In March this year, I returned to Uganda following the indefinite closure of academic institutions by the Government of Kenya in a bid to contain the spread of COVID-19. Our university immediately embraced E-learning; a system I had never used before.
I enrolled for my first online-based semester in May this year which ended in August, with exams. The assessment was by assignments and online sit-in exams.
Virtual classes are different from real classes where you sit next to your classmates with a lecturer in front of you. In my virtual classes, I listened to the lecturer and interacted with classmates without seeing them since we all preferred to have our cameras off.
Class in my room
A typical school day for me was like this; I woke up, did some house chores and joined class via zoom in my room. I never missed a class throughout the semester; but this was only because I was disciplined.
My biggest challenge was that I had to learn to concentrate and stay in learning mode at home. I have always been the library kind of girl, who prefers to study or work on an assignments in a quiet environment without any distractions. I could not study from my hostel room. If I was not in the library, then it was an empty class around campus.
Now, here I was attending class from home, working on my school projects in my room as everyone else at home went on with their own business. Discipline was also important because, during the zoom or Google classroom lectures, the lecturer could not see what the students were up to since the cameras were always off. To keep students in check and to find out if some were not listening, lectures keep asking questions randomly to find out if the students are actually still paying attention.
When my parents and I learnt that the semester would be offered online, our biggest concern after tuition was the high cost of internet services in Uganda. We, therefore, had to search for a cost friendly internet provider. In the process of searching, we discovered that the quality of internet connectivity also depends on the location and time of the day. Areas around or close to Kampala City have more effective internet. Furthermore, some providers with effective internet services, do not have a countrywide coverage. After considering the cost and our location, we settled for the most ideal internet provider.
Despite choosing the most ideal provider, I occasionally faced connectivity hitches during the online classes. I struggled the most with the internet, whenever I had to submit or share heavy video files. As a student of journalism, I had to shoot short documentaries and news stories as practical assignments. Uploading and sending these videos would take several hours which was frustrating. There was a time I stayed up from midnight to 6am just to attach and send seven videos to my lecturer. I had failed to send them earlier on because of poor connectivity during the day.
Online sit-in exams was another new experience. There were different ways in which we wrote the exams. In some, our cameras, were turned on for supervision by the lectures. The cameras enabled lecturers to notice unnecessary movements or cheating, if it was not an open book exam. An exam software called Respondus Lockdown was used.
The software blocks one from accessing any other site on their computer besides the one where the exam is posted. The exam automatically submits itself once the allocated time expires. Time seemed to fly fast; I guess because we had to type the answers instead of writing, which many of us are used to.
I have been fortunate enough to continue with school even with the current state of events. Would I rather be in physical class? Yes, of course. But for the moment that will wait. With Covid 19, so much has changed. We have to adjust and move forward. Would E-learning be feasible in Uganda? Yes, I am a living example and I am sure there are many more.
Still a long way to go
Can it work for every student in Uganda currently? I do not think we are ready yet. Our schools and teachers are not equipped with the skills and equipment to administer e-learning on a large scale. Not all students have a laptop or smartphone. The average internet cost of Shs100,000 is very high for many families.
I also feel that virtual learning creates a barrier of some sort between students and teachers. It also limits student interaction which occurs in the traditional classroom. For example, the semester ended without me knowing what one of my lecturers looked like.
As for my classmates, I knew most of them by name and voice but could not put a face to many voices. When you put all this and other aspects into consideration, you realise a lot needs to be done for e-learning to work. We have a long way to go but this should not stop us from taking baby steps.