordable laptops for staff and students.
In the spirit of leaving no student behind, the University has appointed E-Learning coordinators for each School and is making progress with developing learning assistance/options for students with visual impairment and other disabilities.
The Vice Chancellor concluded by sharing that Makerere University has since 1991 been preparing for ODeL delivery, which is the future of teaching and learning even after the COVID-19 pandemic dissipates.
He summed it all up by saying that recent policy changes brought about by COVID-19 will enable the institution to rollout emergency ODeL to traditionally face-to-face programmes whilst strengthening existing ones.
Welcoming participants to the dialogue, RUFORUM Executive Secretary Prof. Adipala Ekwamu noted that galvanizing efforts towards online teaching and learning in Universities in Africa remains an important and relevant factor.
This, he said, would require in-depth analysis of modern digital technologies, pedagogical approaches that must be adopted as well as knowledge and skills to facilitate the transition to online teaching and learning in the face of COVID-19.
Responding to a question on how the integrity of the examinations process will be maintained under ODeL, Prof. Nawangwe shared that examinations at Makerere University will not be conducted online for this academic year.
He added that whereas exams for this semester would be conducted in situ, the University was working with experts from various fields on protocols to facilitate online examinations in the future.