April 19, 2018

Have we reached a tipping point in teaching science and engineering online?

A remote lab used by online physics students at Colorado Community College

This post lists several new developments in delivering science and engineering online. These developments join a list of other efforts that are listed below in the reference section that suggest we may be reaching a tipping point in teaching science and engineering online.

USA: The University of Colorado Boulder’s Master of Science in Electrical Engineering

UC Boulder is offering a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering (MS-EE), a MOOC-based online, asynchronous, on-demand graduate degree in the autumn, with additional curricula rolling out in 2018-19.

The degree will have a “modular and stackable structure”, according to the university, meaning that students can select about 30 subjects that best suit them as they move through the programme. Each of the 100 courses on offer will feature in-depth video content, reading materials and resources and assessments, and many will also “bring the laboratory experience out of the Engineering Center to students around the world” by “inviting students to apply their knowledge using hardware and software kits at home”, the university said.  

The university has already designed kits for the course on embedded systems engineering – a field in which a computer is designed and programmed to perform predefined tasks, usually with very specific requirements. For this course, students will be sent a circuit board with an embedded system that can plug into their laptop and will form the basis of assignments. The results of the tests will then either be sent automatically to the lecturers or entered manually by students. The technology also means that technical assignments can be machine-graded immediately, with students receiving instant feedback. It allows students to retake assignments as many times as they want.

The home kits will cost in the range of “tens of dollars” rather than thousands of dollars. Overall the degree will cost around US$20,000, which is half the price of the equivalent on-campus programme.

Individual courses can be taken for a single academic credit, but they can also be grouped into thematic series of 3-4 credits, stacked into standalone CU Boulder graduate certificates of 9-12 credits, or combined to earn the full 30-credit degree. Each course addresses professional skills while providing content at the same high quality as the university’s traditional on-campus master’s degrees.

CU Boulder faculty have custom designed each course. Courses feature in-depth video content, curated readings and resources, and assessments that challenge students to demonstrate their mastery of the subject area. Many courses bring the laboratory experience out of the Engineering Center to MOOC students around the world, inviting students to apply their knowledge using hardware and software kits at home. 

However, the program has still to be accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), and no information was given as to whether it will be accepted by ABET, the accreditation agency for professional engineers in the USA. This will be critical, as in the past, very few engineering programs with online components have passed this hurdle

Also the notion of MOOCs being not only open but free seems to be a thing of the past. US$20,000 for a degree may be half the cost of the on-campus course, but I suspect many potential students will want to be sure that they can get full accreditation as a professional engineer before laying out that kind of money.

Nevertheless, this is a bold venture by UC Colorado, building on its previous excellent work in offering open educational resources in science through its PhET project. Founded in 2002 by Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman (now at the University of British Columbia), the PhET Interactive Simulations project at the University of Colorado Boulder creates free interactive math and science simulations. PhET sims are based on extensive education research and engage students through an intuitive, game-like environment where students learn through exploration and discovery. It will be interesting to see how much the MS-EE program draws on these resources.

Queen’s University’s online Bachelor in Mining Engineering Technology

Queen’s University’s new Bachelor of Mining Engineering Technology (BTech) program combines technical expertise with the managerial and problem-solving skills the industry needs from the next generation of mining professionals, in a flexible online learning format. The university provides a very interesting rationale for this program:

Canada’s mining industry is facing a retirement crisis that is only set to worsen over the next five to ten years. With the most experienced part of the mining workforce leaving, new opportunities will open up for the next generation of mining professionals.

This program was developed as a result of discussions between the university and the mining industry in Ontario. The web site indicates the type of position open to graduates with typical salaries.

Graduates of any Engineering Technology or Mining Engineering Technician diploma who have completed their diploma with a minimum 75% average or individuals with at least two years of study in a relevant science field are eligible to enrol. Upon successful completion of the bridging program, students enter the final two years of the four-year degree program. Each year includes a two-week field placement in Kingston and Timmins. Students receive block transfer credits for the first two years of the program.

