Stanley Mpofu/Christina Müller

Online education is an extension of distance education. It goes beyond computerbased education in which learners receive and complete learning assignments in digital form. Online education demands internet-based communication, interactive participation, and collaboration. The Center for Continuing Education of the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Zimbabwe has been entrusted with the task of providing further online education opportunities of this nature. The following contribution describes the chances and difficulties connected with this type of learning.

From Réchauffé to Recherche – Online Education in Zimbabwe

About the National University of Science and Technology

The National University of Science and Technology (NUST), the second university in Zimbabwe (after the University of Zimbabwe), opened its doors in the second largest city, Bulawayo, in 1991. With an initial intake of 256 students, NUST came into being not only as an elite institution but also as a centre of excellence in teaching and learning, and research and community service in the fields of Science and Technology. The proliferation of universities in the country (currently 13 altogether, with plans for an additional two) and the massification of students at NUST (currently at 4500) have not dented the University’s image as a centre of excellence, nor have they diminished the institution’s resolve for excellence.

In the 20 years of its existence, NUST has established itself, both nationally and internationally, as a key provider of high quality academic and professional tertiary education and training programmes. In addition, the University has made a name as a key promoter of basic, applied and developmental research and the disseminator of that research through extensive outreach programmes.

The University enjoys close ties with the industrial and commercial sectors both of which have expressed great satisfaction with its products. The University also enjoys excellent ties with other universities on the African continent and beyond.

The What and Whence of Online Education

Progressive institutions of higher learning worldwide are actively embracing online education in programme and course delivery for both on-campus and distance learning provision. There are obvious prospects and challenges for universities in Zimbabwe in this endeavour. Issues of relevance, feasibility and sustainability determine the route to the adoption of a new technology, requiring cautious and informed decisions and approaches.

In line with trends in similar institutions locally and elsewhere, NUST is seriously considering the use of online learning for many programmes and courses that would be suitable for such a mode of delivery.

Online education is computer-mediated and its primary mode of communication is the Internet (Ko and Rosen, 2001). Accordingly, it is a form of education that offers and conducts educational courses or activities partially or entirely through the Internet. In this regard, online education depends on three primary capabilities that are available through the Internet. Firstly, there is electronic mail (email) that links the learner to the instructor and other course participants. Secondly, there is the bulletin board or discussion forum that provides for cumulative group discussion. Thirdly, the Internet makes provision for real-time conferencing which is basically synchronous interaction requiring the simultaneous participation of all the participants, including the instructors.

Online education has its roots in distance education ((Ko and Rosen, 2001). Distance education is “an educational system in which the learner is autonomous and separated from the teacher by space and time, so that communication is by print, electronic, or other non-human medium” (Moore, 1995).

It covers

“the various forms of study at all levels which are not under the continuous, immediate supervision of tutors present with their students in lecture rooms or on the same premises, but which, nevertheless, benefit from the planning, guidance and tuition of a tutorial organisation.” (Holmberg, 1995: 1)

In essence, distance education is the anti-thesis of classroom (face-to-face) instruction, where the teacher and the students meet regularly for lectures, demonstrations and class discussions.

 

Online Symposium
Source: Stanley Mpofu


 

 

 

 

Traditionally, distance education is a one-way or two-way audio/video teleconference or self–study via print material. Oftentimes it does not involve multi-interaction via discussion boards. Multi-interaction is a major characteristic of online education. Evidently, online education brings a new dimension to the whole field of distance education. As Harasim (1991) aptly observes, “Internet technologies offer opportunities to improve the distance education model through increased communication, interactivity, and collaborative activities”. He sums up the characteristics of online education as “place and time independence, many-to-many communication, collaborative learning and dependence on text-based communication to promote thoughtful and reflective learning.”

Negative Descriptor

Like everything else that is associated with open learning, online education is a “negative descriptor” in that it is much easier to explain what it is not than what it is. In this regard, it cannot be explained fully without an explanation of related terms. It is, therefore, important to distinguish between online education and other traditional forms of computer-based training.

In most traditional forms of computer-based training the student does not interact with other people. Instead, the student interacts with the programme content via the computer. The interaction takes many forms and includes tutorials, drills, quizzes simulations or games. Needless to say, computer-based training is (like online education) a form of distance education. However, computer-based training is perfect for self-study and, as such, is more consistent (than online education) with the traditional perspective of distance education. Be that as it may, it is important to note that an online education programme may incorporate some elements of computer–based training.

