• Open and distance e-learning, ODeL in some of the older Kenya Universities are not new.
• Colleges of distance education have dealt with problems of remote communication. Lessons learnt from this must now be applied to present disruption.
Covid-19 triggered the closure of universities, disrupting traditional face-to-face learning, thus compelling them to migrate online.
This has in turn led to efforts to assess and resolve problems emanating from the new learning and teaching dispensation.
Open and distance e-learning, ODeL in some of the older Kenya Universities are not new. Colleges of distance education have dealt with problems of remote communication. Lessons learnt from this must now be applied to present disruption.
University managers must ask themselves hard questions. Should varsities run the whole gambit of Covid-19 health protocols and continue with face-to-face learning? Should they work out some form of blended or hybrid action in which teaching and learning is partly conducted face-to-face and partly online? How will examinations be conducted at a distance without throwing their integrity in doubt? How does the quality of degrees and diplomas obtained online compare with those awarded through traditional methods?
University leaders must make informed decisions before making any interventions. They will have to conduct baseline surveys in which vital data is gathered, particularly on the students. This should yield information, among others, on the number of students, where each of them lives, 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. Then other issues emerge- safety and security, accommodation and rent, potable water and sanitation, food and subsistence and transport and medical costs; some of these students are married and have their own families, parents, grandparents and siblings to support. These challenges can be daunting, and they need a compassionate, listening leadership.
Money is needed to solve such problems, at least in part. Online students continue to get loans from the Higher Education Loans Board. Some may get support from parents, guardians and well wishers. But for those who cannot get help, some new funding initiatives will be necessary. The number of students that really need a bailout may not be more than 5% to10% of the student population. Varsities need to re-look at their budgets and do virements — move money from some vote —heads to where money is needed more. Partnerships may be forged with banks and concessionary soft loans, at reduced interest rates and on terms favourable to the borrower may be negotiated, by the leadership on behalf of their needy students.
I have known cases in which the academic staff, out of sheer compassion, have pooled resources and made financial contributions to bail out their very needy students, with money to buy laptops and meet other academic needs.
Campuses become command, control and coordinating centres for online teaching and learning, rather like mission control that launches and monitors astronauts in space shuttles. So leaders must revamp their ICT infrastructure, strengthen the preparedness of academic staff and build their confidence in working online.
Staff will be required, with the approval of the Senate, to calibrate and fine-tune their traditional curricula for compatibility with online teaching.
Orientation in new pedagogical methods suitable for online lesson delivery will be needed. Online teachers will have to be familiar with the basic physics of sound, that is, sound production, voice projection and modulation, acoustic transmission and auditory reception. This seeks to improve the quality of sound in teaching, and some voice auditioning would be in order. This creates awareness of the quality of our own voices in telecommunications, that is, as heard by others over distance.
Online education is entrenched in the thoughts and theories of educational thinkers as much as its offline counterpart. The ideas of Benjamin Bloom, based on his taxonomy of knowledge was mentioned by several conference delegates. Online pedagogy should draw on Bloom’s ideas of cognitive, affective and sensory or psychomotor domains of knowledge, using action words to state lesson objectives and using Bloom style questions in online interaction and university examinations, that test not only memory, but also the learner’s ability to comprehend, apply, analyse, synthesise, evaluate, create and innovate.
Universities will forge partnerships with multiple stakeholders- banks, telcom companies, parents and guardians, Alumni, power providers and form linkages among themselves to share information.
The impact of Covid on research is not yet clear. It has curtailed movement, field work and research stations are feeling the heat. They face uncertainty. Universities and their centres of research need to partner with one another to carry out collaborative research and share expertise through inclusive and consultative decision-making.
Subjects with requirements for practical work in laboratories, field attachments, internships, teaching practice, sometimes referred to as practicums or practicals, will be faced with new challenges in the era of Covid-19.
How will these be mainstreamed into learning and teaching at a distance? Will these be addressed in scheduled face-to-face learning, or will the academic staff visit and supervise and examine students in the field or will these be handled through a blended approach? How would, for example, teaching practice be handled when schools may be closed?
The proliferation of online information flow and the internet of things, will necessitate cyber security measures to protect servers, computers, electronic networks, data and intellectual property from malware, malicious attacks and hacking.
Network security is enhanced by the antivirus and antispy software as well as firewalls and passwords to prevent unauthorised intrusions. Virtual Private Networks(VPNs) are used to secure remote access. Network users should be sensitized on cyber security including the use of backup systems. Otherwise a whole online system can be messed up resulting in the loss of vital irretrievable data and private, secret or confidential information getting into the wrong hands.
Online education may be a permanent feature of post-Covid-19. Support is growing and as technologies improve and quality service delivered, distance and online education are likely to be permanent. Learners may choose to attend class in real time or synchronously or listen to a recording of lessons asynchronously or at a time of their choice. This is an advantage over face-to-face learning. Learners can pause video recordings of lessons and replay sections that need clarification, something not possible in the traditional classroom
Distance education has a wider, almost unlimited outreach beyond national borders and this may drive up access and with it students numbers. Will universities make up for the loss of fee income brought about by the demise of the Privately Sponsored Students Programme- PSSP? Recruitment of online learners may just improve access to quality university education and bailout universities from the financial crunch they are having at the moment, through economies of scale.
Universities have a social obligation to combat Covid-19 by being at the forefront of robust research in virology, pandemics and immunology. This should lead to the production of vaccines to combat Covid-19 and the next generation virus that may be lurking in the calamity of climate change and the unfortunate human destruction of bio-diversity. There is need for more support by the state by allocating money to and investing in research to about 2% of GDP, as research not only grows the economy but saves lives.
Amb Dr Hukka Wario is Chair of Council, Egerton University and is reachable at [email protected]