Distance learning at Makerere University goes cellular

Wednesday, 5 March 2008
Edris Kisambira Uganda

Not only have they addressed a teething issue of limited collaboration between the distance learner and the supervisor; the Department is also taking learning to a place it has never been before.

One wonders how the department has managed to pull off this inspiring innovation.

As a way of making the research process (a must before a degree is offered) an enjoyable and exciting experience on the part of the student and increase the supervisors’ availability, the Department encouraged supervisors to integrate readily accessible ICTs into the research supervision process.

As it is, the small gadget we have come to know as the mobile phone – owned by 97 percent of the students at the Distance Learning Department – stepped to the fore. The Department has named this eLearning tool “the Mobile Research Supervision Initiative (MRSI).”

Paul Birevu Muyinda, a PhD student at the University and a lecturer there says the application was meant to augment the limited face-to-face supervisor-student meetings with voice and text collaborations on the mobile phone. “Within the face-to-face meetings, we need strong support mechanisms, and that is why we are coming up with programmes like MRSI”, Muyinda said. At the Distance Learning Department, lecturers and supervisors use the short message service (SMS) platform to send instructions regarding both administrative and academic information to students scattered across the country.

High drop-out rates

Before the advent of MRSI, students were frustrated by the ‘non-availability’ of their supervisors when they came to meet them at the main campus. These and many other factors were blamed for the high failure rate of forty percent of distance learners at the University.

The long-distance department, which is currently charged with taking education outside the boundaries of Makerere University’s main campus, offers four programmes. They include the BA Commerce, BA Education, BA Science and the Commonwealth Youth Diploma and have a student population of 5,000 students.

Outside the main campus, the University tutors and supervises the long-distance learner at the eight regional centres in Jinja, Mbale, Lira, Fort Portal, Kabale Hoima, Arua and Gulu.

MRSI has helped the Department solve issues of fixing appointments between students and supervisors, helped guide the student when in the field gathering information, and has aided collaboration between and among students. Students have been forced to do things quicker and the application has created intimacy between the students and their supervisors. Muyinda believes that without these supervision components, throughput by the students was being affected. “Right now I have a list of students whose work is incomplete. In the past how would I have been able to get in touch with them?” Muyinda wonders. “But now I can.”

As far as intimacy between the student and their supervisor is concerned, students believe it creates ground for academic excellence.

While the department is yet to establish whether there has been substantial effect on throughput since MRSI was introduced in academic year 2005-06, the application has indeed made life easier.

At the moment though, the department has realised that the students who used their phones in collaboration for research have been able to finish their projects much earlier than their colleagues who have not used the MRSI.

“We have concluded there are other factors, and we need to investigate those intervening factors affecting throughput,” Muyinda said.

Costs are an issue

Uganda has among most expensive mobile phone fees, and that is a thorny issue in the back of both the supervisors’ and the students’ minds, since it means that the application is costly.

“When we asked students what the biggest challenge with MRSI was, what came across was the cost of communication”, Muyinda said. To try and get around the cost issue, Muyinda says the department has approached one of the telecommunication companies with a proposal for the latter to offer the department subsidised SMS rates, a toll-free line, as well as help in setting up call centres at the eight upcountry centres of the University.

The Department is also working on a software system that will aid in the distribution of the thousands of messages, especially in the form of feedback from the students.

The Department will also extend the SMS broadcast system to supervisors’ personal computers so that when a message is sent back by a student, it can be directed to the email address of that supervisor. “This means we are also trying to integrate the mobile phone with computers in a way”, Muyinda noted.

Students respond positively

So what have student perceptions of MRSI been? Some were gratified and felt very good, others felt a sense of care by their supervisors and the department, and almost all were encouraged and motivated to accomplish their research, and perceived a sense of responsibility on the part of the supervisor and the Department. Others said they were simply surprised because their professor was calling them.

“From these responses, we have concluded that the MRSI created a customer-care feeling among students”, Muyinda said. “You know, for us in distance learning, we look at students as our customers.”

After living the experience that the MRSI offers, students have made suggestions on how supervision can be enhanced. These include calls for encouraging the use of the Internet and email in research supervision, improving mobile/internet communication infrastructure, training students in the use of ICTs, and entrenching mobile phones in student-support services.

Students reckon the Department needs to partner with telecommunications service providers to help bring down the costs associated with MRSI.

The suggestions by the students, Muyinda said, “… tell us there is an extremely strong demand for mobile and online learning amongst the distance learners at Makerere University.”

Edris Kisambira is a staff reporter for East African Business Week, a weekly business and economics publication based in Kampala, Uganda, that covers East Africa. He is also a correspondent for the Highway Africa News Agency (HANA)