July 25, 2016

Online learning for beginners: 4. ‘What kinds of online learning are there?’

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©acreelman.blogspot.com, 2013

©acreelman.blogspot.com, 2013

This is the fourth of a series of a dozen blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The other three are:

In the third post, I pointed out that MOOCs were just one of the many different types of online learning. In this post, I will provide more detail about the various approaches to online learning, and will also provide a personal evaluation of each approach in terms of quality. This post will be a little longer than normal, as there are not only many approaches to online learning, but the field is also rapidly changing and developing.

Different approaches to online learning

In the first post, ‘What is online learning’? I pointed out that there is a continuum of teaching, from no use of online learning through blended learning, to fully online (or distance) learning. However, even within these categories, there are different possible approaches:

1. Online class notes

Approach

Students access Powerpoint slides and pdfs from a class web site which may be a part of an institution’s learning management system (see below) or it may be just a web site created by the instructor or made available by the institution. Usually the same slides or notes that are given to students taking an on-campus class are put up on the web site for online students, often on a weekly basis.  Online students access the relevant documents, and take the same assessments or exams as on-campus students, either remotely, in the form of computer-marked assignments, or on campus. If online students have questions, they can usually e-mail the instructor. Students usually work individually, although if a learning management system is available, there may be voluntary online discussion between students through the LMS’s discussion forum or social media.

Evaluation

This method is often used by novice online instructors. It requires, on the surface, little extra work for the instructor, once the materials are loaded.

The main problem is that such an approach is not adapted to the needs of online learners, who usually need more support than this model provides. The Powerpoint slides or pdfs do not allow for student interaction with the learning materials (unless they are re-written to do this). If there is a problem with the materials, in terms of the content not being clear, every student is likely to have the same difficulty. Instructors in this model therefore often find that they are overwhelmed with e-mail. If there are not activities (other than reading) scheduled for every week, students tend to get behind. Coming on-campus to do assignments or exams is also a problem for students who have chosen the online option because they have difficulty in getting to campus on a scheduled basis. Students in such courses often feel isolated and unsupported, and therefore such courses usually have much higher non-completion rates. And in the end, instructors find that this approach ends up being a lot more work than they anticipated.

2. Recorded lectures

Approach

The increased availability of technology such as lecture capture, which records classroom lectures on digital video and stores them for later downloading over the Internet, and desk-top cameras, has resulted in many instructors offering online courses built around recorded lectures. The lectures are usually the same as those for on-campus classes. Many MOOCs, as well as courses for credit, use recorded lectures as the main form of delivery.

Evaluation

This approach is again convenient for instructors, especially if they are giving a face-to-face lecture anyway and have technical help in recording and storing the lectures. However this approach suffers from many of the same problems as the class notes method above. An additional problem is that if the recording is of a normal 50 minute lecture, students often suffer from what is known as cognitive overload. Although students viewing a recorded lecture have the opportunity to stop and replay material, this can mean that a 50 minute lecture may take up several hours for an online student. MOOC designers, and TED talk designers, have realised this and often they have limited a single video to 10-20 minutes in length. Nevertheless this does not work so well in a full credit program with maybe 39 lectures over a 13 week semester. Providing transcripts of the lectures is not only time consuming and adds costs, but again increases the cognitive load for students. Lastly, there is considerable research that questions the value of lectures as a teaching method.

3. Webinars

Approach

These are ‘live’ sessions usually consisting of a lecture delivered over the Internet, supported by Powerpoint slides with opportunities for live online chat for the participants. Webinars can be recorded and made available for online access at another time. Again, ‘good’ webinars tend to be broken up into smaller 5-10 segments of presentation followed by either online voice or more commonly (for group management reasons) text comments and questions contributed by participants to which the lecturer responds.

Evaluation

Webinars come closer to mirroring a live face-to-face class than either class notes or recorded lectures, and need relatively little adaptation or change for instructors. While webinars tend to be more interactive than recorded lectures, again it is difficult to cover a whole curriculum through webinars alone. Also participants need to be available at a set time, which restricts the flexibility or availability for online students, although the availability of the recording can offset that to some extent. Webinars using a lecture format also suffer from the same pedagogical limitations for online students as recorded lectures.

