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Universities devise catch-up plans to make up for lost learning time

A number of Ugandan universities have come up with new ways of teaching to help their learners continue with their education in spite of the lockdown. PHOTO / FILE

What you need to know:

  • A number of institutions are putting in place strategies to help students recover the lost learning and make up for the disruption caused by of the pandemic, writes Godfrey Lugaaju. 

When the government ordered all higher educational institutions to close down for the second time, as part of wider efforts to slow down the spread of the coronavirus, thousands of students were left feeling stranded and frustrated. 

These lockdowns have been extremely challenging for universities and students, and the disruption is likely to persist beyond the rollout of a vaccine.

Having taken lessons from the initial lockdown, some universities and other institutions of learning decided to devise several means of ensuring continuity in learning.  

Reagan Mulindwa, a second-year student of Education at Makerere University, says he was disappointed that he had to leave the campus without completing his semester, yet again.  

“It was the same situation last year when President, Yoweri Museveni, closed education institutions. We were just about to sit our exams. Now we had to return home. It is so frustrating,” says Mulindwa.

Mulindwa joined the university in August 2019 and he had hoped to conclude his qualification in May 2022 but he is not even sure when he will complete his second year.

Dealing with uncertainty

Prof Mouhamad Mpezamihigo, the vice-chancellor of Kampala International University (KIU), says at the time of the second closure, students were going to start their end of semester exams when the directive to suspend contact learning came and they had to find another way to administer the exams.

Mpezamihigo is certain that universities are not going to open anytime soon but the greatest concern is what the government can do to have some continuity of the education system.

He urges the government to invest resources in digital learning technology and address the unrealistic concerns people have towards online assessments because without this, delivering knowledge online is headed for bigger challenges.

“This is the time for our universities to invest in online learning. We cannot wait and say we shall resume academic work when the pandemic is over. No one knows when it will be over, or if there won’t be another pandemic in the future,” says Mpezamihigo. 

According to Charles Muweesi, the senior advancement officer, Directorate of Institutional Advancement, Busitema University, running a university in the wake of a pandemic is not easy but at Busitema, they are following the standards that were given to them by the Health and Education ministries.

“We set up the university Covid-19 Management Committee that has ensured that every part of the university has talking posters on the pandemic. Our lecture rooms were also resized to suit social distancing,” he says.

Prof Lawrence Muganga, the vice chancellor of Victoria University says the uncertainty about the reopening of education institutions can be removed by the concerted effort by the government to vaccinate as many people as they can.

He shares that the government through universities should improvise and support technology-enabled education to avoid the uncertainty because if education is not made pandemic-proof, the country is bound to continue suffering.

Changing university calendars

Muganga says their university calendar has been significantly affected as there are some things they needed to do physically and these have been removed from the calendar. Muganga shares that he had been advocating for online education even before lockdown.

“The pandemic has made us think like we are supposed to think in the 21st Century. We rolled out the V-Class, a state of the art learning management system to cater for students not only in Uganda but across Africa to ensure continuity of learning,” he says.

According to Mpezamihigo, KIU has a schedule of activities that goes on for two years and they have kept postponing them because of the pandemic. He shares that when the University Senate and National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) approved their online operations, they had to reschedule and accommodate many thigs including the graduation ceremony.

Online assessment

Students, who are now faced with new realities in accessing university education, have to be fast adapters to the integration of digital technologies and blended learning, open, distance and e-learning in order to remain up to speed with the demands and maintain quality education and training.

Many universities have continued to address some concerns and needs to sustain the blended format of education and training, under the prevailing circumstances.

Speaking in an interview recently, Prof David Lameck Kibikyo, the vice-chancellor of Busoga University, said the best way forward for universities is to find ways to cope with the closures, and prioritising online learning.

He says that there are lots of advantages associated with online learning that people and institutions have not yet embraced.

“Learners can study from wherever they are and do not have to follow rigid timetables. Also, there is no limit to the number of students you can reach at a time. So we have to design better ways of online teaching to include even the practical subjects such as engineering and architecture,” he said.

Muweesi shares that Busitema University has set up a learning platform called Learn Management System (LMS) and 90 per cent of the lecturers underwent LMS training and they have been able to post course outlines, notes and course works on the platform.

He says this platform has ensured interaction between learners and lecturers much as ICT has been challenging in regard to the system, the high data costs, however, through Airtel, they managed to get zero rating for their LMS platform and all students can access it at zero cost.

“Under the normal university calendar, we would have finished marking the second semester exams last month. The students are responding but it is what we expected. It is a 50:50 ratio. There are those trying their level best to learn and the others have not mastered the online bit well which will bring about academic delay for some learners,” he says.

Free data

Muganga shares that at Victoria University, learning and assessment have been online and even their students managed to do their exams. He explains that their V-Class Learning Management System has an examination integrity software that helps them assess and supervise students from wherever they are.

“We struck a partnership with Airtel Uganda to get data we provide to all our students for free. This is an offer to all students and lecturers at Victoria University for the next eight months. This was the only way we had to chip in to ensure continuity of learning by supporting parents and those students who pay for themselves. All they have to do is to get the device and we provide the data,” he says.

According to Muganga, these unprecedented times call for universities to give back on what they have made over time to students so that they build human capital and avoid dropouts.

Mpezamihigo shares that in June KIU developed enough capacity to deliver online learning and now has the digital platforms and access systems. He says lectures are going on online and students are virtually defending their dissertations and theses virtually.

“Our experience with online learning has been a good one much as there are challenges of connectivity and delayed access but these are not hampering the delivery. Management has also not had physical meetings as we have a virtual senate,” he reveals.

Bursaries and fees cuts

In the wake of the pandemic, Victoria University announced full scholarships for five disadvantaged Ugandans who joined this year’s academic intake thbegan on March 1.

Among the beneficiaries of the scholarships was David Siya, a traffic police officer attached to the Central Police Station, Sylvester Lulenzi a second-hand clothes vendor from Jinja, Moses Ssemitego from Kalungu all won fully paid scholarships. The other two slots were reserved for girls and went to Feddy Akello and Swabrah Mbawomye.

In February 2021, the institution also slashed tuition fees to help ease financial pressure on students and their families sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. The 50 per cent reduction was made to cater for the new entrants.

Muganga says all these initiatives will be kept in place for the next three years because they do not know when the pandemic will end.

“We shall even give more bursaries where possible for students to come to school in a bid to limit dropouts. I encourage other institutions to move beyond the profits and look at the future,” he urges.