From about the mid 90s, the Internet rapidly became the most common mode of delivery for distance education material in developed countries (Simon, 1999). The developing world has just about reached this stage of computer-mediated communication hence many African universities have started using the Internet to deliver distance education course materials to selected groups of students. And, in accordance with this trend, pockets of computer-based training now exist at NUST, particularly to complement postgraduate block release programmes such as the Executive Master of Business Administration.

Literature abounds with terms that have been used as synonyms of computermediated communication (CMC), namely, the aforementioned computer-based training (CBT); internet-based training (IBT); and web-based training (WBT). These terms have also been used as synonyms eLearning, along with its variations elearning, Elearning, and eLearning. All these variations (together with online education) are forms of distance education. Similarly, all these variations (together with online education) are forms of computer-mediated communication. Yet, none of these variations are eligible to be labeled online education. Why? As it has been pointed out before, unlike online education, these traditional forms of CMC are devoid of multi-interaction via discussion forums.

Not Yet Online Education

Most of these traditional forms of CMC have become the norm at most of our higher education institutions. And, almost without exception, they are all characterised by what Fraser (1999) calls “shovelware”. Shovelware refers to the practice of shoveling content from one communication medium to another with little regard for the appearance, ease of use, or capabilities of the second medium. Most of our institutions are using the Web as nothing but “shovelware” in that they have taken the materials that were meant for the face-to-face mode and placed them on the Web verbatim, without due regard to the capabilities of the Web vis-à-vis those of face-to-face interaction. The intention is simply to widen the sources of information for students by using a wide variety of modes to deliver the same information. Without any doubt there is value in the broad distribution of learning material. There is also value in the associated online administrative structures that have been set up to facilitate the exchange of assignments and the feedback thereof. But, as Fraser aptly asks, “what pedagogical value is added to the learning situation if we merely distribute virtually the same course resources through a computer rather than on paper or by word of mouth?” That sort of “unimaginative computerization” is what (according to Fraser) the French call réchauffé. Réchauffé simply means reproducing for another medium material which was initially produced for one medium. This suggests failure to take advantage of the expanded horizons for communication offered by the new medium. And, it is tantamount to warming up leftovers from the previous night’s dinner and serving them as brunch on Sunday afternoon. As Fraser aptly observes, this is “insipid and pedagogically pointless”.

We at NUST have sought to move beyond réchauffé to what the French call recherché.

From réchauffé to recherché

The Centre for Continuing Education (CCE) has been mandated to facilitate the provision of online education at the University. The need for greater access to educational opportunities, particularly for the previously disadvantaged, was the main reason for the establishment of the CCE in 2001. The CCE organises continuing education programmes that are aimed at updating participants’ knowledge or skills in a particular field.

Irrespective of whether they are undertaken for credit or non-credit purposes, continuing education programmes at NUST have one common objective: to enable workers at all levels to keep abreast of rapidly changing working environments and advancing technologies.

 

 

Online Symposium
Source: Stanley Mpofu

 

Continuing education at NUST takes two major forms, namely, professional development and block release programmes.

 

Professional development programmes are short term purposefully designed noncredit courses, workshops and seminars for specified in-service personnel in the public and private sectors. They are premised on the major objective of continuing education, namely, to enable working people to put in practice on Monday what they learnt at school on Friday. The training programmes come in two shapes. First, there are regular short-term programmes that are meant to respond to general needs in the business and industrial environment. These programmes, which are reviewed from time-to-time, provide management training to organisations on a long term basis. Examples include Risk Assessment, and Production Planning and Control. Secondly, there are context specific programmes that are developed at the behest of organizations and thus tailor-made to suit specific organisational needs. Such progammes include Supply Chain Management and information and computer- based information on technology skills (ICTs).

On the other hand, block release programmes are long term and intermediate credit programmes that are designed to accommodate those workers who want to upgrade their professional qualifications without having to take extended leave of absence from work. Normally, block release programmes are modularised. Learners attend one to four-week block sessions two to three times in each academic year. Ideally, each block session is a complete entity. At the end of the block period, students write examinations to determine whether they can proceed to the next module/block. Some variations allow for individualised modularised learning, whereby failure does not necessarily mean withdrawal from the programme.

The NUST brand of block release programmes is not modularised. Modularisation is a process that takes time. Due to the urgent need to put in place block release programmes of some sort, the institution improvised. The improvisation resulted in a programme where the learners undertake a crash programme of teaching and learning during a prescribed block session. The objective is to accommodate all the teaching that would otherwise be done in one term or semester into one or two block sessions. Naturally, the process spills over to the period after the session and students are required to continue with their school work after the sessions. This arrangement enables students to continue working on assignments long after the session has ended. And, the tutor continues to facilitate learning telephonically and through the provision of additional resource material by whatever expedient means. The advent of computer-mediated communication has added a new dimension to the implementation of block release programmes at NUST.