4. Instructionally-designed online courses based on a learning management system

These are probably the most common form of online courses for credit and more importantly, they have proved themselves with high completion rates and quality learning.

Approach

A whole science of instructional design has been developed since the 1940s based on pedagogical theory, research on how students learn, the appropriate use of technology, and the evaluation of learning outcomes, and this approach has been applied systematically to the design of fully online and increasingly blended courses. Usually an instructor will work with a professional instructional designer to redesign a classroom course or even a new course for use by online, distance learners. The instructor will be asked to define desired learning objectives, or learning outcomes, the content will be chosen to support the development of such objectives, and organised into ‘blocks’ of study (weekly or more) so that the whole curriculum can be covered over the semester. Assessment will be linked to the desired learning objectives. Sometimes objectives are determined through an analysis of the assessment requirements for equivalent face-to-face classes, if these are not already formally defined. Decisions will be made about which media (text, audio, video, computing) to use in terms of their appropriateness for meeting the defined learning objectives. Particular attention is paid to providing regular student activities, and managing student and instructor workload. Online learning management systems are often used to provide a structure for the course, opportunities for instructor-monitored student discussion, and online assessment tools.

Evaluation

This approach has been used very successfully with the design of fully online courses, usually leading to high completion rates and good quality learning outcomes. In some cases, it has also been successfully applied to blended courses. It is from this approach that many of the best practices in online learning have been identified. It means working in a team, often consisting of a senior faculty member, and for large classes, sessional or contract instructors and/or teaching assistants, an instructional designer, and other technical support staff, such as web designers, that can be called upon as necessary. However, this approach appears initially to be more costly for an institution, and more work for an instructor. It can take up to two years to design and develop a large fully online course, although courses for small classes (less than 40) can be designed in a  much shorter period. However, if the course or program attracts new students, tuition and other revenues can offset many of the additional costs, for instance, paying for release time for faculty to work on course design and development.

This is an interactive infographic. To see more detail on each of the five stages, click on each stage in the graphic © Flexible Learning Australia, 2014

This is an interactive infographic. To see more detail on each of the five stages, click on each stage in the graphic
© Flexible Learning Australia, 2014

5. Designs based on open education and emerging technologies

Approach

This is a bit of a rag-bag category for a small but growing number of online course designs that seek fully to exploit specific characteristics of new media and open educational approaches. These might include:

  • connectivist MOOCs‘ that focus on the contributions of all participants in an extended online network;
  • courses built around social media tools such as blogs, wikis, and e-portfolios;
  • approaches that exploit open educational resources, such as open textbooks and content freely available over the Internet;
  • courses built around emerging technologies, such as virtual worlds, gaming, and augmented reality.

Common features of such courses are increased activity and choices for learners, more diversity in course designs, and ‘agile’ or quick design and development. In such courses, students are often encouraged to seek, analyse, evaluate and apply content to real world issues or contexts, rather than the instructor being primarily responsible for content choice and delivery.

Evaluation

The main rationale for such courses is as follows:

  • they are more appropriate for developing the skills and knowledge learners need in a digital age;
  • they are more active and engaging for learners, resulting in deeper learning;
  • they make better use of new technologies by exploiting their unique teaching potential;
  • these approaches usually result in quicker and relatively low-cost course development and delivery compared with the instructional design approach;
  • they are transforming teaching into a more modern, relevant methodology that better suits today’s learners.

However, such approaches require highly confident and effective instructors with experience in using new technology for teaching, combined with the team approach described earlier. Above all instructors need to have a good grasp of both pedagogy and technology, as well as subject expertise. Direct instructional design and technology support is also essential. Most of these approaches are so new that there is relatively little research on their effectiveness. They are therefore a high risk activity for an instructor, especially those with little experience of online teaching.

This is a very abbreviated description of fast-developing, constantly changing approaches to online learning. You are especially encouraged to do the follow-up reading below.