Students can study full-time, or work full-time and study part-time. This allows students to adjust their course load at any time during the program.

However, the BTech program is unaccredited. Graduates seeking professional licensure will need to apply to write the Board Exams in mining engineering. In Ontario, the application will go to the Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO). As with applications from an accredited program, graduates would also need to write the law and ethics exam, and complete the required supervised work experience program in order to be considered for licensure.

It will be interesting to see how the two programs work out. Both ABET in the U.S. and professional engineering societies in Canada have up to now denied accreditation for any degree programs with a significant online component, a necessary first step to taking the professional exams. But the Queen’s program has been built specifically to respond to the needs of employers. I will be very interested to see how the PEO in particular responds to graduates from this program wanting licensure as professional engineers – or will the employers just ignore the professional association and hire the graduates anyway?

Image: The Fraser Institute

More online virtual labs for science and engineering

Drexel University Online has an excellent series called Virtually Inspired, which like Contact North’s Pockets of Innovation

is an ongoing research project to uncover the best of breed technology-enhanced online courses and programs indicative of the “Online Classroom of the Future.”

Online Virtual Labs for Science and Engineering showcases three examples from Chile, India and Denmark of online virtual labs that provide hands-on experiential learning.

LAB4U, Chile

The Lab4Physics mobile app enables students to use various built-in tools to measure gravity or acceleration in real-time with a built-in accelerometer. They can study speed, velocity, distance or displacement using the built-in speedometer. With the sonometer, students can study waves, amplitude, time and other physics phenomenon.

Coming soon, the Lab4Chemistry app will helps students learn spectrophotometric techniques. Students can use the built-in camera as a spectrophotometer or colorimeter to analyze samples wherever they may be. By taking pictures of droplets of different concentration and optical densities, they can create a calibration plot to measure a material’s transmission or reflection properties.

Each app has pre-designed experiments. For example, a student can swing their phone or tablet like a pendulum to learn how oscillation works.

Students and teachers alike can download the app, experiment, analyze and learn with pre-designed guided lab experiences and step-by-step instructions. For those who lack Internet access, the experiments and tools can be downloaded to use offline, even in airplane mode.

Students, teachers, and institutions from primary, secondary and tertiary institutions across Latin and South America are taking advantage of Lab4U.  Most recently Lab4U has expanded their work to Mexico and the United States.

Virtual labs of India

Virtual labs of India is an initiative of the Indian Ministry of Human Resource Development. Its objectives are:

  • to provide remote-access to labs in various disciplines of Science and Engineering. These Virtual Labs will cater to students at the undergraduate level, post graduate level as well as to research scholars

  • to enthuse students to conduct experiments by arousing their curiosity, helping them learn basic and advanced concepts through remote experimentation 

  • to provide a complete Learning Management System around the Virtual Labs where the students can avail the various tools for learning, including additional web-resources, video-lectures, animated demonstrations and self evaluation.

  • to share costly equipment and resources, which are otherwise available to limited number of users due to constraints on time and geographical distances.

Anywhere from four to twenty-five labs are offered per discipline area. These areas include Computer Science & Engineering, Electrical, Mechanical, Chemical, and Civil Engineering, Biotechnology and Biomedical engineering, and more.

Virtual Labs Simulations from Denmark

Labster is a Danish company with offices in Bali, Zurich, London, and Boston, as well as Copenhagen. 

Labster offers fully interactive advanced lab simulations based on mathematical algorithms that support open-ended investigations. They combine these with gamification elements such as an immersive 3D universe, storytelling and a scoring system which stimulates students’ natural curiosity and highlights the connection between science and the real world. All that is needed is a computer or laptop and a browser to perform advanced experiments and achieve core science learning outcomes. 

Labster currently has more than 60 simulations covering a wide range of topics including Parkinson’s Disease, Viral Gene Therapy, Eutrophication, Lab Safety, Animal Genetics, Tissue Engineering, and Waste Water Treatmen. Some simulations are available in virtual reality with the addition of a VR headset.

