Which way for university online learning after pandemic?

What will the future hold for education.

In Summary

•Even though online long-distance learning has been emphasized in the past months, many students have missed out due to lack of resources.

• However, more students with access, prefer the virtual learning compared to the traditional face to face.

Student learns from home with laptop, textbook and smartphone.
ONLINE LEARNING: Student learns from home with laptop, textbook and smartphone.

Covid-19 triggered the closure of universities, disrupting traditional face-to-face learning, thus compelling majority to migrate to online.

The pandemic exposed Kenyans to the realities of education in ways not previously thought of.

Through the internet, learners were engaged in university tutorials as many students enrolled for the new learning and teaching dispensation.

Several Kenyans had previously not embraced online courses despite its existence even before coronavirus.

Margaret Njeri, a fourth year School of Arts student at Moi University is one such learner who was forced to adjust to the new normal brought about by the health crisis.

Moi University recalled its final year students in October as part of the institution's phased reopening.

By October, there was still an upsurge in Kenya's Covid-19 cases and especially a spike in virus related deaths.

The Ministry of Education was still skeptical about resumption of face to face learning.

Njeri told the Star that for three months, together with her classmates at Moi University, underwent a blended learning programme where lectures were conducted both online and occasional face to face.

"I took seven units and three were taught strictly online. While two were taught physically, the others were taught virtually from time to time," Njeri told the Star.

She, however, notes that, like most of her classmates, she prefers the virtual learning compared to the traditional face to face.

"If only learning online was free, I would suggest we do away with physical classes even post the pandemic," Njeri said regrettably.

Even though online long-distance learning has been emphasized in the past months, many students have missed out due to lack of resources.

A majority of eLearning content is premised on a student’s ability to access the same through internet-ready devices and the availability of reliable internet connectivity.

Although access to reliable internet connectivity in Kenya has grown exponentially in the past decade, the same is primarily centered around urban areas. This places students in rural areas with limited connectivity at a disadvantage compared to their urban-based peers.

Further, financial impediments and constraints may have prevented a significant number of students from being able to access online educational content, even if based in urban areas with relatively higher connectivity.

So, the main question is what will the future hold for education and how will customers and consumers influence that?

Health CAS Rashid Aman during KMTC's 88th graduation ceremony on December 3, 2020
Health CAS Rashid Aman during KMTC's 88th graduation ceremony on December 3, 2020

Dr. Mary Lonyangapuo, a senior lecturer at Moi University insists that blended learning is the way to go into the future.

She observes that there were positive improvements in students' class participation in her lectures during the pandemic.

"Students' attendance and engagement greatly improved and was remarkable. Probably due to the convenience of attending classes from the comfort of their rooms," Lonyangapuo told the Star.

On whether the quality of degrees and diplomas obtained online compare with those awarded through traditional methods, the 18-year experienced lecturer disputed claims of low-standard degrees acquired through online learning.

"Depending on the input, both degrees earned through online leaning should be the same as those acquired through face to face learning," she said.

Experts have encouraged that institutions must borrow a leaf from colleges of distance education who have dealt with problems of remote communication.

Dr Lonyangapuo reiterated the importance of capacity building in effective online learning.

"If resources are available for both lecturers and students, I am certain that the digital learning can be very effective in Kenya. 

Aga Khan University Vice Provost Dr. Alex Awiti  once noted that the time is now for Kenya to have a flipped classroom where students have access to all the content they need, anytime, independently and away from the classroom.

These include video, audio, readings, PowerPoint etc, distributed via social media platforms, accessed by mobile devices.

A university student before the start of online classes from home.
A university student before the start of online classes from home.

This learning upgrade can only be possible if all learners have equal access to resources.

Universities will have to conduct baseline surveys on the students to find out whether they have computing devices such as laptops, tablets, smart phones; whether they have connection to electric power, broadband internet, access, with acceptable speed and reliability, affordability of and access to wifi and data bundles.

Students who cannot be on board because of these constraints must be sought and their problems addressed.

Those who have no connection to power may have to move from rural to urban centres where there is electricity.

A lot of money is needed to solve such problems, at least in part.

The Higher Education Loans Board on December 7 announced plans to provide at least 60,000 laptops to new government-sponsored students.

It has requested the Treasury provide about Sh2.5 billion for the project.

If approved by the Treasury, about 60,000 students next year will be able to apply a portion of their Helb loan to buy a laptop.

Varsities have also been advised to re-look their budgets and do virements — move money from some vote —heads to where money is needed more.

Some institutions have already started investing in this new learning programme. Zetech University injected Sh8 million into improving its digital learning and management infrastructure.

Vice chancellor Njenga Munene said during a virtual graduation ceremony in November that the initiative has enabled students to get value out of online learning

He said the monies has enabled the institution to handle new students who want to complete their coursework on time.

More universities should follow suit.