Block release programmes at NUST are essentially designed for part-time study and are, accordingly, offered through distance education. In this regard, they present an opportunity for piloting online education and thus enable the institution to make the necessary transition from réchauffé to recherché.

The journey from réchauffé to recherché is fraught with challenges. First, the educational market is suspicious of education that takes place outside the classroom. Higher education is becoming more and more market driven. Accordingly, higher education administrators tend to embrace those programmes that have the potential to bring more dividends to the institution. Conversely, they tend to shun those programmes that are not likely to attract large numbers. Secondly, limited access to computer technology (an essential component of online learning) militates against a wholesale offer and indulgence in online education programmes. Third and, perhaps more importantly, the paucity of knowledge and expertise in online education poses the greatest threat to its adoption and proper implementation. This paper is essentially an outline of what is being done at NUST to overcome the three challenges and thus lay the foundation for the provision of quality online education.

Pilot Project Implementation

The facilitation of the provision of online education at NUST has taken place at three levels, namely, information, showcase and pilot levels.

Information level

A series of seminars were lined up for academic staff and computer technicians at NUST and several other tertiary institutions in Bulawayo. However, in the final analysis one low key seminar was held at NUST and was attended by a few largely curious academic staff and a handful of administrators and computer personnel who probably had nothing better to do at the time. This was during the 2007/08 academic year when the economic meltdown in the country was at its peak. It was therefore not surprising that many people considered the seminar a luxury they could not afford. Be that as it may, the seminar served to showcase the few pockets of computer-mediated teaching that existed at NUST at the time. In particular, it served as a barometer for the degree of appreciation of online learning at NUST. Perhaps, more importantly, the seminar provided the necessary platform for networking that would open the way for cooperation at the implementation stage.

Showcase level

A 3-week “un-moderated” online discussion forum entitled “Online Education at NUST: from concept to practice” was planned to take place in June and July 2008. Initial thinking was that this would involve academics nationwide. Ultimately, due to ICT logistics invitations were only sent to academics at NUST. It was hoped that the forum would be an open discussion affair where participants would post comments, reply to the comments of others, ask questions and/or give answers to others’ questions on issues pertaining to online education. It was also hoped that there would be sufficient interest by the University academic community to make the discussion forum a lively online discussion that would constitute the genesis of online education at NUST. At the end, the forum fell victim to the economic meltdown and attracted a handful of enthusiasts who were curious about the capability of the CCE to mount such an event. The discussion was also dogged by the erratic Internet connectivity that bedeviled the institution (and the country as a whole) during this period.

However, all was not lost. Like the seminar before it, the discussion forum indicated the potential candidates for the pioneer online education programme. Above all, the forum served to show the University’s ICT capability to implement such a programme. Clearly, the NUST network was at the time not capable of hosting such a highly demanding programme. This was largely due to power outages that rendered the network totally unreliable. A separate network would be needed to implement the pilot online education programme at NUST. Accordingly, an independent network was established for the Centre for Continuing Education. The Centre is currently located at the Bulawayo Eye Clinic in the city centre. The city centre is the hub of any economic activity that is left in Bulawayo and, as such, is not susceptible to power outages like the other parts of the city.

Pilot level

a) The learning management system
The pilot level was more of a process than an event. It entailed the development and design of a course that would teach academic staff members at NUST how to develop, design and deliver courses on line. To this end, the CCE team considered several learning management systems (LMSs) that would facilitate not only the development and design of such a course but also the management and delivery of the course. In the final analysis, the choice came down to affordability rather than capability. Accordingly, commercial LMSs such as WebCT and Blackboard were ruled out. From the three freely available LMSs, viz., Moodle, Claroline and ATutor that were considered, the CCE team settled for ATutor largely because the resident technician (who would provide the necessary technical support) was more familiar with it than the other two. Needless to say, quality in both the management and the delivery of instruction is compromised when you settle for a freely available LMS. The instructor has to manually make up for the missing automated capabilities that would otherwise be provided by a commercial LMS. Be that as it may, the less “sophisticated” free LMS provides more room for learning than the commercial LMSs that tend to spoil instructors by automatically doing things that they (instructors) should be doing manually.