Labster is being used for on-campus teaching at many high-reputation universities, including MIT, Harvard an UC Berkeley.

Where is the tipping point for recognising online science and engineering degrees?

We now have a wide range of examples of not only online courses, but online tools that provide experiential learning and experimental situations in science and engineering fully online. When will the professional associations start recognizing that science and engineering can be taught effectively online?

It needs to be remembered that the teaching of science, and in particular the experimental method, was invented, more or less from scratch, by Thomas Huxley in the 1860s. There was so much opposition to the teaching of science by the established universities of Oxford and Cambridge that Huxley had to move to the Government School of Mines, where he began to train teachers in the experimental method. That institute eventually became Imperial College, one of the most prestigious centres of higher education in the world.

However, it is now another century and another time.

The U.K. Open University developed low cost, ingenious experimental kits in the 1970s that were mailed to students, enabling them to do experimental work at home. Today the Open University has the online OpenScienceLaboratory.

Dietmar Kennepohl at Athabasca University, who helped develop and design much of the experimental work for Athabasca University’s distance education programs in science, has written an excellent book about how to teach science online.

Students can now access and control online remote labs and equipment that do actual experiments or demonstrations in real time.

We have online simulation kits that can be downloaded, enabling students to build and test circuits, videos that demonstrate chemical reactions, and virtual reality environments that enable students to explore DNA mutations.

The only thing that stops us offering fully online, high quality science and engineering programs now is the conservatism of the professional associations, and the ignorance about the possibilities of online learning, and the fear and conservatism, of the majority of science and engineering faculty.

Further references

Bates, T. (2014) More developments in online labs, Online learning and distance education resources, May 8

Bates, T. (2013) Can you teach lab science via remote labs?Online learning and distance education resources, April 22

Bates, T. (2009) Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance? Online learning and distance education resources, July 5

Kennepohl, D. and Shaw, L. (2011) Accessible Elements: Teaching Online and at a Distance Edmonton: Athabasca University Press

PhET (2018) Interactive simulations for science and math Boulder CO: University of Colorado

The Open University, The OpenScience Laboratory, accessed 22 February, 2018

 

Tracking innovations in online learning in Canada

Rue St Jean, Québec City. Temperatures ranged from -17 C to -23 C -without wind chill added

I’ve not been blogging much recently because, frankly, I’ve been too busy, and not on the golf course or ski slopes, either. (Yeah, so what happened to my retirement? Failed again).

Assessing the state of online learning in Canada

I am working on two projects at the moment:

These two projects in fact complement one another nicely, with the first aiming to provide a broad and accurate picture of the extent of online learning in Canada, and the other focusing on the more qualitative aspects of innovation in online learning, and all in time for not only for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in Canada (which was really the creation of a new, independent state in North America) but also ICDE’s World Congress on Online Learning in Toronto in October, whose theme is, guess what, Teaching in a Digital Age (now there’s a co-incidence).

Of course, I’m not doing this on my own. In both projects I am working with a great group of people.

Methodology

My mandate for Contact North is to identify 8-12 cases of innovation in online learning from all of Canada other than Ontario. I started of course in British Columbia, early in January, and last week I visited six post-secondary institutions in four cities in Québec.

To find the cases, I have gone to faculty development workshops where instructors showcase their innovations, or I have contacted instructional designers I know in different institutions to recommend cases. The institutions are chosen to reflect provinces, and universities and colleges within each province.

Each visit involves an interview with the instructor responsible for the innovation, and where possible a demonstration or examples of the innovation. (One great thing about online learning is that it leaves a clear footprint that can be captured).

I then write up a short report, using a set of headings provided by Contact North, and then return that to the instructor to ensure that it is accurate. I then submit the case report to Contact North.

I am not sure whether Contact North will publish all the cases I report on its web site, as I will certainly cover much more than 8-12 cases in the course of this project. However, it is hoped that at least some of the instructors featured will showcase their innovations at the World Congress of Online Learning.

