Last week I participated in a three day workshop in Bonn, Germany, for senior African higher education leaders on Integrating e-Learning: Key Challenge for Higher Education Governance, organised jointly by the United Nations University’s Bonn Campus, DAAD (the German Academic Exchange Service) and the Commonwealth of Learning. There were about 30 participants from about a dozen sub-Saharan African countries.
The participants ranged from campus-based institutions that have yet to start e-learning, to some that have been offering e-learning for some time. Also present were representatives from the African Virtual University, several African open universities, a pan-African schoolnet focused on teacher training, and several African national higher education councils and accrediting agencies.
The current state of e-learning in African universities
In my opening keynote (a PDF copy of my slides is available from here), I raised three questions for discussion:
- why use technology for teaching?
- who should decide on what (and how?)
- how does the context of Africa affect such decisions?
My point was that given the particular challenges faced by universities in Africa (poor and expensive Internet infrastructure, relatively high cost of computers, shortage of quality IT staff and e-learning specialists, and the need for more ‘knowledge-workers’), universities need to be very focused and strategic in their use of e-learning.
The reaction of the majority of participants was that they had no choice other than move to e-learning, but they would need innovative and ‘African designed’ approaches to e-learning to work round particularly the infrastructure problems. It was several times asserted that Internet infrastructure was rapidly improving in Africa, and that institutions themselves needed to put pressure on government to expand Internet infrastructure, computer and mobile phone access to support the growth of e-learning. Since mobile phones were the most commonly available digital technology in Africa, mobile learning will need to play a particularly significant role.
Paul West from the Commonwealth of Learning then gave a keynote on lessons learned from developing the Virtual University of the Small States of the Commonwealth. Issues around forming successful collaborations and partnerships, the shared use of open educational resources, and copyright were raised.
There were then several short plenary presentations and break-out discussion groups where African participants gave short presentations on what they were doing with regard to e-learning, and some of the challenges they are facing.
For instance in a very interesting presentation/paper by Tolly Mbwette, Fred Barasa Simiyu, and Cosmas Mnyanyi, of the African Council on Distance Education, it was pointed out that at an average cost of US$5.46/kbps, African universities are paying roughly fifty times the cost of Internet access of what a typical US university would pay for the same quantity of digital bandwidth. In particular, the poorer the country, the higher the actual bandwidth cost. While costs are expected to decline over time, particularly through the access to international fibre optic marine cabling, projections are for cost reductions of no more than 10-20 per cent over the short term. This seems an area where government in particular could play an important role by acting as a single ‘buyer’ of service for all institutions, thus achieving greater economies of scale through open bidding. However, that requires genuine and available competition between independent telecommunications carriers, a situation often lacking in African countries.
There were other presentations from African universities as follows:
Professor Mama Foupouagnigni, Université Yaoundé 1, Cameroons: a description of a multi-disciplinary team of professors and support staff developing a strategic plan for e-learning at Université Yaoundé 1
Speranza Ndege described e-learning activities at Kenyatta University, Kenya
Jessica Aguti and Sam Siminyu described e-learning activities at Makerere University, Uganda
Philise Rasugu described recent developments in e-learning at the African Virtual University.
It would be fair to say that although there is great interest in e-learning in these institutions, they are nearly all in the early stages of e-learning development.
Management and governance of e-learning
The second day was focused primarily on management and governance of e-learning. This was done mainly through discussion in both plenary and breakout sessions. There were primarily four themes:
- external competition (especially from foreign providers) and new business models for universities
- internal management: how to get started in e-learning, policies for e-learning, and governance structures (committees, etc.)
- external management: collaboration in courses and programs, international accreditation, and technology collaboration (open source and open content, etc.)
- innovative teaching and learning, including capacity building/training.
These were intense, highly participatory sessions, excellently facilitated by UNU staff, with reports back from the groups, and an overall analysis of the discussions the following day.
Quality assurance and e-learning
The third day focused on quality assurance in e-learning. This was led by Ulf-Daniel Ehlers, Vice President, the European Foundation for Quality in e-Learning. This was a particularly important topic, given the presence of representatives from several African national higher education accreditation and quality councils. Again, most of the day was spent in highly participatory discussion groups and brainstorming.
Although I understand the need for quality assurance in e-learning, given the concerns of traditional African universities and higher education councils, and although Ulf-Daniel Ehlers has a very open and constructive approach to quality assurance that focuses as much on self-improvement as external validation, I personally feel that far more important than putting in time-consuming quality assurance processes from the very beginning, African universities should focus on getting started in e-learning, and looking for innovative approaches that may not meet initially quality assurance standards derived often from traditional education. They should do this by being aware of and implementing good practices from other, more established e-learning providers, but also should be looking for ways to work with a lack of resources and a lack of trained staff that may not be found in better resourced, ‘quality’ institutions. Experience is often the best teacher. In particular, I am concerned that as always, e-learning is expected to operate to higher quality standards than face-to-face teaching, and focusing too early on quality assurance can by definition really restrict innovation and change. Nevertheless, despite my concern, there was a great deal of interest and enthusiasm from the participants in these sessions.
I came away from the workshop with the following conclusions
- hope: I was very impressed with the confidence and determination of the participants to make e-learning work in Africa.
- there was an understanding by the participants of the need to be innovative to work around or remove the challenges they are facing, and also again a confidence that they can do this.
- nevertheless the challenges they face are quite substantial. The technology need not be perfect, but it must work relatively reliably for e-learning to succeed. Training and development of both faculty and particularly e-learning support staff is essential, but this is expensive and time-consuming. These two areas are where donors can make the most impact.
- given the lack of resources, strategic focus and planning will be critical. A shot-gun approach of trying to develop e-learning across the institution should be avoided, with e-learning focused on those students and programs where it will provide the greatest benefit. In this way, quality is likely to be achieved and maintained, until more resources and better infrastructure become available.
- I think we will see more innovation in African universities, as a result of the challenges and the determination to overcome these challenges, than elsewhere in the world. Necessity is the mother of invention. The participants in this workshop clearly demonstrated they are up to this.
Lastly, I was impressed with the quality of the facilitation, the kindness and care taken of all the participants by Virginie Aimard and her staff at the UNU. It was a privilege to participate in this workshop.