On June 16, associate professor Charles Nelson Okumu drove into the main campus of Gulu University only for the second time in three months. The university was closed on March 20, alongside all other academic institutions in Uganda, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
A dozen people sat in a small hall, with three metres between each of them (a social distancing guideline towards controlling the spread of Covid-19), casually chatting as they set up their computer systems. At the table nearest to the entrance Okumu laid his laptop, mobile telephone, wireless router, papers, pen and notebook. He sat. A bottle of sanitiser was added a moment later, augmenting “the new normal” as brought about by Covid-19.
A virtual seminar for researchers at Gulu University and their counterparts in Denmark was about to kick off. The timing of the seminar was usual but the method of delivery was not. Today, due to Covid-19, only 15 people were expected in the hall while others would participate from their homes or offices in Uganda and Denmark via zoom, a digital communication platform.
“Every year we have our seminars in June in Denmark. This year we have had to go virtual because of Covid-19. This is the first seminar of its kind at BSU [Building Stronger Universities]. The virus should not be a barrier [to our work],” announced Agatha Alidri, the BSU Coordinator. BSU is a research cooperation programme between Gulu and a consortium of five Danish universities launched in 2011.
Some seven collaborative research pilot projects have been going on since April 2019. Topics cover access to innovation, transforming education, as well as rights, resources and gender. Constituting the research teams are lecturers, students and community members.
The seminar was intended to share ideas regarding the different research projects. A large screen hung in front for enhanced visibility for those in the Gulu Hall. Session chairs were both in Uganda and in Denmark. Presentations were made and discussed. At the end of the day, despite many participants not being physically present in the hall, the seminar was described as successful.
“We can continue to work even with Covid-19. We need to discuss further how we can continue with the virtual way,” remarked Prof. Lone Dirckinck-Holmfeld of Aalborg University, Denmark, in her closing remarks.
For Okumu, who chairs the BSU Project Steering Committee, and his colleagues at Gulu, if Covid-19 is an inconvenience, it is also an eye opener for them to speed up research, adoption, and integration of digital tools into the university’s teaching and learning system. If they had done this earlier, they still would be teaching during the Covid-19 lockdown, at least partially.
Research has already shown them that integration of e-learning, or learning and teaching through digital tools, is long overdue.
Four years ago, for example, Geoffrey Tabo Olok, a lecturer of computer science and IT at Gulu, started his PhD in e-learning at Aalborg University. He found during his research a necessity to incorporate e-learning into the education system at Gulu University.
The university, like most academic institutions in Uganda, still follows the traditional, classroom, lecturer-to-student mode of delivery (although the university is now slowly adopting from Denmark what is known as Problem Based Learning [PBL]2 , which ideally puts the student at the centre of teaching and learning as opposed to the teacher being there).
During his research, Olok found that his Masters students preferred to study using their smart phones and other mobile devices. As a result, he has since 2018 been using a concept he refers to as “Bring Your Own Device”. There is no formal computer lab. Students carry their personal gadgets, meaning that each of them has access to his or her learning materials at all times. At Aalborg, where Olok is pursuing his PhD, students have access to their course content online.
Olok’s research has inspired him, with the backing of his supervisors, who include Dirckinck-Holmfeld, to establish a Centre of Excellence in ICT Research and Learning.
ICT in research and education is an area the BSU is broadly supporting. During the seminar, it was agreed that some primary schools near the university – where a team of researchers (who include Prof. Okumu) is looking at Educational Leadership Styles and Transformation of Primary Education in Gulu District, Northern Uganda – be included as key beneficiaries of the ICT in education programme.
Not a single university in Uganda can boast of an efficient digital learning system. Of the six universities where Olok did his baseline study (Busitema, Gulu, Kyambogo, Makerere, Muni and Uganda Christian University), only two scored quite fairly (Muni and Makerere). The rest were weak.
“Universities in Uganda are using teacher centred learning. Covid-19 has exposed the system, that they are not using ICT,” Olok said during the seminar.
Olok attributes the slow speed of universities integrating e-learning to two key issues. One, the rigidity of the staff towards embracing technology in education and two, the failure by the universities to invest in the necessary ICT infrastructure. And the solution to the two seems to lie in two words, attitude change.
“The students are motivated. They want to learn. They are already exposed to technology. They are ahead and they are positive. If the institution, for example, sets a technology fee they will pay. But the institutions, the staff, are still rigid. Additionally, the investment in ICT infrastructure is not really big, if they [universities] considered it as a priority. It is a progressive investment. You keep adding to what you have already set up,” Olok said in an interview.
Access to internet in Uganda can be costly, but there are systems in place, such the Research and Education Network for Uganda (RENU), which enable universities and other research institutions that are registered with them access the internet at much lower rates.
Ideally, a university should provide the student with internet on campus, so they are able to download learning materials. The students can take care of themselves off-campus. They are already doing so through their mobile gadgets as they access social media and other platforms. Internet service providers have lately provided cheaper options through what they term as bundles and, with the coming of the broadband, the internet will get cheaper.
The other issue is the quality of internet, especially relating to speed, which the universities can deal with by installing appropriate gadgets and having the necessary, technical, manpower.
Interestingly, the pace of institutional adoption of digital learning seems to be quite fast at lower academic levels following the rolling out in February 2019 of the digital syllabus by the National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC).
Secondary school students, especially in middle-class schools now have access to digital learning tools through a system known as Virtual Learn, developed by a Ugandan engineering company, Sensal Systems. They, through the use of tablets, have access to all the necessary learning materials in their syllabus and can therefore even read ahead of the teachers.
The National Social Security Fund (NSSF), following that development, in April 2019, as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility, started to extend Virtual Learn to some government aided (Universal Secondary Education) schools across the country, initially spending Shs450m on digital libraries for 11 schools, as way of highlighting the importance of education going digital in this era.
Government agencies continue to discuss the modalities of making digital learning cheaper and accessible across the country. A fully customised tablet currently costs Shs 650,000 and the NCDC’s target is to bring that cost down to less than a half.
“Some parents just contacted us during the lockdown and we added their children to the system. Parents are still contacting us. The biggest challenge is the price. Most parents can’t afford. NCDC is still negotiating within the government to see that the project can reach every learner, including those in remote areas. We want the price to go far down,” Ivan Mukasa Ssensalire, the programme manager, Virtual Learn, and CEO Sensal Systems, said in an interview.
Covid-19 has affected more than 90 per cent of the global student population, according to UNESCO. For Uganda, 15 million learners have been forced to stay home by the pandemic. Those with access to digital learning tools, under the current circumstances, are better off than their less privileged counterparts.
There are challenges to digital learning, including the cost of the necessary gadgets as well as access to and the cost of the internet. But, given the fast advancements in technology, that is what the current teaching and learning environment demands. And with the Covid-19 situation, where social distancing is encouraged, the adoption and integration of digital learning tools in education has become more urgent.
Prof. Okumu and his colleagues now find themselves at the intersection of the conventional lecture system and the digitally supported teaching and learning system. Integration of the later seems unavoidable now.