Barriers to integrating e-Learning into Uganda’s education system
Originally posted at: https://www.ugandapartners.org/2020/09/ucu-alum-provides-perspective-on-e-learning-in-uganda/
(NOTE: This article was written before the Uganda National Council for Higher Education gave late August 2020 approval for UCU to offer on-line courses.)
By Alex Taremwa
On Friday, July 3, 2020, my good friend Rebecca Karagwa, a recipient of a generous Uganda Partners scholarship, should have graduated with her Bachelor of Laws from Uganda Christian University (UCU). Only that did not happen. After waiting for online exams in vain, she celebrated anyway. She cut the cake and ate it.
Her school official completion was delayed partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic that forced schools shut but also the Ugandan education system technological limbo in 2020. Since the colonial era, classroom instruction in Uganda – even at top government-supported universities like Makerere University – the 8th Best in Africa according to recent rankings – has been a blackboard and chalk affair.
While students in countries like Rwanda begin to interact with computer technology as early as primary school with the help of education tablet computers that the government freely distributes, it is common for a student in Uganda from a rural area like Kazo to join a university without ever touching a computer.
I write from experience. Before I joined UCU in 2010, the best I knew about a computer was to correctly identify the mouse, keyboard and monitor. It was the first-year, UCU Basic Computing Foundation Course Unit that moved me to computer literacy; I scored 98%. This is true today for many students at Ugandan universities.
While the Ugandan government directed that Information and Computer Technology (ICT) be taught compulsorily at secondary level, most schools in rural areas and some in peri-urban areas have at most eight functional computers to be used by a population of 800 students or even more. At the maximum, each student will have interfaced with the computer for about five full hours in a term. To say that this time is insufficient to create any sort of mastery is an understatement.
Nevertheless, students move on to the universities where some semblance of e-Learning can be felt. Lecturers often send course material on Email and can ably grade assignments through academic systems such as Moodle but from experience, both students and lecturers confess that the traditional approach where assignments and typed and printed is more “effective” than the modern style because the latter requires an internet connection or a physical presence at the University where one can access free Wi-Fi.
But there is an even bigger reason. Most of the courses taught at universities had not been customized for online delivery. When you visit the Uganda National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) website to see the listed of accredited online courses for universities, you’re met with an empty list. There is, however, a list of new guidelines that the NCHE is mooting to furnish universities in a bid to support their customization of online programs.
Online programs have to be immersive and interactive to compensate for when the students are not physically present at the university like the case is now. The challenge is that neither the university nor the government can guarantee that students will have access to a computer and stable Internet to support this kind of learning.
Statistically, only 42% of Ugandans are connected to the Internet, according to the Uganda Communications Commission. This represents 19 million of the 45 million Ugandans. If you break this figure further, the biggest concentration of Internet users is in Kampala, Wakiso, Mukono, Entebbe, Jinja and other major towns, but most of the rural countryside where the students are during this lockdown is largely uncovered.
To worsen the matters, Uganda has the most expensive Internet per megabyte of all the countries in East Africa. It doesn’t help our case that social media platforms like WhatsApp on which students are currently discussing as they hope for take home exams also attract a daily tax.
It would have been better and cheaper for the government to lift tax on social media to promote learning via smartphones on Facebook Live and YouTube but instead, the government is settling to buy two radio and television sets for each of the 140,000 villages in the country. While this happens, universities like the United States International University in Africa in Nairobi, Aga Khan University and other ultramodern institutions have already closed their semesters successfully by administering exams online. All the institutions had to do was to use part of the students’ already paid tuition to activate for them data bundles with which to access, write and submit the exams.
Together with an e-Examination system that closed submissions after the permissible three hours, the universities were able to avoid physical access to the premises, keep COVID-19 at bay and still successfully close their academic calendars with minor interruptions.
Selfishly though, the government has refused to allow institutions like Uganda Christian University (UCU) that have the necessary infrastructure to support e-Learning to proceed with their academic calendar claiming and rightly so, that some students who are in rural areas will not be able to access the learning materials even when the very students petitioned the Speaker of Parliaments seeking permission to sit their exams and move on with their lives.
Uganda has attempted twice to allow finalists return to their respective institutions of learning to write their examinations and failed. Information from the corridors of power now has it that the government is mooting to force a dead year on students like Karagwa that were hoping to graduate simply because there is no infrastructure to support e-Learning.
As long as COVID-19 is still a global pandemic, education in Uganda will remain on halt and even when schools resume in the near future, e-Learning will remain a far cry until the technological barriers to uptake are addressed.
Alex Taremwa is a journalist, a graduate of UCU and an MA student at the Graduate School of Media and Communications (GSMC) of The Aga Khan University in Nairobi.
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