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No going back, e-Learning is the Future!

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 15, 2020

COVID-19 is leap-frogging Zambia’s TEVET sector into the future of education. What “future“? The future of learning away from the distant walls of a classroom, the future of giving equal access to training opportunities to everyone regardless of their financial status or where they live in Zambia, and the future of equipping trainers with requisite resources – the Internet, learning management systems, computers, and power backup systems –  for a cost-effective and efficient delivery of e-learning. The just ended Digitization Capacity Assessment (DCA) workshop, which started on 10th November and ended on 13th November, comprising technical officers from GIZ, the Ministry of Higher Education, and Vocational Training Institutions (VTIs), was an important step closer to this prospect.

DCA Members working in groups

It was heaps and clusters of completed questionnaires whose data had to be aggregated and analyzed. Respondents were lecturers and students at three VTIs and three non-VTIs. VTIs included Lusaka Business and Technical College, Mansa Trades Training Institute, and Mwense Trades Training Institute. Non-VTIs included the University of Zambia, Chalimbana University and the Natural Resources Development College.

DCA Core Team

The questionnaires sought to gather information on various aspects of digitization and key among these were respondents’ views on what they felt about the importance and effectiveness of e-learning and what challenges if any restrained them from effectively participating in e-learning during this advent of COVID-19. Various responses indicated a desire to pursue e-learning but coupled with frustrations of the lack of capacity to effectively implement systems that would not disadvantage the many students who lack Internet-enabled gadgets and many who may have the gadgets but yet cannot afford expensive data plans offered by Internet Service Providers.

A more challenging problem involves those who come from rural places with no access to electricity.

Many rural areas in Zambia are not connected to the national power grid

However, the power-problem now affects all institutions: in colleges where significant efforts have been made towards implementing e-learning, load shedding has been quite disruptive. Most of the colleges cannot afford buying uninterruptible power supplies or gensets. But it is now exciting to see the e-learning conversation taking center-stage and being given utmost priority by the Ministry of Higher Education. There is hope that soon these troubles will lie behind us. However, as serious efforts are being made to respond to e-learning resource challenges, two most important ingredients to e-learning strategies must never lie in the boondocks of conversations – Policy and Quality Assurance and Audit procedures! Lusaka Business and Technical College (LBTC) has an interesting experience of this.

When colleges abruptly closed in March in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Open Distance and Flexible Learning unit at LBTC was caught up in a predicament. The following month, April, had already been scheduled for residential school for distance learners and the only way to proceed with training was through the college’s learning management system which at that time was hardly in use. Only a handful of about three lecturers occasionally used the LMS. To proceed with what the ODFL team dubbed ‘e-residential’, there were a myriad (nearly impossible) tasks to be accomplished within a short time – creating many short videos to guide lecturers on all aspects of using the system, creating a directory of different user-guide videos for students, defining quality assurance procedures and audit plans to ensure a satisfactory learning experience for students, establishing a rotational schedule of ICT lecturers who would be available on campus to assist lecturers who could not manage following the user-guide videos, among many other things! This was quite an ambitious plan but against all odds it worked just as was planned! The ODFL team worked through the nights to create easy-to-follow videos and to coordinate various preparatory works.

Following the successful transition to e-campus, the ODFL team was elevated to oversee the transition of all departments to Blended Learning. That transition, however, hasn’t been a success story. The ODFL team had foreseen the failure: whereas the transition for the ODFL unit was strongly guided by policy (which had stiff penalties for any abrogation of a given guideline), the transition to Blended Learning by all departments was never enforced by policy or any elaborate Quality Assurance procedure. The formalities and red-tape that stood in the way of developing and getting such a policy approved was simply demotivating.

An LMS Content Audit document used at LBTC

Even so, the ODFL unit has continued making remarkable progress in the use of the LMS. As VTIs are now in the process to integrate e-learning in their training programmes it is imperative for stakeholders to know that a more important piece of a learning management system is not hardware, software, a power-backup plan or the Internet but policy and quality assurance procedures! The red tape that would hinder a quick development and subsequent implementation of these policies should be taken out of the way. For a start, the ministry should let colleges develope in-house e-learning policies and quality assurance procedures. However, if the Ministry and TEVETA can be quick enough, much desired would be a centalised policy.

Another critical issue, requiring the attention of TEVETA, involves the need to review assessment criterion vis-a-vis the transition to blended and electronic forms of learning in VTIs. The transition to e-learning will require accommodating new pedagogical and assessment approaches. For example, a common method used to continuously enthuse and engage learners via LMS platforms involve giving weekly topical assessments in form of objective (multiple choice) questions. Such assessments should ultimately build into a block of marks that add up to the Continuous Assessment score. Many (if not all) universities around the world which offer online or blended learning use such forms of assessments. This conversation on accommodating online forms of assessments MUST begin now!

As this author perused through one questionnaire completed by a professor at UNZA, on the question of whether e-learning is a viable form of learning, the respondent stated that “there is no going back, e-learning is the future!” One cannot agree more. And, with or without COVID-19, e-learning should continue being emphasized; it should not be taken merely as a safeguard against COVID-19 but as a tool that enhances students’ learning experience and increases their accessibility to tertiary education regardless of where one could be.

The author, Andrew C. Phiri, is leader of the ODFL team at LBTC and is a member of the
DCA team.

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