DVC of Academic Affairs responds to tough questions: E-learning, cost, career preparation and more
Originally posted at: https://www.ugandapartners.org/2021/09/dvc-of-academic-affairs-responds-to-tough-questions-e-learning-cost-career-preparation-and-more/
Uganda Christian University (UCU) continuing students have started their Advent Semester (August-December). The current term that started August 20, 2021, is being conducted virtually like the previous one, the Trinity Semester (May-August). The Advent is the Semester UCU admits the largest number of first-year students. Veteran journalist John Semakula, recently named head of UCU’s journalism department, talked to the Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Dr. John Kitayimbwa about the preparations for first-year students joining the University. A condensed version of this conversation is reflected here.
Why should parents bring their children to UCU during this period of the lockdown?
UCU is the number one university in this country when it comes to online learning. Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit us, a lot of institutions in Uganda have been struggling to get online, evaluate students and do exams, but UCU’s story of teaching and learning online is not a new one. Since 2014, we began preparing a virtual education infrastructure. Beyond the lecturers, our infrastructure has more than seven people specifically dedicated and committed to eLearning. As we speak today, a lot of universities have done what they call online teaching and that is why things like zoom and big blue button are common words in this learning arena. But online teaching is a bit different from online learning. It’s not enough to recreate the physical classroom online and get teachers talking to students online. That will not translate into learning. Online learning is more student than teacher centered. It’s more activity-based than what the teacher has said or not said. It demands more of the learner. It also demands more of the teacher in terms of preparation and getting the learning activities ready. To this end, UCU is still the number one university in doing this within Uganda. We have trained our students and lecturers, and we are ahead of the rest. So, the parent can rest assured that if they are to send their children to UCU, they will continue learning. UCU is one of the very few universities in Uganda that are up to date during Covid-19.
How are you helping first-year students fit into the University’s eLearning system?
We have a policy at UCU where each entering student is required to have a laptop, what we call a laptop policy. It doesn’t matter if that laptop is new or old but at least somebody should have a laptop. We are therefore enforcing the laptop policy so that these students can learn. But also we have thought about connectivity. Students are having challenges with the connectivity because it’s very expensive and so as a university, we have partnered with the Research and Education Network Uganda (RENU) to make sure that at least all our eLearning resources are zero rated on the MTN network, meaning that if you have an MTN line, you can access all our resources free of charge. They are not free because the University is paying for the access but they are free in that aspect for our students and staff. RENU has worked hard to ensure that they roll out the internet in certain hotspots around Kampala, Wakiso, Entebbe and Mukono where our students who live around those areas can connect to the University web internet and make use of the available resources without incurring a cost.
How would a first-year student who has no IT knowledge access the virtual classes?
It’s very true that the students coming to us have not used eLearning platforms before and so in September as we are recruiting, we are going to have a very elaborate process of introducing online learning to our first-year students. We shall have about two weeks of very serious orientation. Already, we have opened up some of our course offerings for potential students so that they can come and get used to the system even before the semester starts. For example, we have opened up our learning and study skills course unit, basic computing offering, Understanding World Views; students everywhere in this country can get access to those materials and try out what it means to do the new normal at UCU. We have also established a fulltime call center that is going to be responsive to the learners’ challenges. Real-time responses will be given to the new learners on issues pertaining the eLearning platform.
How about students who live in areas without access to the internet?
According to the Data that we have from National Information Technology Authority (NITA), Uganda, the government through development partners have been rolling out what we call the 3G network and if you look at the NITA website, it shows you that the coverage of the 3G network, what they call the last mile, is almost 90%. This means that in most parts of the country at least there is some kind of network coverage. At the same time, this challenge is not peculiar to UCU. All the universities in Uganda are affected by the internet coverage and should strive to see how they can reach each and every student in the hard-to-reach areas. This is not a problem to solve today or tomorrow but one of the challenges we must address. Maybe we need to repackage the learning websites so that when a student goes to a place where there is internet, they can download the content and be able to read the learning material when they leave.
How do you ensure quality for online studies?
