By the SPHEIR team

13 November 2020 - 13:54

Participants working on laptops and getting advice from the training manager
Participants at a PEBL training session ©

Association of Commonwealth Universities

Find out about an inspirational project in East Africa where universities have come together to develop ‘shareable’ blended learning courses - helping to reduce staff workloads, boost teaching capacity and improve the student experience.

It’s a problem that universities across the world will recognise: academic teaching staff really are in short supply. Unfortunately, this has a triple-whammy effect: unmanageable workloads (and stress!) for staff, a lack of support or places for students, and variable quality of higher education provision.

Launched in 2018, the Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning (PEBL) brings together universities from across East Africa and partners in the UK and Canada to address this problem. The partnership is helping universities in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda to share valuable teaching resources by developing quality assured, credit-bearing, blended learning courses.

We report on how the PEBL team developed these blended learning courses, what impact the courses have had, and how the team have dealt with the challenges they encountered. 

Sharing is caring: A partnership approach

Blended learning within higher education arguably offers the best of both worlds – the flexibility and innovation of online education, and the interactive, personal nature of face to face teaching and learning.

Guided by PEBL training led by the Staff and Educational Development Association, academics in seven East African universities have recently launched a range of ‘shareable’ blended learning courses.

So far, 16 courses have been developed by academics in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda and are now available online, with more than 9,000 students already following the courses. The project is scalable and the ambition is for more courses to be developed over time: over 40 academics have been trained on designing blended learning courses through PEBL, and over 10 academics have been trained on how to support colleagues on course design.  

The courses respond to a lack of staff capacity in areas deemed to be high priorities for the universities. All are quality-assured and are shareable between universities in East Africa…including universities that are not part of the PEBL network.

The fact that universities are effectively giving up their intellectual property (IP) has raised questions around incentives for universities to share content.

Fiona Khandoker, PEBL Programme Manager, says: “The credit-bearing courses are available to students via the Learning Management System of the university that designed the courses. All of the courses have an open-access license, and are available to other universities on the open-access platform OER Africa. Universities that use the courses can adapt the content to their context, provided they credit the developer. The question around IP is something we have been contemplating from the very beginning of the PEBL project. The universities are ‘giving up’ some of their content – but they are gaining a lot more in return. If universities share a course that is well-designed, it is a branding exercise for them. We didn’t struggle to get universities sharing their content.”

The Commonwealth of Learning leads the quality assurance (QA) aspect of the course development, and has produced a QA rubric in collaboration with the participating universities. This innovative tool supports individuals and institutions in the development of blended learning courses. It covers eight categories and supporting quality elements that can be used to benchmark the features of a blended learning course against a set of qualifiers. The rubric is designed to be used iteratively and throughout the design and delivery of a blended learning course.

Fiona says, “79% of students who responded to satisfaction surveys mentioned that they were very satisfied with the courses, and with the flexibility that comes with this blended learning approach. They also appreciate the fact that learning is still going on, despite Covid-19.”

Challenges and strategies

One of the challenges encountered by the PEBL team is digital inequality. Not all students have access to a laptop or the internet, especially students from disadvantaged backgrounds or those living in rural areas.  The results of the ACU’s digital engagement survey highlight this digital divide and its impact on universities’ capacity to deliver teaching and research.

To address the issue, PEBL course content on OER Africa has been made available in a text format as well as via a Moodle back-up file. This allows students to download text onto a device (although such students are unfortunately unable to participate on discussion boards). Selected universities are also partnering with internet providers to offer low-cost internet to students.

Lack of formal guidance for students on how to use the learning management system was another barrier preventing students taking up the courses. In response, universities in the PEBL network, including Kenyatta and Kenya Methodist, are training students in the use of online platforms – a strategy which is leading to a higher adoption rate for these courses.

Looking ahead

Covid-19 presented inevitable challenges to the PEBL team, but the work on blended learning helped the universities move quickly online, and the plan is to build on the success of these initial courses. Fiona Khandoker says: “The core PEBL team at Kenyatta University managed to train over 1000 academics on developing online content that could be shared with students. Having a blended approach already in place made it easy to transition to fully digital. Looking ahead, for the last year of the project, our plans and ambitions are to oversee the development of further courses, and to embed blended learning tools and methodologies within the PEBL network of universities and beyond.”

Find out more

PEBL is not the only SPHEIR partnership developing new approaches to online learning. Find out about other university partnerships and their approaches via our webinar recording: Varieties of online higher education in SPHEIR.