With long-standing academic staff shortages in East Africa, and recent campus closures due to Covid-19, many universities in the region are looking for new teaching delivery methods.
Through SPHEIR, university partners from East Africa, Canada and the UK have been working together to deliver high-quality blended learning to students in East Africa. Find out how the project is benefitting university staff and students alike – plus how it is helping universities to respond to Covid-19 challenges.
Before Covid-19 took hold, many universities in East Africa were already facing a critical shortage of academic teaching staff, leading to unsustainable teaching loads for staff, and adversely affecting the quality of higher education delivery for students.
To tackle this, a group of universities from East Africa, the UK and Canada came together in 2018 to pilot an innovative project on blended learning, combining high-quality online learning with face-to-face sessions. The twist is that the universities are also collaborating on course modules, and sharing them so that students in each university can benefit. With recent campus closures due to Covid-19, the online learning element of the project now has an even greater significance.
Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning
The SPHEIR Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning (PEBL) project enables universities to share scarce teaching resources by collaborating on quality assured, credit-bearing degree courses, delivered through blended learning. By participating in PEBL, universities in East Africa are able to expand the range of courses offered to students on taught undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes and ease the teaching burden on their staff.
Led by the Association of Commonwealth Universities (UK), the PEBL partnership includes the University Education (Kenya), Commonwealth of Learning (Canada), Kenyatta University (Kenya), Makerere University (Uganda), Open University of Tanzania, State University of Zanzibar (Tanzania), Staff and Educational Development Association (UK), Strathmore University (Kenya), University of Edinburgh (UK), and the University of Rwanda.
In early 2019, the PEBL project successfully rolled out an initial batch of six quality-assured modules. Fiona Khandoker, PEBL Programme Manager says, “The modules were designed to equip students with useful tools to advance in their studies and work, including Introduction to Entrepreneurship designed by Kenyatta University, IT Teaching Methods designed by the University of Zanzibar, and Biochemistry provided by the University of Rwanda”.
Over 17,000 students across the region currently benefit from PEBL modules. Many students have reported that the flexibility and scope of the online courses has enabled them to expand their minds, save on transportation costs and deal with other responsibilities, without compromising on studies. By summer 2020, a second batch of modules is due to be released.
Training for staff
Key to the success of the project is building the expertise of staff in effective blended learning techniques. Fiona Khandoker explains: "Since 2018, PEBL has helped train over 150 academics and lecturers on core skills, ranging from module navigation and technical troubleshooting to enhancing student experiences and outcomes. Adaptation to new systems takes time, and the process can be greatly accelerated when university staff have access to systematic training in module design, development and delivery to help lecturers engage with the range of tools at their disposal. Moving forward, we will continue to broaden the reach and improve the efficacy of training material.”
The training is also scalable - a recent training session co-hosted by the ACU in Nairobi saw many participating academics return home to train the rest of their faculties. Dr Robert Gateru, Vice-Chancellor of Riara University in Nairobi, Kenya says, “PEBL has given us access to immense resources that are helping us overcome varied challenges in our shift towards blended learning. Hitherto, our courses have been mainly face-to-face with very limited internal capacity to even think of transitioning to blended learning. The support structures in the project, as well as the collective learning across the partnership, have been invaluable to us. The capacity being built in us will tremendously help us transition to a campus that is more responsive to the learning needs of modern-day students.”
Responding to Coronavirus
The groundwork and training provided by PEBL has helped universities involved to respond swiftly to the Covid-19 campus closures. “We have managed to move all courses online within a week, using a mix of tools such as Microsoft teams, Zoom and Google Classroom,” reports Dr Ian Wairua, Associate Director of the Centre for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation at Kenya’s Strathmore University. “Training has been rolled out for faculty to increase the capacity of lecturers in the use of online tools. In this, the Strathmore PEBL team has been instrumental in training faculty to mount and deliver courses and online materials. The training they received through PEBL equipped them with important knowledge and the confidence to train others, and this has been recognised by university management.”
Dr Lucy Ikiara, Director of Quality Assurance at Kenya Methodist University (KeMU) agrees. “Although this is a bit challenging, we are managing to move courses online using what the KeMU PEBL team have been taught through the project. The PEBL team has also been training faculty on use of the LMS to be able to reach out to as many students as possible, as well as training our students.”
There are of course challenges with launching online or blended learning initiatives - such as slow internet connectivity and low access to personal devices for remote learners, and gaps in user skills. In the light of recent successes though, there is strong potential for PEBL’s collaborative model to be scaled upwards and transform the wider practice of technology-mediated learning with renewed impetus.
“The ultimate success of blended learning rests upon long-term institutional commitments to training educators and responding to evolving student needs,” says Fiona. “The PEBL project will continue to nurture capacity for blended learning in East Africa and enable university partners to turn challenges into opportunities for growth.”
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The Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform (SPHEIR) programme is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and is managed on behalf of DFID by a consortium led by the British Council that includes PwC and Universities UK International.