Online learning is new in Uganda but it’s not new world over. Some people have been doing online learning even before the pandemic hit us. But Covid-19 has brought this closer to Uganda and that is why I told you that in UCU we started thinking about online learning in 2014 and so there are quality assurance frameworks that work within the context of online learning. Fortunately, these frameworks are much better than those of the physical learning. For example, I can wee which student has logged into the system when and for how long. I can even investigate the kind of content the students have been exposed to. So, these resources on online learning materials are auditable that you can audit the attendance by both students and staff but also because the emphasis is on the learner and what the learner can do in terms of activities, the evaluation changes because whereas you could wait to give two tests in the semester, now because this is activity based learning, you need to evaluate this learner almost daily which means on a weekly basis you have a good understanding of how students have been able to learn on such a platform.
The National Council for Higher Education has raised some concerns about the quality of online exams. What is your reaction?
The quality of online examination is also the understanding of why a university exists and what kind of training the University has to give to its students. When you think about what possibly you can examine during a sit-in exam, you will find out that most of the skills that you can examine within a three-hour exam are skills of remembering, a bit of application but they are not very high-end exams. If you wanted to measure the high-end skills especially in the process of learning, you would have to do that as a project-based exam or a take-home exam, and these are the skills that the market is asking for. The market is requiring of us to produce learners who can be able to go to an environment and understand what is needed in that environment, consult with seniors, if possible, to get more information in order to solve the problems they have at hand and then be able to generate a solution. This is what the UCU online exams are introducing to the students. But there are also technologies for the online sit-in exams, where we can monitor you at your home as you do your examination paper.
And when are first-year students reporting for the Advent semester?
They are reporting on September 24 but we shall use the week between September 19-24 to introduce them to online pedagogies. The orientation will be the last two weeks of the month.
When is the University administering pre-entry exams?
We received the Senior six final examination results in late August and we are already opening up a two-week application period. The pre-entry exams for both law and medicine will be conducted the week of September 6th and applicants are already flooding our online application portals.
Why do you set pre-entry exams for some courses and not all?
Ideally, we would be setting pre-entry exams for everyone but for now we are looking at law, medicine, theology, nursing and public health. At UCU we are interested in offering a complete education for a complete person and in order to yield this kind of product, there are other ingredients that possibly the Uganda National Examination Board (UNEB) might not be measuring but we are interested in. We pride ourselves in training a doctor who is not simply a doctor who can treat somebody but one who can offer complete medical care and so the inputs into that doctor are very important and that is why we conduct pre-entry exams to test the applicants’ values and capabilities before admitting them.
What does it take a student applying for a course to join the University?
We have options where they can go to our website and access the online application form there that will also have details where they can reach someone in the admission office in case they want to be guided through the process. Our online application system is also working well in all the areas but if you are not good at using technology, you just have to send us an email and we shall reach out to you for help.
But isn’t UCU very expensive?
That is a very interesting allegation and I have been studying it. Its not true, I was recently looking at the tuition fees charged at UCU compared to that charged in most public universities and they are comparable. What we have done as a Christian University is that we give you a full understanding of what else you will pay, for example, we have what we call other fees, which other universities do not declare on the face of these application forms. I think this is what has caused a bit of confusion for UCU. UCU being a private University, the amount of money charged vis-à-vis the value for money is very completive and worth applauding.
And what does it mean to run a university during the lockdown?
This is one of the hardest things to do because of two main reasons: One is that most of the regulations that are made in this country are made with a public university in mind so that leaves an administrator in a private university struggling to catchup always. It would be very helpful for government and law makers to always remember that there are two kinds of institutions in the country, the public and then the private. For these two, the set up is quite different and what they need to succeed is also different. The second one is that you need to meet the expenses within the university 100% because you do not have any other help external to the university revenue to do that and therefore you have had to find a way of continuing business amidst a lockdown because if you fail to continue, it means that you are not going to earn so you can’t maintain the staff, facilities and everything else. It’s in fact that push that has helped universities such as ours to be more innovative during this time because at this point, it’s survival for the fittest. But Covid-19 is helping us to re-engineer ourselves looking at everything we do as a university to ensure that we are doing them in the best way that we should.
How are your former students fairing on the job market?
They are the best graduates that you will have in this job market. If you looked at the legal vocation, for example, UCU is changing the story of the legal profession in this country. If you look at the communication graduates, they are all over. I have even started seeing some adverts where the employers are saying that only UCU graduates should apply. We are even calling upon more employers to take that example.