Implications

  1. It is generally a mistake to merely transport your classroom teaching to an online environment. Online students work in different contexts and have different needs to students in face-to-face classes. Online courses need to be redesigned to accommodate the unique requirements of online learners.
  2. There is a strong body of knowledge about how to design online courses well. You ignore this at your peril. Consequences of ignoring best practices may include poor learning results, a much heavier work-load than anticipated, and dissatisfied students and superiors.
  3. It is best to work in a team. Instructional designers have knowledge about teaching online that most instructors lack. While you will always be in control of content selection, assessment and overall teaching approach, instructional designers need to be listened to as equals.
  4. New technologies have the promise of radically changing teaching, making it more relevant, more engaging for students, and more exciting and challenging for an instructor.

Follow-up

This is a very simplified account of the different kinds of online learning. For a more extensive coverage, see:

For more on the effectiveness of lectures, see:

For more on cognitive load and online learning design, see:

For more on instructional design, see:

For more on designs based on open education and emerging technologies see:

For more on emerging technologies in online learning see:

Up next

When should I use online learning? (This will be much shorter, I promise!)

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.

That was the year that was: what I did in 2015

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Image: Daily Telegraph, from the film "What we Did on our Holiday"

Image: Daily Telegraph, from the film “What we Did on our Holiday”

No, I didn’t die and get a Viking funeral at sea from my grandchildren, as did Billy Connelly in the wonderfully funny movie “What we Did on our Holiday” (but my grandkids are working on it.) Instead, this is more of a housekeeping item but hey, I do have a blog, so why not share it? Here’s a summary of my professional activities in 2015.

Book: ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’

The highlight of the year for me was the publication of my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, in April. Since publication it has been downloaded just over 14,000 times (mainly as pdfs). At the moment the whole book is being downloaded about 20 times a day. In addition the book web site receives about 160 visits each day.

The book has already been translated into Vietnamese (by the Ministry of Education in Vietnam) and is currently being translated into Chinese (by the Chinese Central Radio and Television University) and French (by Contact North) and I am currently negotiating for a Spanish translation.

The book is being used as a referred text in about ten graduate programs, as far as I know, and has been independently reviewed. In general it has been exceptionally well received and clearly meets a need for an up to date book on teaching and learning for faculty and instructors in higher education. I have been particularly gratified that it has succeeded in reaching a large number of mainline faculty and instructors, especially in the health, science and engineering areas.

The book is the main reason I haven’t been able to disengage more quickly from professional activities. During 2015, it resulted in a number of webinars and speaking engagements, which are listed below.

Keynotes and webinars

I gave a total of 12 ‘in presence’ keynotes/workshops and six online webinars, almost all dealing with issues raised in Teaching in a Digital Age, as follows:

Keynotes/workshops

  • Erasmus University, Rotterdam: University teaching in a digital age (plus a workshop on research and online learning for instructional designers in the Faculty of Medicine)
  • Royal Roads University, Victoria BC: Workshop: Thinking about theory in online learning
  • University Tre, Rome, Italy: Teaching in a Digital Age
  • ETUG (Educational Technology Users Group of BC), Burnaby BC: Reflections on writing an open textbook
  • OCULL (Ontario Council for University Lifelong Learning), Cambridge, Ontario: Continuous education: the impact of lifelong learning and technology
  • De Onderwijsdagen (Education Days), Rotterdam: The personalization of learning
  • CIINOVApp, Valle, Jalisco, Mexico: The future of online learning, plus two workshops: How to decide on what to do online and what to do face-to-face in a blended course and Choosing media
  • Conectàctica, Guadalajara, Mexico: Teaching in a Digital Age, plus a workshop on How to decide on what to do online and what to do face-to-face in a blended course

Copies of slides for any of these keynotes/workshops are available on request by sending an e-mail to: tony.bates@ubc.ca. Please give the title of the keynote/workshop you are requesting.

Webinars

I also did six webinars on topics related to Teaching in a Digital Age:

The Contact North webinars, which were open to the public, attracted about 100 participants for each webinar from all across the world. To access recordings of the Contact North webinars, click on the titles above. There will be one more, on the impact of open education, on January 12, 2016.

Analysis of proposals for funding of online courses and modules

I was one of the assessors for the Council of Ontario Universities’ Shared Online Course Fund, which involved reviewing and evaluating proposals from a number of Ontario universities for development and/or redesign of online courses and/or modules. In all, I reviewed 25 proposals. This gave me a glimpse into how online learning is developing in Ontario universities, and overall it was a very encouraging picture.