Progress to date

I have conducted interviews (but not finished the reports yet) for the following:

British Columbia

  • the use of an online dialectical map to develop argumentation skills in undergraduate science students (Simon Fraser University – SFU)
  • peer evaluation as a learning and assessment strategy for building teamwork skills in business school programs (SFU)
  • the development of a mobile app for teaching the analysis of soil samples (University of British Columbia)
  • PRAXIS: software to enable real-time, team-based decision-making skills through simulations of real-world emergency situations (Justice Institute of British Columbia)

Québec

  • comodal synchronous teaching, enabling students to choose between attending a live lecture or participating at the same time from home/at a distance (Laval University)
  • synchronous online teaching of the use of learning technologies in a teacher education program (Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières – UQTR)
  • achieving high completion rates in a MOOC on the importance of children’s play (UQTR)
  • a blended course on effective face-to-face teaching for in-service teachers (TÉLUQ)
  • use of iBook Author software for content management for cardiology students and faculty in a teaching hospital (Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Sherbrooke – Sherbrooke University Hospital: CHUS)
  • a decision-making tool to develop active and coherent learning scenarios that leverage the use of learning technologies (Université de Montréal).
  • Mathema-TIC: francophone open educational resources for teaching mathematics in universities and colleges (Université de Montréal).

These visits would not have been possible without the assistance of France Lafleur, an online instructor from UQTR who not only arranged many of the meetings but also did all the driving. Anyone from outside Québec who has tried to drive across the province in winter, and especially tried to navigate and drive to several parts of Montréal the same day, will understand why this help was invaluable.

Response and reaction

Faculty and instructors often receive a lot of criticism for being resistant to change in their teaching. This project however starts from an opposite position. What are faculty and instructors actually doing in terms of innovation in their teaching? What can we learn from this regarding change and the development of new teaching approaches? What works and what doesn’t?

It is dangerous at this stage to start drawing conclusions. This is not a representative selection of even innovative projects, and the project – in terms of my participation – has just started. The definition of innovation is also imprecise. It’s like trying to describe an elephant to someone who’s never seen one: you might find it difficult to imagine, but you’ll know it when you see it.

However, even with such a small sample, some things are obvious:

  • innovation in online teaching is alive and well in Canadian post-secondary education: there is a lot going on. It was not difficult to identify these 11 cases; I could have easily found many more if I had the time;
  • the one common feature across all the instructors I have interviewed is their enthusiasm and passion for their projects. They are all genuinely excited by what they were doing. Their teaching has been galvanised by their involvement in the innovation; 
  • in some of the cases, there are measured improvements in student learning outcomes, or, more importantly, new ’21st century skills’ such as teamwork, evidence-based argumentation, and knowledge management are being developed as a result of the innovation;
  • although again these are early days for me, there seems to be a widening gap between what is actually happening on the ground and what we read or hear about in the literature and at conferences on innovation in online learning. The innovation I am seeing is often built around simple but effective changes, such as a web-based map, or a slight change of teaching approach, such as opening up a lecture class to students who don’t want to – or can’t – come in to the campus on a particular day. However, these innovations are radically changing the dynamics of classroom teaching;
  • blended learning is breaking out all over the place. Most of these cases involve a mix of classroom and online learning, but there is no standard model – such as flipped classrooms – emerging. They all vary quite considerably from each other; 
  • the innovations are still somewhat isolated although a couple have gone beyond the original instructor and have been adopted by colleagues; however there is usually no institutional strategy or process for evaluating innovations and making sure that they are taken up across a wider range of teaching, although instructional designers working together provide one means for doing this. Evaluation of the innovation though is usually just left to the innovator, with all the risks that this entails in terms of objectivity.

Next steps

I still have at least one more case from another institution in British Columbia to follow up, and I now have a backlog of reports to do. I hope to have these all finished by the end of this month.

I have two more trips to organise. The first will be to the prairie provinces:

  • Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which I hope to do in mid-March.

The next will be to the Maritimes,

  • Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland, which I will do probably in April or May.

