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Online classes may not go away, even post-pandemic

Ugandans may have to get accustomed to e-learning

Ugandans may have to get accustomed to e-learning

Marcel Lukanga, 33, is pursuing a master’s degree in Information Systems at the Uganda Martyrs University (UMU).

In August, the boda boda he was riding on was involved in an accident, breaking his left leg and leaving him bedridden. This marked a change in Lukanga’s life drastically. He now moved with the support of crutches and, according to his doctor, Lukanga had to stay off his broken leg for some time.

But what about school? After all he had invested, would it be a dead year? Thankfully, Lukanga has not had to do that, which would have been a very likely course of action in the pre-Covid years. But one of the ‘advantages’ to come out of this non-ending pandemic, is how it has normalized e-learning, as schools and universities have grappled with how to keep in touch with students under a lockdown.

Lukanga is on course to complete his programme in the stipulated period, something he largely owes to his university’s decision to introduce online teaching since June 1 this year. Similarly, ministry of Health spokesperson Emmanuel Ainebyoona, who recently spent several weeks in a Covid-19 isolation centre, told his Facebook followers that thanks to Makerere University’s online classes, he was able to keep up with his master’s program, even as he battled coronavirus.

NEW NORMAL

For years, Ugandan have been reluctant to embrace e-learning, majorly due to big difference in students’ wellbeing and computer/data affordability, but this pandemic has fast-tracked the education system along the digital tracks.

“Although I have been incapacitated to a certain extent, I have managed to keep attending my master’s classes as normally as possible. The e-learning policy has enabled me to keep studying while at home,” Lukanga said.

Under ‘normal’ circumstances, where students attended physical classes with their lecturers, Lukanga’s choices would have been grimmer. Such is the game changer, that online learning is proving to be the education system’s new ‘normal’, providing limitless opportunities regardless of one’s limitations and location.

Reverend Father John Maviiri, the vice chancellor of UMU, said after realizing that the coronavirus-triggered lockdown that started on March 18 was not about to end, they had to come up with an intervention to help their students. The second semester of the current academic year had just started in January, and was due to end in May with final exams, but suddenly the institution was faced by students locked away in their homes in different parts of the country.

Even when government eased the lockdown conditions on the education sector, it was in favour of finalists, who could access their school campuses starting in September. However, starting June 1, UMU had resumed teaching online, to ensure that they covered the remainder of their semester syllabus.

Once the National Council for Higher Educations (NCHE) approved of the university’s e-learning modules, they resumed teaching. It helps that in today’s education system, it is almost an unwritten rule for university students to own, or have access to a computer, since all coursework now has to be typed.

“Considering the accident I was involved in, without e-learning, I would never have stood a chance of completing this academic year,” Lukanga said.

In addition, Lukanga noted the profound advantage of e-learning: it provides a bigger opportunity to understand what is taught, especially for a slow learner. Lukanga said he is able to go back and watch a lecture, since a lesson can be saved or recorded for future reference. Lozio Mubiru, a lecturer at UMU, told The Observer that this model has ensured that there is more student involvement, according to his observation.

During the face-to-face teaching, a number of students do not participate, yet with online teaching, some-how there is more self-esteem among learners; so, they can each raise up their hand without feeling the physical pressure of their neighbour in a lecture room. Lecture rooms naturally come with additional pressures of physical appearances, wardrobe and the like, which are ruled out when one is studying at home.

COST-EFFECTIVE BOTH WAYS

Besides, Maviiri told The Observer, UMU has at least 5,000 students, who need a lot of physical space to learn. With online classes, that problem is nipped in the bud and the university saves on the human resource as well as the wear and tear that comes with having that volume of students on campus.

“Between 200 and 300 students can attend one lecture through e-learning,” Maviiri said.

Yet, under normal circum- stances, that would not be possible considering the size of lecture rooms, which would require breaking the class up into different sessions. On average, a lecture room at the university can accommodate 70 students. So, for a class of 200 students, three lectures would be required to cover all students.

That, inevitably, adds to the university’s expenditure. A part-time lecturer at UMU is reportedly paid Shs 50,000 per hour. So, if they have to attend to three classes a day, that is Shs 150,000. Yet, with online teaching, a lecturer teaches one lot at once, be it 200 or 500 students, depending on how many are logged in.

On top of that, learning spaces are costly to construct for the universities. Julius Mukiibi, a civil engineer, that has years of experience constructing schools, told The Observer, that a class facility for at least 70 students, would cost close to Shs 150m. The universities’ expenses aside, students that had to travel to university campuses or rent rooms in hostels are enjoying the relief.

In comparison, money spent on data to enable online learning is reasonable. Lukanga said with 100 megabites, he can attend a one-hour lecture. That would cost him about Shs 2,000 ($0.53), which is substantially cheaper, than having to travel to the Nkozi. Also, Mubiru feels with the online teaching model, it is easier to monitor which student is online and who is missing.

Unlike the physical teaching, the online teaching program records everyone logged onto a specific platform. But due to limited supervision on the platform and the not-easy-to-control nature of digital platforms, copying and cheating during exams and tests is a real problem that UMU has already witnessed, causing authenticity problems.

To mitigate this, Mubiru said, exams are set in such a way that they call for individual experiences, making it hard for students to have similar answers. Still, they have unlimited access to search engines and books, which ordinarily cannot be carried into a physical exam room.

Also, for practical modules, teaching online may not provide the required effect, although Maviiri said provisions have been set, to enable students that fall in that category to complete their course units now that schools have been allowed to reopen.

For now, online teaching seems to be a way to go in education, but is yet to solve one big roadblock: the volume of upcountry schools and learners with neither computer knowledge nor access.

jovi@observer.ug

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