Appointment at Ryerson University

Lastly, I have been honoured to be appointed Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson University, Toronto, for one year from January 1, 2015. This is a great honour for me, as Ryerson is one of the most innovative universities in teaching and learning in North America, especially in the field of online and distance learning. It is largely an honorary position, but does involve at least two visits a year to Ryerson to give presentations, as well as general advice and guidance to staff in the Chang School, as requested. I’m really looking forward to it.

So, not quite dead yet.

 

Research on ‘academic innovation centres’ supporting online learning

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One of the Academic Innovation Centres in the study

UT Austin Learning Sciences was one of the Academic Innovation Centres in the study

Bishop, M. and Keehn, A. (2015) Leading Academic Change: An Early market Scan of Leading-edge Postsecondary Academic Innovation Centers Adelphi ML: William E. Kirwan centre for Academic Innovation, University System of Maryland

What is this paper about?

This is a paper about the development of ‘academic innovation centers’ in the USA. These go by a variety of names, such as ‘the Centre for Teaching and Learning’ or ‘the Centre for Learning Sciences’, but they are basically integrating faculty development, instructional design and a range of other services for faculty (and in some cases also directly for students) to provide a locus for innovation and change in teaching and learning.

Methodology

Information was collected in three ways:

  • a Leading Academic Change summit, to which 60 academic innovation leaders were invited to engage in discussions around how academic transformation efforts are unfolding in their campuses
  • interviews with 17 ‘particularly  innovative academic transformation leaders’, to talk about the evolution of teaching and learning centres at their institutions
  • a ‘national’ survey of campus centres for teaching and learning; 163 replied to the survey (there are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the USA).

Main results and conclusions

The paper should be read carefully and in full, as there are some interesting data and findings, but here are the main points I was interested in:

  • the information collected in this study ‘seems to point to the  emergence of new, interdisciplinary innovation infrastructures within higher education administration.’
  • this includes new senior administrative positions, such as Vice Provost for Innovation in Learning and Student Success, or Associate Provost for Learning Initiatives
  • the new centres bring together previously separate support departments into a single integrated centre, thus breaking down some of the previous silos around teaching and learning
  • their focus is on online, blended and hybrid course design or re-design, improving faculty engagement with students, and leveraging instructional/learning platforms  for  instruction.
  • some of the centres are going beyond faculty development and are focusing on ensuring new initiatives lead to student success;
  • the leaders of these new centres are usually respected academics (rather than instructional designers, for instance) who may lack experience or knowledge in negotiating institutional cultures or change management

Comment

Despite the methodological issues with such a study, which the authors themselves recognise, the evidence of the development of these ‘academic innovation centres’ fits with my recent experience in visiting Canadian universities over the last two years or so, although I suspect this study focuses more on the ‘outliers’ with regard to innovation and change in USA universities and colleges.

What I find particularly interesting are the following:

  • the desire to ensure that faculty become the leaders of such centres, even though they may lack experience in bringing about institutional change, and in addition may not have a strong background in learning technologies. Perhaps they should read the book I co-wrote with Albert Sangra, ‘Managing Technology in Higher Education‘, which directly addresses these issues;
  • the study found that neither technology nor even faculty success was the leading focus of these centres, but rather student success. This is a much needed if subtle change of direction, although the report did not suggest how the link between innovation in teaching and student success might be identified or measured. I suspect that this will be a difficult challenge.
  • where does the move to integrated centres leave Continuing Studies departments, which often have the instructional design and online learning expertise (at least in many Canadian universities)? The actual location of such staff is not so important as the intent to work collaboratively across institutional boundaries, but for that to happen there has to be a strongly supported common vision for the future development of teaching and learning shared across all the relevant organizational divisions. Organisational re-alignment can’t operate successfully in a policy vacuum.

Nevertheless if what is reported here is representative of what is happening in at least some of the leading U.S. universities, it is encouraging, although I would like to see a more rigorous and comprehensive study of the issue before I throw my hat into the air.

Book review: Teaching and Learning in Digital Worlds

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Workspace in the EVEA3D platform

Workspace in the EVEA3D platform

Gisbert, T. and Bullen, M. (2015) Teaching and Learning in Digital Worlds: Strategies and Issues in Higher Education Tarragona Spain: Publicacions Universitat Rovira i Virgili (pdf version available online for 2.84 Euros).