No further cases or institutions have been identified at this moment, and I am definitely open to suggestions in these provinces if you have any. The criterion for choice is as follows:

  • The focus is first and foremost on practice, on actual teaching and learning applications – not policy, funding, planning issues, descriptions of broad services, or broader concerns.
  • The interest is in applications of pedagogy using technology for classroom, blended, and online learning with the emphasis on student learning, engagement, assessment, access, etc. The pedagogy is as important as the technology in terms of innovation.
  • The emphasis is on innovative practices that can be replicated or used by other instructors.
  • We are particularly looking for cases where some form of evaluation of the innovation has been conducted or where there is clear evidence of success.

If you can recommend a case that you think fits well these parameters, please drop me a line at tony.bates@ubc.ca.

In the meantime, look out for the case studies being posted to Contact North’s Pocket of Innovation web site over the next few months. There are also more cases from Ontario being done at the same time.

Report on SFU’s experiences of teaching with technology

Simon Fraser University (on a rare day when it wasn't raining)

Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus (on a rare day when it wasn’t raining)

I always enjoy going to a university or college and seeing how they are using learning technologies. I am always a little surprised and I am also usually intrigued by some unexpected application, and today’s DemoFest at Simon Fraser University was no exception.

About Simon Fraser University

SFU has just over 35,000 students with campuses in Burnaby, Vancouver downtown, and Surrey, all in the lower mainland of British Columbia, Canada.

For a long time it has had the largest distance education program in British Columbia, but the rapid development of fully online and blended learning in other BC and Canadian institutions means that other institutions are rapidly gaining ground. It is also the academic base for Linda Harasim, who is a Professor of Communications at SFU.

As with many Canadian universities, most of the DE programs are run out of the Centre for Online and Distance Learning in Continuing Studies at SFU. However, the university also has a large Teaching and Learning Centre, which provides a range of services including learning technology support to the faculty on campus.

The university recently adopted Canvas as its main LMS.

I was spending most of the day at SFU for two reasons:

  • to identify possible cases for Contact North’s ‘pockets of innovation’ project
  • to report on the survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions.

I will be giving more information on both these projects in separate blog posts coming shortly.

The DemoFest

DEMOfest 2016 is about how instructors are using ….technologies in ways that produce exciting and original educational experiences leading to student engagement and strong learning outcomes.

Making lectures interactive

Not surprisingly, several of the short, 10 minute presentations were focused on tools used in classroom teaching or lecturing. In particular, the tools are going mobile, in the form of apps that students can use on their mobile phones, tablets or laptops. I was particularly impressed with TopHat, which incorporates online quizzes and tests, attendance checks, and  discussion. REEF Polling is a similar development developed by iClicker, which is effectively a mobile app version of iClicker. Both provide students and instructors with an online record of their classroom activity on the app.

There was also a couple of sessions on lecture theatre technologies. As in other universities, lecturers can find a range of different interfaces for managing lecture theatre facilities. SFU has a project that will result in a common, simple interface that will be available throughout the different campuses of the universities, much to the relief of faculty and visiting speakers who at the moment have no idea what to expect when entering an unfamiliar lecture theatre or classroom.. There was also another session on the limits of lecture capture and how to use video to make learning more engaging.

Online learning development

However, I found nothing here (or anywhere else, for that matter) that has convinced me that there is a future in the large lecture class. Most of the technology enhancements, although improvements on the straight ‘talk’ lecture, are still just lipstick on a pig.

The online learning developments were much more interesting:

