Global Trends in Technology in Higher Education: SARUA Vice Chancellors' Leadership Dialogue

The Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA) Vice Chancellors' Leadership Dialogue was held in the Western Cape, South Africa in September 2015. The conference title was Global Trends in Technology in Higher Education: Opportunities for African Universities.  Saide was represented by Catherine Ngugi, our OER Africa project director, who gave one of the keynote addresses. Each of the twelve participating universities were required to provide a two page document on the landscape of blended learning at their institution. Rosemary Juma, from our OER Africa office, and Jenny Louw provide an overview of the contributions.

SARUA posed two questions to institutions:

  • What opportunites are presented by new models of online education and new forms of collaboration?
  • How will these opportunities affect the operations of the academic research missions of universities and the higher education sector more generally?

It is evident that the landscape of higher education has changed dramatically in recent years, partly due to wide use of distance education as a delivery method. The number of higher education institutions offering distance education programs around the world has increased significantly, and this has in turn led to a growth in distance education enrolments in many countries stated Professor Mukandala from  University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM). He notes that UDSM has made crucial progress in the development of their in-house capacity to offer online and blended education. They have established and equipped a centre for virtual learning within the College of Information and Communication Technologies which is responsible for providing technical support to all UDSM academic units in the design and delivery of ICT-mediated education. UDSM is now offereing three fully online courses - one at Masters level and two at post-graduate level.

Online education has become a resourceful tool for the effective delivery of the teaching and learning mandates of higher education, the world over. Professor Zvobgo from the Great Zimbabwe University noted that due to limited classroom space they are now offering part-time students a blended approach of face-to-face block release sessions and online interaction via a Learning Management System. They are also offering online assessment opportunities.

The drive towards blended learning has mainly been motivated by the need to enhance those interactions likely to contribute to the achievement of higher learning outcomes by the learners, according to Professor Kurasha from Zimbabwe Open University (ZOU). There are basically three levels of interactions that have been targeted in the implementation of a blended learning approach in ZOU, namely: Student–Content interaction; Student–Student interaction; and Student–Tutor/Lecturer interaction. ZOU has invested extensively in their ICT infrastructure, interconnecting all regional and district centres with the National Centre creating a robust Wide Area Network (WAN). Administrative and library services are currently running on the WAN and other value-added services such as video conferencing and Voice over IP are being explored.

Durban University of Technology (DUT) underscored the importance of according online learning a key place in institutional strategy as noted by Professors Stewart and Bawa. They highlighted that in 2015 DUT received 90 000 applications for 7 000 places. The university is cautiously embarking on an e-Learning project, bearing in mind that the institution is not wealthy and most of the students come from very poor backgrounds. However, it was noted that more than 80% of DUT's courses have some e-learning component. The new technologies open the way for DUT to broaden access to learning communities that would not otherwise have the opportunity. In conclusion it was stressed that at the very centre of the e-learning/online initiative is the integration of learning experiences of DUT’s students around the functionalities of the LMS and perhaps more importantly the reshaping of the role of the professor and making student learning more active.

At the University of Technology, Mauritius, learning management systems (like Moodle) have provided  a new set of opportunities in the last five years. The initial motivation for some academics was mostly administrative in nature. As distributing lecture materials has been a challenge with the growth of the university, the use of the LMS as a repository for lecture materials has been a great boost in productivity for lecturers as there was no need to photocopy materials and mail them to students. Another feature which was appealed to academics was the online assignment submission. The students have mainly used the LMS for group online discussion.

Stellenbosch University (SU) has a long history, spanning approximately 18 years, of integrating learning technologies with face-to-face teaching stated Professor de Villiers.  In 2014  the University embarked on a five year comprehensive ICT (Information and Communication Technology) in Learning and Teaching project that includes support for lecturers and students, learning technology systems, networks and wifi, renewal of business information systems as well as state of the art learning spaces. SU is also working towards becoming a two-mode medium-size university by 2020. In Mode 1 the infrastructure is used for part of the year by contact students. In Mode 2 infrastructure is used during term breaks by “block course” contact students. Both modes will be enriched by the efficient and integrated use of modern learning technologies. The judicious use of learning technologies will thus sustain and accelerate the University’s growth beyond 2020.

The Catholic University of Zimbabwe has managed to extend the reach of its teaching programme to attract teachers in remote schools who cannot follow a regular degree programme through its block release programme. The students attend university during the holidays but are required to do assignments in between. The university is experimenting with Dropbox for collaboration among staff and students. Course materials are disseminated via Dropbox or are given to students on DVD when they attend the face-to-face sessions. Key challenges noted were the lack of ICT skills among staff and students; lact of access to technology and economic constraints in accessing materials via Dropbox.

The University of South Africa (Unisa), a dedicated distance education institution, pioneered the provision of higher education through print technology. Professor Makhanya noted that now all undergraduate courses are offered through a blended learning approach, with printed material and an online presence for student-peer and student-lecturer/tutor interaction. Students are also able to make use of various web-enabled tools as part of the learning and assessment processes. Although face-to-face tutorials are provided for a select number of courses at the various Unisa learning centres, e-tutorials are increasingly being implemented in all undergraduate qualifications.  The postgraduate programmes on the other hand are administered entirely online.

The University of Pretoria has been a proponent of blended learning for almost two decades noted Professor Kilfoil. The university selected Blackboard as their learning management system and have licensed Blackboard Mobile too, allowing access to the LMS through any mobile device from a laptop to a tablet to a phone. The Collaborate licence allows for synchronous online interaction that can be captured and watched asynchronously. Analytics for Learn provides a continuous alert, referral and engagement system providing easy tracking of online activities. They have also entered agreements with international publishers whereby students can easily purchase e-Books. The university uses computer-based testing for formative and continuous assessment. Lecturers use other technologies in combination with Blackboard Learn such as Facebook, YouTube, adaptive learning platforms for developing reading, writing, study and other skills. Students have access to computer laboratories on campus and there is also a laptop initiative providing the opportunity for students to acquire affordable devices. In 2013, 75.3% of undergraduate modules had a presence on the LMS; in 2014 that increased to 81.95%. Over the two years, approximately two thirds of all postgraduate modules had a presence.

Professor Kilfoil concluded by saying:

"Blended learning requires a sensible integration of what is done online and in the classroom. Feedback from students is that they want face-to-face contact with lecturers, because they value social presence, as well as high quality virtual environments."