What the book is about

From the Introduction

[The book] examines the teaching and learning process in 3D virtual learning environments from both the theoretical and practical points of view. It is divided into four sections:

  • the first section discusses education in the 21st century from the perspective of learners in a digital society and examines the basic competences students need to respond to the personal and professional challenges they are likely to face. It also explores the issue of quality…..
  • the second section focuses on the educational and teaching strategies higher education professionals must take into account when developing educational processes in technology environments…in such environments simulation will be our best teaching strategy and evaluation our greatest challenge.
  • the third section explores the use of 3D virtual environments in education in general and in higher education in particular….
  • The fourth section examines the range of experiences we consider to be good practice when applying 3D technological environments to the teaching of competences at secondary and tertiary levels of education both nationally and internationally.

However, this doesn’t quite capture for me what the book is really about, so I will discuss a little more closely below some of the themes addressed by individual chapters.

As a point of clarification, I will use the term ‘immersive environments’ as a shorthand to describe simulations, games and virtual reality, a point I will come back to in my comments at the end of this post.

Who wrote it

The book is edited by Mercè Gisbert of the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Catalonia, Spain, and Canadian Mark Bullen, formerly of the University of British Columbia and the Commonwealth of Learning. However, the majority of chapters are based on a study (Simul@) funded by the Spanish Ministry of Education and coordinated by Universitat Rovira i Virgili, but involving universities in Spain, Germany, and Portugal, thus providing a valuable insight into the thinking about immersive environments for education in Europe.

Full disclosure: I wrote a short prologue for the book.

Themes covered in the book

Rather than a chapter-by-chapter summary, I have selected certain themes that re-occur through the book.

1. Digital learners

There is a lot of discussion in the book about the nature of digital learners and their ‘readiness’ for learning through digital technologies. In particular, Bullen and Morgan summarise the conflicting views and the research around digital natives and digital immigrants, and provide a more ‘nuanced’ profile of categories of digital learners.  Martinez and Espinal in their chapter provide a detailed description of digital competence and how to assess it. Throughout the book there is emphasis on the need to ensure that learners have the necessary ‘digital competences’ to benefit fully from the use of immersive technologies for learning purposes (although the same applies to teachers, of course). For instance, de Oliveira et al., in their chapter, identify various components of digital competences.

2. Competences

One of the strengths of the book is that several authors make the point that the main educational value of immersive learning environments is for the development of ‘general competences’ such as learning to learn, teamwork, communication, problem solving and decision-making. Astigarraga provides a very good overview of the definition, identification and evaluation of competences, and Isus et al. develop this further with a chapter on evaluating the competences of teamwork and self-management. Larraz and Esteve devote their whole chapter to evaluating digital competence in immersive environments. These chapters will be valuable for anyone interested in competency-based learning, whether or not using immersive learning environments.

3. Key educational principles and affordances of immersive technologies

Another strength of the book is that several authors related the features of immersive environments to possible educational affordances, and the educational principles needed to exploit such affordances. Camacho and Esteve-Gonzáles have a list of 14 educational reasons for using immersive environments for learning and Cervera and Cela-Ranilla have collated from the general research literature about 15 key pedagogical principles ‘to be observed during learning processes’ when using immersive technologies for learning purposes.

4. Planning and implementing virtual learning environments

Towards the end of the book there are several chapters focusing on more practical issues. Marqués et al. describe the planning and implementation of a virtual world built in Sloodle, which combines OpenSim with Moodle, for educating both physical education and business management students. Estevez-González et al. take this further with a chapter on the tools used in Sloodle and the necessary steps needed to integrate OpenSim and Moodle. Lastly, Cela-Ranilla and Estevez-Gonzàlez provide an educational rationale for the design of the project. Garcia and Martin set out a design methodology for an immersive learning environment.

5. Experiences and good practices

The book ends with five chapters that describe actual applications of immersive learning environments, including PolyU developed at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (hotel and tourism management), a review of applications in economics and business courses, the use of an educational platform Virt-UAM developed at Universidad Autònoma de Madrid, and applications in law and psychology, and lastly a review of applications in secondary/high school education.