  • online proctoring: Proctorio. This was a demonstration of the ingenuity of students in cheating in online assessment and even greater ingenuity in preventing them from doing it. Proctorio is a powerful web-based automated proctoring system that basically takes control of whatever device the student is using to do an online assessment and records their entire online activity during the exam. Instructors/exam supervisors though have options as to exactly what features they can control, such as locked screens, blocking use of other urls, etc.. Students just sign in and take the exam at any time set by the instructor. Proctorio provides the instructor with a complete record of students’ online activity during the exam, including a rating of the ‘suspiciousness’ of the student’s online exam activity.
  • peer evaluation and team-based learning: SFU has a graduate diploma in business where students are required to work in teams, specifically to build team approaches to problem-solving and business solutions. Although the instructor assesses both the individual and group assignments, students evaluate each other on their contribution to the team activities. The demonstration also showed how peer assessment was handled within the Canvas LMS. It was a good example of best practices in peer-to-peer assessment.
  • Dialectical Map: an argument visualization tool developed at SFU. Joan Sharp, Professor of Biological Sciences, and her research colleague, Hui Niu, have developed a simple, interactive, web-based tool that facilitates the development of argumentation for science students. Somewhat to my surprise, research evidence shows that science students are often poor at argumentation, even in the upper years of an undergraduate program. This tool enables a question to be posed by an instructor at the tope of the map, such as ‘Should the BC government allow fracking for oil?’ or ‘Should the BC government stop the culling of wolves to protect caribou?’ The online map is split into two parts, ‘pro’ and ‘con’, with boxes for the rationale, and linked boxes for the evidence to support each rationale offered. Students type in their answers to the boxes (both pro and con) and have a box at the bottom to write their conclusion(s) from the argument. Students can rate the strength of each rationale. All the boxes in a map can be printed out, giving a detailed record of the arguments for and against, the evidence in support of the arguments and the student’s conclusion.  Hui Niu has done extensive research on the effectiveness of the tool, and has found that the use of the tool has substantially increased students’ performance on argument-based assignments/assessment.

General comments

I was very grateful for the invitation and enjoyed nearly all the presentations. The Teaching and Learning Centre is encouraging research into learning technologies, particularly developing a support infrastructure for OERs and looking at ways to use big data for the analysis and support of learning. This practical, applied research is being led by Lynda Williams, the Manager of the Learn tech team, and is being done in collaboration with both faculty and graduate students from different departments.

Students and a professor of computer science worked with the IT division and Ancillary Services to develop a student app for the university called SFU Snap, as part of a computer science course. This not only provides details of the bus services to and from SFU at any time, but also provides students with an interactive map so they can find their classrooms. Anyone who has tried to find their way around SFU (built at multi-levels into a mountain) will understand how valuable such an app must be, not just to students but also to visitors.

So thank you, everyone at the Teaching and Learning Centre at SFU for a very interesting and useful day.

 

An analysis of the e-Learning Africa 2015 report

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.

Update on online learning in Africa

One of the AVU’s new distance-learning centres is launched at the University of Education, Winneba in Ghana. Photograph: AVU

One of the AVU’s new distance-learning centres is launched at the University of Education, Winneba in Ghana. Photograph: AVU

Anderson, M. (2015) Out of Africa: e-learning makes further education a reality for tens of thousands The Guardian, May 20

The opening this week of the 10th e-Learning Africa international conference prompted this informative report by the British newspaper, the Guardian, about the state of virtual learning in Africa. I have used this to pull together a number of different strands about online learning developments in Africa.

The e-Learning Africa conference

Only 6% of Africans continue to any form of higher education (compared with a world average of 26%). Thus this year’s e-Learning Africa conference is particularly significant as it is taking place in Addis Ababa, the HQ of the African Union,which has prioritized virtual learning in its long-term development strategy.The conference is also hosted by the government of Ethiopia. Rebecca Stromeyer, one of the driving forces behind e-Learning Africa, has done a tremendous job in using the conference to promote the development of virtual and online learning in Africa.

The African Virtual University

The African Virtual University, a Pan African Intergovernmental Organization established by charter with the mandate of significantly increasing access to quality higher education and training through the innovative use of information communication technologies, is a major force in promoting virtual learning in Africa.

It is still relatively small in terms of student numbers, with a total of 43,000 students since it started in 1997. So far, 19 African countries signed a charter establishing AVU as an intergovernmental organisation. The AVU offered its first MOOC to 1,700 African students in March this year. Perhaps more significantly it is opening 29 new distance learning centres in 21 African countries at a cost of $200,000 each.

