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Makerere University fast-tracks eLearning through ODeL

By Prof. Paul M. Birevu, Dr. Rehema Baguma, Prof. Jessica Aguti & Fiona Ssozi

Makerere University’s 2019/20-2029/30 strategic plan, projects to have at least one Open Distance and eLearning (ODeL) programme in all the colleges by 2023. The COVID-19 pandemic just fast tracked this strategy.

ODeL refers to approaches which utilize information, communication technologies (ICTs) to extend teaching and learning opportunities to learners that are separated by time and space from the institution, facilitators and fellow learners. ODeL approaches include use of: eLearning, distance learning, online learning, mobile learning, blended learning, Open Educational Resources (OERs), Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), flipped classrooms, etc.

Owing to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, universities world over are adopting technology enabled teaching and learning approaches to minimize interferences to university programmes as they curtail the fast spread of the COVID-19 disease.

As early as 2008/2009, Makerere University had set out to integrate ODeL in its academic programmes in order to expand its reach to the working class and those based upcountry.

The University’s eLearning journey started with the introduction of the Blackboard Learning Management System (LMS) in 2001. This was followed by experimentation with other LMS such as KEWL, and TUSK and in 2009, the University settled for the Moodle-based Makerere University eLearning Environment (MUELE). This was followed by making the eLearning Policy part of the ICT Policy/Master Plan in 2010, approval of the ODeL Policy in 2015, and establishment of the Institute of Open Distance and eLearning (IODeL) to oversee implementation of the ODeL policy.

Other factors that have supported ODeL implementation before and during the COVID-19 lockdown include: existence of a dedicated ICT support unit – the Directorate of ICT Services (DICTS); Senate and Council’s approval of Emergency ODeL delivery in June 2020 and July 2020 respectively, and budget reallocation to support ODeL approaches following NCHE’s guidelines on emergency ODeL.

Other strategies adopted for effective ODeL include: working with School based eLearning Coordinators, and training all College based IT staff to provide College-based technical support to staff and students.

By the time the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) issued guidelines for emergency ODeL during the COVID-19 lockdown in July 2020, it was already institutionalized at Makerere University. To-date, out of 282 accredited programmes, 8 are accredited to run as ODeL Programmes.

Makerere University uses blended learning (a mix of technologies, methods and approaches) namely: Online classes, learning activities in the Learning Management system (LMS), positing learning materials on social media groups, and or through e-mail, controlled physical classes under staggered reopening, etc.

For practicals, lecturers use pictures/graphics, video demonstrations, online platforms like Github for programming assignments by computing students, and practical projects, while others wait for physical classes to resume under staggered reopening.

Prior to COVID-19, 50% of the academic staff had been trained to run ODeL programmes. When the university reopened under emergency ODeL, training was fast-tracked and so far, 82% have been trained. The training covers: Online facilitation, online assessment, pedagogical and technological support, how to use e-meeting tools like Zoom, Google Meet, Google Classroom, among others.

On the side of students, 10% were already in ODeL programmes before the COVID-19 lockdown, but after rollout of the emergency ODeL, 75% were able to study through the ODeL system. The fast student uptake of ODeL is attributed to the high ownership of smart phones and a big presence on social media. According to the results of the baseline survey conducted at the beginning of emergency ODeL, 76% of the students own smart phones and over 95% are on social media mainly WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Under emergency ODeL system, continuous assessment is done through electronic activities such as discussion forums and electronic student portfolios, while the final (summative) assessment has to-date remained in-person physical examinations. However, the University led by IODeL is now exploring feasible avenues of conducting online based final examinations without leaving anyone behind.

From the initial assessment of the full implementation of ODeL under the COVID-19 lockdown, a lot of gains on learning have been registered but also, several challenges still hamper effective implementation of ODeL. Key gains include: through ODeL, Makerere University was able to complete Semester II (2019/20) and in-person exams conducted in November  and December  2020, there has been unanimous stakeholder buy-in into ODeL, uptake of ODeL among lecturers and students has significantly increased and is hoped to continue increasing past the pandemic.

On the other hand, the key challenges are: High data costs for both students and lecturers. In the results of the initial evaluation of the emergency ODeL, 57% of the Lecturers indicated that they purchased data using their own money. Other challenges include: Unreliable internet connectivity, poor quality/lack of end user devices among students, limited educator skills in eLearning course design, low IT literacy among students, etc.

The University’s strategy to support students that have had challenges adopting meaningful ODeL includes the Vice Chancellor’s initiative of zero rating by MTN and Airtel for the LMS and other learning related university platforms, negotiating a student hire purchase scheme for laptops (underway), use of print based hard copy materials, controlled face to face sessions under staggered reopening, controlled laboratory practical sessions,

Furthermore, IODeL is leading research in authentic assessment and examination models, setting non-plagiarisable online assessment tasks and online examination integrity. Efforts of IODeL are complimented by those of other relevant units such as the School of Computing & IT that is leading research in making eLearning usable and accessible to all learners including learners with disabilities.

A recent major breakthrough is the approval (by Senate) to implement alternative assessment modalities, including online assessment.

ODeL implementation at Makerere University has been supported by several partners. In particular, refresher sessions in pedagogy where lecturers come together to share the different innovations they are applying in teaching of their courses has been supported by the project on Enhancing Quality and  Internationalization of Study Programmes through Mobile Transformative Pedagogy (EQIP), a collaborative project between University of Agder, Norway, Makerere University and University of Rwanda. The goal of EQIP is to increase the employability of graduates through student and staff mobility, internationalization of study programmes, promotion of transformative pedagogy and technology enhanced learning. It is funded by the Norwegian Agency for International Cooperation and Quality Enhancement in Higher Education (DIKU).

Whereas the EQIP project was not conceived in 2018 in anticipation of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has come in handy as one of the projects that is building Makerere University’s resilience in these hard times, as noted by the Vice Chancellor Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe while opening a virtual Pedagogy workshop held on 28th July 2021.

The authors are the EQIP-Mak Project Team

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