Critique

First, this is a very welcome and timely publication for several reasons:

  • it sets out very clearly the pedagogical rationale for the use of immersive learning environments;
  • it links immersive technologies very strongly to the development of competences;
  • it provides practical advice on the planning and implementation of immersive learning environments;
  • it provides a welcome European perspective on the topic.

From a personal perspective, it complements very nicely my own open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, where, because of space and time issues, I was unable to give this topic the treatment it deserves. Although not an open textbook, it is very accessible, available online for less than three euros ($3-4).

Given the book is mostly written by people for whom English is a second language, the chapters are clearly and well written, mostly free of the European English associated with European Commission projects.

Nevertheless, the European Commission has adopted the term competence rather than competency, which really irritates me, and this term is used throughout the book, when what the authors are really talking about are skills. Competent is an adjective meaning a minimal capacity to do something; incompetent is more frequently used in English English, and it is used to describe inadequacy. What we are really talking about here are skills, not competence. Skills have no limit, while competence tends to be categorical: you either have it or you don’t, which is why competency-based learning often requires 100% pass-rates. But skills such as problem-solving can get better and better, and that’s what we should be striving for in higher education, not a minimal pass requirement.

The editors have done a good job in ensuring that there is a coherence and progression between the different chapters, always a challenge in a multiple-authored book. However, I would have liked a summary chapter from the editors that pulled all the threads together, and also some more information about the authors.

The books strength and its weakness is the academic nature of the book, with more focus on theory, competences and affordances, and less on the actual technology design issues, although to be fair these start to appear at the back of the book. I would have liked to have seen more integration in the writing throughout the book between theory and practice.

The main omission is any discussion of costs in planning and developing immersive learning environments, which are time demanding of both learners and teachers. There are clear economies of scale that need to be employed to justify the high cost of initial design. If a virtual world and allied teaching strategies can be shared across several courses or even disciplines, the cost becomes more acceptable. There is also a high cost for students in terms of the time needed to master the technology and its educational applications if they only get one course in a virtual world. So it is a pity that there was so little discussion of costs and time in the book, and about the transfer of innovation into mainstream practice, which are significant challenges for the wider adoption of immersive technologies in education.

Nevertheless, this is a book I would highly recommend to all concerned about the implications of technology for learning design. Virtual learning environments hold great promise. We need more concerted efforts in higher education to use immersive learning environments, and this book is an essential guide.

An analysis of the e-Learning Africa 2015 report

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Refugees and iPads 2

Elletson, H. and Burgess, A. (eds.) (2015) The eLearning Africa Report 2015 Berlin, Germany: ICWE GmbH

It is difficult to do justice in a short blog post to this 130 page plus report about the state of e-learning in Africa. I need therefore to be selective. As a result, although the link between primary, secondary and higher education is critical, I will focus in this post mainly on higher education, infrastructure and policy issues raised in the report. However, for anyone concerned about development in Africa, I strongly recommend reading the whole report rather than relying on this analysis. I have put selected extracts from the report in italics.

Editorial

Technology is driving change in Africa and fuelling the economic growth of African economies. There is now an urgent need for radical change. Africa is at a ‘tipping point.’ The upward momentum of the continent’s economies can continue or they can start to slip back. Much will depend on the nature of the change the continent is now prepared to embrace….

Education is the key to Africa’s future and, if it is to do what is expected of it, technology has to be at the heart of it…. 

More attention also needs to be given to the forgotten child of African education – the higher education sector…

It is time to put eLearning at the forefront of the radical change Africa needs.

The state of e-learning readiness in Africa

This chapter from Dr Aida Opoku-Mensah, Special Adviser Post-2015 Development Agenda, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) addresses the following:

Whilst eLearning services and products are freely on offer in Africa, with many interesting initiatives and projects in place, the real question is whether the continent is ready fully to benefit from this revolution….

The key question is whether governments are providing a centrally coordinated eLearning implementation programme that aligns national goals to educational reform and the use of effective technology.