The AVU at the moment does not offer its own degrees, but works in partnership with other African universities to deliver online programs across Africa, sometimes in partnership also with foreign universities such as Indiana University in the USA and Laval University in Canada. AVU plans to start offering its own degrees next year.

UNISA

South Africa has been a leader in distance education in Africa for many years, with over 300,000 students a year currently enrolled in UNISA (the University of South Africa), but although it has some programs offered online, it has been somewhat reluctant to invest heavily in online technologies, because as an open university it has been concerned with the high cost and difficulties of access to the Internet for many Africans.

However, the AVU is considering making lectures accessible on mobile phones, which would tap into Africa’s estimated 112-million smartphones, and UNISA will need to move more quickly if it is to stay relevant in South African online and open education..

Fibre optics

Another major factor that is impacting on virtual learning in Africa is the spread of fibre optics. The first map shows the submarine networks and their international links and the second shows the internal, terrestrial fibre optic networks.

African submarine fibre optic networks Image: © African Politics Portal, 2010

African submarine fibre optic networks
Image: © African Politics Portal, 2010 

African terrestrial fibre optic networks Image: AfTerFibre: https://manypossibilities.net/afterfibre/

African terrestrial fibre optic networks
Image: AfTerFibre: https://manypossibilities.net/afterfibre/

The key factor here is capacity. Fibre optics enable much higher Internet speeds and bandwidth than mobile technologies (although of course the two will be used in combination) but the end result will be much cheaper Internet connectivity in Africa in the coming years.

Comment

I hesitate to suggest solutions for Africa – I’m too far away and the best solutions will be African originated. However, here’s my opinion, for what it’s worth.

Those institutions and organisations that are moving now into virtual learning will have a major competitive advantage as Internet access widens and the cost of access drops dramatically. Bakary Diallo, the rector of the AVU, believes that the AVU can drive down the cost of higher education in Africa, without losing quality. Timing will be critical though – too early a move and the large market will not be ready; too late and other providers will have moved in.

The key challenges though will be the following:

  • appropriate content: African developed OERs (such as OER Africa’s and the OERu’s) will be an essential component of a low cost, high quality, virtual learning system in Africa; at the same time, actual courses and programs available online will also be critically important and this will need substantial investment, mainly in teachers and instructional designers;
  • political recognition of the integrity and quality of virtual learning: African politicians have been very conservative in the past in recognising the value of online and distance learning. Nigeria, the major economic nation now in Africa, for instance, has almost no publicly funded online learning at a higher education level., because the government won’t recognise such qualifications. It is good that 19 countries have signed on to the AVU and the African Union has made virtual learning a priority. This though now has to be accepted by other African countries, and policies and strategies for virtual learning and above all recognition of qualifications now need rapid implementation by African governments;
  • institutional management. Even in highly developed countries, university administrators have struggled to manage well the development and maintenance of online learning. African universities will struggle even more with this challenge;
  • lack of qualified professionals: Africa has few professional instructional designers, although countries such as Kenya do have very good IT professionals and web designers. However, the private sector can offer much better salaries;
  • lack of funding: there is a high cost of investment in adopting online learning, and it will take political courage to put aside the funds needed at the level of magnitude to drive real change. However, this is no longer impossible for many African countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, whose economies are rapidly growing. It is therefore more a question of political will than resources, for at least some African countries, although others will take much longer to catch up;
  • corruption: this has two aspects, open corruption, where government funds for online learning are diverted to individuals (usually politicians, but also sometimes local administrators), but probably much more significant will be the influence of major technology-based multinational corporations, who will lobby for money to be spent on (their) technology rather than on the human resources needed to sustain online learning (i.e. well qualified teachers).

Lastly, the challenge for Africa is to walk two paths at the same time. Online learning should not be used as a replacement for a high quality campus-based higher education system but as an integral part of a comprehensive system of higher education that includes face-to-face teaching, blended learning and fully online learning. Getting that balance right will be a mjor challenge.

Overall, though, I am very optimistic that the future belongs to Africa, and that online learning will be a critical component of that future.