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How e-learning has evolved at Makerere

Date: 
Sunday, 22 October 2017
Publisher: 
Author: 
Frank Kisakye

Since 2009, when Makerere decided to adopt e-systems in its operations, the university has made major strides. As MOSES TALEMWA found, Makerere has far more online activity than many realise.

New students seeking admission to Makerere University will now be advised that lack of computing skills, will ensure they are not admitted in the first place.

According to the university’s director of Quality Assurance, Dr Vincent Sembatya, the bulk of admissions is carried out online.  

“Academic programmes are advertised on our website, students apply for admission on a web portal, the admission board sits to consider applications and after candidates are selected, they are informed by email,” Sembatya explained.

“That is why we have also developed apps [applications] that students can view to study the profile of their programmes of choice and so on.”

Supplementing this explanation, the deputy principal of the college of Education and External Studies, Dr Paul Muyinda Birevu, said that even admission letters, which students previously picked from Makerere will be prepared and e-mailed to students before they arrive on campus.

“All these changes have been carried out in anticipation that the student will in future be based off campus, or even outside the country, without the need to come for physical classes,” he said.

Dr Birevu said that the system is being updated to make it possible for foreign students to apply to Makerere University and obtain admission and learning materials, without stepping at Makerere.

“The student will access learning materials after making a payment as their particulars are authenticated,” he said.

“Then students will register online and studies can commence. Formative and summative assessment at the end of semester will take place online … although we are leaving the door open for blended learning [where online learning happens along with face-to-face classes].”

Already the system is able to display test results online, but will now be upgraded to include assessments for progress to another semester, where students can proceed after their details are authenticated and payments made and registration completed. In that case, a student is given a key (password), which allows them to continue with their studies.

Dr Sembatya added that there is an application, which will soon be uploaded, that will enable a student to follow their classroom schedules via the comfort of their phone or email.  

“In the past, we have had to put up paper notices for students to know where lectures will be held, or to define available laboratories for study and so on,” he explained. “The app, which is now working, will be able to tell a given student where to get the services they need, with just a click.”

Birevu added that the university admissions system will eventually be adjusted to ease the cumbersome clearing process, which involves students moving from one office to another, seeking a stamp of approval, before they can be allowed to graduate.

“After their studies, one will be able to clear online. Once the clearance process is complete, the system will validate the relevant parameters and prepare a transcript/certificates,” he said. “However, we will put several checks to guard against fraud, but generally that is where we are going.”

CONCERNS

Birevu and Sembatya are sure e-systems will enhance operations at Makerere but are not blind to the reality of the challenges of enacting their objective. They are concerned that even with the institutional support they have received, several staff members at Makerere are not convinced e-learning will happen in the immediate term.

However, the two are undaunted and have made numerous presentations under the auspices of the Open and Distance e-Learning Education mechanism (ODEL).

For instance, Birevu was at the University of South Africa (Unisa), where he explained Makerere’s approach to e-systems, while learning their methods.

With an enrolment of over 300,000 students, Unisa is the largest university in Africa and most learning is carried out online. He believes Unisa has established the benchmark for e-learning. Here the various colleges develop the academic content, and an institute is tasked with facilitating learning.

“We can borrow a leaf from Unisa …  within Unisa, there is also the institute of open distance and e-learning, which coordinates and gives support to the rest of the university,” he said. “The academic programmes belong to the various colleges. The institute schedules trainings for lecturers to schedule conferences for those particular units.”

UNSEEN BENEFITS

Dr Sembatya adds that there are several unseen benefits for e-learning, despite the huge cost likely to be invested here.

“Although enrolment rates at universities in sub-saharan Africa are among the lowest in the world, the returns to investments in higher education in Africa are 21 percent – the highest in world,” he says.

Dr Sembatya adds that e-learning is a great equalizing element in education.

“Right now, enrolment statistics in the education ministry show that only a third of those who start out in P1 complete P7,” he says. “A section of those who drop off at P7 could be absorbed into secondary schools, but infrastructure challenges make it impossible.”

He further explained that the secondary school system is only able to deliver five per cent of those enrolled in P1 to senior six.     

“Even with 41 universities, we are still only enrolling 200,000 of those who complete senior six … yet if we doubled the number of learners enrolled at each level, we could increase our gross enrolment ratio [currently at nine per cent, the lowest in sub-saharan Africa] through e-learning,” he says.

“So, we need another 130,000 or so students to join university, and over 1,040,000 students to complete P7.”

Birevu agrees and says this conclusion is based on admission trends seen at Makerere recently.

“The demographics of our students have also changed,” he said. “Previously distance learning students were mature age entrants or working-class, but now because of some factors, we are increasingly getting senior six leavers joining distance learning programmes.”

Both men believe that with e-learning, Makerere’s student population could explode from just 39,000 students to over 300,000, spread across the continent and beyond.

Sembatya believes the benefits for Makerere would be almost immediate.

“This will have immediate benefits in revenue and the lowering of operational costs. We will have students accessing learning from all over the world on their terms, without the need to spend on coming here at awkward times,” he said. “Researchers, who are presently burdened by extended teaching hours long into the evening, can concentrate on their core duty, research.”     

THE FUTURE

Sembatya and Birevu agree that e-learning will cost a lot (the figures are still being studied) to set up, but is the way to go.

“The widespread use of the internet in the country with increased broadband connectivity; infiltration of smart portable devices are leveraging deployment of content to populations with low energy resources; as well as inclusion of ICT courses in the curriculum of high schools, are strong reasons to move in this direction,” Sembatya says.

He further says the students are already showing the way they want to go, and the university needs to embrace them.

“We also have to be prepared for them; otherwise, they are going to run away from us, saying Makerere suffers with technology, which is not true,” he said.

Makerere is already running several graduate programmes online and more are due in the next academic year.