An eLearning strategy should be a subset of an ICT in Education policy that:

  • lays out a roadmap for countries with an eLearning architecture
  • addresses curriculum issues
  • provides for capacity development for teachers across a nation
  • supports administration and the management of systems

Other important aspects of such a strategy should be:

  • infrastructure development that provides affordable connectivity for education
  • content development especially when it comes to procurement of eLearning content, including its contextualisation
  • exploring the prospect of developing a local eLearning business support sector that can sustain any eLearning environment, whilst nurturing innovation and creativity in this sector.

She goes on to argue that:

eLearning becomes possible when there is an integration of ICTs in the education system, which requires a policy and strategy of its own. It may be derived from marrying a national ICT policy with national education goals and strategy. Without this approach, African countries are not and will not be ready.

The neglect of higher education in sub-Saharan Africa

Guy Pfefferman, an economist by background and CEO of the Global Business School Network, points to the neglect of higher education in Africa in the 2000 United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, because of its sole focus on primary education. However, demand for higher education has exceeded supply in Africa, resulting in a rapid growth of private higher education institutions. Funding has not kept pace with enrolment growth, and as a result quality is a huge challenge.

Although HE in Africa is now back on the development agenda, Pfefferman argues that the existing institutions require major reform:

What is necessary in order to meet the need for skills and employment is radical, not gradual, change. eLearning is therefore the only way … of scaling up the reach of good and relevant higher education.

The reality of Internet and phone access in Africa

Firoze Manji, Director of the Pan-African Baraza, which is aimed at reclaiming the past, contesting the present and inventing the future, offers some valuable counter-perspectives to the type of education being offered to Africans and the romanticism about [the Internet] and telephones. 

If one looks at the continent as a whole, something like less than 14% of the population has access to the internet. If you exclude Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and South Africa, you are left with 4% with access to the internet. You are, therefore, only reaching a tiny minority by doing it this way.

With regard to phones:

The majority of people who do have phones in Africa really only use them for text messaging. The cost of sending messages, although it has come down significantly in some countries, in many places costs anywhere between 20 and 35 cents. If you’re on less than a dollar a day then that’s a large proportion.

This theme was also taken up in the article by Nnenna Nwakanma, the cofounder of The Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa.

  • Internet access is priced as a luxury good. Overall, in emerging and developing countries, the cost of entry level broadband (averaging across mobile and fixed line access) exceeds 40% of average income (in many countries it is over 100% of monthly income).
  • 500 MB per month is the minimum needed to access two or three educational videos a week, and fewer than 3% of Africans, 25% of Asians and 30% of Latin Americans, can afford a 500 MB mobile data package.
  • In some cases, schools are trying to meet the costs of eLearning programmes by introducing additional student fees, thus clearly discriminating against the poor.
  • The high cost to connect limits access to information and distance learning opportunities for women in the developing world, which is particularly worrying because the overwhelming majority of adults excluded from formal schooling are women.

Nnenna Nwakanma concludes that:

to unlock the internet revolution in access to knowledge and empowerment we need to ensure that all people can access all of the internet all of the time [and] can use it freely to express their views and seek information without political restrictions….Globally, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should include a commitment to achieving universal and affordable access to broadband internet, including the expansion of free public access facilities, as part of a larger commitment on access to infrastructure. The SDGs must also commit to upholding the rights of all to freedom of expression, information and association, both online and offline.

What is appropriate technology for e-learning in Africa?

Niall Winters, Associate Professor of Learning and New Technologies at the Department of Education, University of Oxford, looks at three rationales for the use of technology for teaching in Africa:

  • to provide students with the skills they need to take part in the knowledge economy of the 21st Century
  • for teachers to improve their teaching practice
  • a means by which self-guided informal learning will flourish.

He argues that each of these rationales require nuanced and in-depth analysis to succeed. He argues that each is ‘problematic’ and the problems that arise from using technology for these purposes need to be addressed; merely providing technology in the hope that these goals will succeed is likely to fail. He uses One Laptop Per Child and the Hole in the Wall projects as examples of the need for a more nuanced approach.

Basic data on ICTs in education in Africa

An overview of the latest ICT in education data is provided by Peter Wallet, Programme Specialist in ICT in education statistics at the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. The first point he makes is that there is a major data gap in ICT in education data in Africa. In fact in six sub-Saharan countries, no data at all is collected. As a result, Wallet focused on three areas:

  • electrification
  • computer density
  • Internet connectivity.

He found that electricity was available in less than 20% of primary schools in ten countries for which there was data. More than 75% of all schools had electricity in just five countries (Mauritius, Sao Tome, South Africa, Botswana and Djibouti), although in Zambia and Niger over 75% of all secondary schools also had electricity.

The learner-to-computer ratio (LCR) varied considerably across countries, but Wallet reported that computer resources are greatly overstretched in primary education in a number of countries, including the Gambia, where 214 pupils on average share a single computer and in Zambia and São Tomé there are more than 500 pupils per computer.

The primary level LCR in South Africa, Botswana, Rwanda and Mauritius is 90:1, 55:1, 40:1 and 23:1, respectively, with Rwanda’s being relatively low due to the One Laptop Per Child program. Ratios are better in secondary schools (around 54 learners per computer). Wallet comments:

While the LCR is an average, computer resources may, however, be so strained in many schools that time on task is too limited per pupil to allow a meaningful learning experience

Internet availability ranges substantially within sub-Saharan Africa. For example, internet availability is negligible in primary schools in Burkina Faso, Liberia, Madagascar, and Guinea. At the other end of the range, Mauritius has connected over 90% of all its schools, while Botswana has connected all public secondary schools to the internet.

The impact of undersea fibre optic networks on Africa

In 2009, sub-Saharan Africa began to see its first international submarine fibre-optic cable connections. Now the region has multiple cable systems on both coasts, with more countries being connected each year.

Social entrepreneur Steve Song has been working with the online community to map the history and development of African undersea cables. He shares … his continuously updated African Undersea Cables map – April 2015 version – as well as his review of the continent’s 2014 telecom infrastructure development, to paint a picture of where and how the continent is getting connected.

Africa undersea cables 2

Country profiles

The report ends with profiles of each African country.

The country profiles allow for a more detailed view on a country-by-country basis, analysing national trends, policies and best practice, highlighting how each country in Africa uses ICT for education and development.

They show the scale of Africa’s achievement, the obstacles that remain to be overcome and, in many cases, the enormous opportunities that are now within reach of so many people across the continent.

Other topics

There are also interesting sections in the report on the following:

  • Education is the first step toward peaceful societies, by Emmanuel Jal
  • The Cruise of a Thousand Clicks: A poem by Bobana Badisang
  • The power of open knowledge: How Wikimedia is transforming education
  • Teaching teacher trainers to teach online
  • Stop the education blame game and start looking at the bigger picture
  • Spotlight on eLearning in Egypt and eLearning for agriculture in Malawi
  • The eLearning Africa survey
  • Putting mobile learning into context
  • Finding funds

Each one of these is worth a blog post in itself.

My comments

I cannot praise too highly the work of the eLearning Africa project of ICWE GmbH, which also runs the annual eLearning Africa conference. They provide essential documentation and networking regarding what’s happening in e-learning in Africa.

The report highlights the tension between the enormous possibilities of the use of technology for teaching and learning in Africa, and the reality and challenges on the ground. The editors state:

It is already clear that the ambitious aims of the Millennium Development Goals have not been fulfilled. Despite some progress, universal attainment of the goals remains distant. Progress has been uneven too. Some statistics nevertheless stand out: since 1999, for example, the number of children enrolled in primary schools in sub-Saharan Africa increased by 75% to 144 million in 2012. In the same period, the gender parity gap was halved in primary education. In the 2000’s, the percentage of countries carrying out national assessments of learning almost doubled.

Overall, I came away optimistic about the real progress that has been made and is continuing to be made in education in Africa, and the role that e-learning is beginning to play.

However, e-learning is way down the development food chain and does not exist in a vacuum. First comes political, economic and infrastructure development (particularly electricity), accompanied by investment in and the building of formal education capacity. Then comes teacher training and the development of ICT infrastructure linked to educational goals and policy. Only then is the ecological framework that enables e-learning to be successful in place.

This does not mean that e-learning cannot help bring about radical changes, but it has to be seen as just one part of many highly complex developments that are needed to reduce poverty and provide freedom and well-being to the peoples of Africa. We do Africa a disservice by suggesting that there are simple short cuts through mobile learning, free computers or online learning, although these are all developments that can help speed up change in Africa, provided that the other pieces are also being put in place.