The ATutor LMS possesses the basic capabilities that are essential for the design and delivery of an online course as follows. First, it controls access to the learning material (which, in this case, is NUST’s intellectual property). Secondly, it provides a means of viewing the learning material. Thirdly, it enables a student to take part in online discussions with other students and tutors. Fourthly, it enables the administration of online quizzes, assignments, tests and examinations. Fifthly, it provides a group email system which is confidential to the unit. And, lastly, it provides a calendar of events for the course. Also, the ATutor LMS (like any other) is accessible and available 24 hours a day and 7 days a week at NUST, at home (if one has a computer, modem and Internet service provider), from Internet cafes and from anywhere in the world. And, above all, the ATutor system is quite flexible. In this regard, it enables the tutor(s) to choose what aspects of the LMS to use for a particular module and how much of a module/unit should be available through the course site and how much should be available through websites linked to the course site. The pioneer online education programme at NUST was accordingly developed, designed and delivered as per the dictates of the ATutor system.

 

 

 

 

Online Symposium
Source: Stanley Mpofu

 

 

 

b) Modules for the course
Twelve (12) modules were developed for the course. A working knowledge of the Internet and the Web is essential for any form of online learning. Accordingly, Module 1 was essentially an introduction to the Internet and the Web. Module 2 was aimed at developing the participants’ readiness for online teaching and learning. To this end, it was designed to help participants take stock of the knowledge and skills they had for online teaching and learning and to help them develop whatever of these they needed. Module 3 provided a critical analysis of the online learner. The online learner is essentially a distant learner. Distant learners tend to be more diverse than conventional face-to-face learners. Accordingly, this module was intended to help participants understand their role as distant learners.

Modules 4 to 6 dealt with the pedagogies of online education. Accordingly, Module 4 discussed the nature of online teaching and distinguished it from traditional classroom instruction. To this end, the module did several things. First, it differentiated between learner-centred and teacher-centred education models. Secondly, it explained the role of the online tutor in a learner-centred teaching/learning environment. Thirdly, the module discussed appropriate strategies for creating and maintaining learner-instructor interaction and learner-learner interaction. Fourthly, it explained strategies for dealing with lagging and non-participation. Fifthly, it showed the role of feedback in distance education. And, lastly, the module explained strategies to cope with online workload. Module 5 examined issues pertaining to the evaluation of online courses, online learning, and the online instructor. To this end, the module explained some of the challenges of evaluation in an online environment. In this regard, it distinguished between measurement, assessment and evaluation and showed when it is most appropriate to use each. It also distinguished between evaluating student learning on the one hand and evaluating the effectiveness of the course and the online instructor on the other. In addition, the module explained the various methods for evaluating student learning, the effectiveness of the course, and that of the online instructor. Module 6 focused on instructional design. Accordingly, it examined key issues that ought to be taken into consideration in the development of an online course and explained the key design principles for online instruction and the purpose of each.

Modules 7 and 8 examined issues pertaining to authoring and management tools on one hand, and the management and support of online learning on the other. Module 7, which dealt with the former, examined the various tools at the disposal of the online tutor. Accordingly, the module differentiated among the various course authoring and management tools. It also explained the merits and demerits of the various tools and showed when it is most appropriate to use the various tools, individually or in combination. Module 8 focused on the latter and thus explained the importance of proper management and adequate support for effective online learning. To this end it examined the strengths and weaknesses of existing support services for online learning and the strategies that could be used to mitigate the effects of weaknesses and optimize strengths in support services.

Module 9 and 10 dealt with key considerations involved in the development and design of an online course. In this regard, Module 9 explored key ethical and legal issues associated with education, and their implications for online learning. And Module 10 provided an array of additional considerations involved in authoring and implementing an online course.

Combining classroom and online instruction was the subject of Module 11. It is very rare to find a University course that is delivered entirely online. Most common are courses that involve some combination of online and classroom activities. Accordingly, this module examined how online instruction can be used in conjunction with traditional classroom instruction and other media of instruction to enhance learning.

Lastly, Module 12 was essentially an attempt to touch the future by examining what online education is likely to look like in the years to come. To this end, this module explored prospective changes in ICT that are likely to influence the direction of online learning in higher education.

c) Course modalities

Each module was a self contained entity that was scheduled to run for a full week, from Sunday to Saturday. Each did not only constitute a basic lecture on the subject matter, but it also provided links to other relevant sites for additional information on the subject matter at hand. It featured a test and several assignments. Above all, each module set the stage for discussion and interaction among the learners and between the learners and the tutors. The course was scheduled to run for 12 weeks, beginning August 2 and ending October 24, 2009. Three online educators were appointed (one from NUST, one from the University of South Africa and the third from the University of Duisburg, Essen, Germany) to teach the course. And, altogether, 33 academics and administrators from NUST started the course. In the final analysis, the course missed the 12 week target by a huge margin and spilled over to the first quarter of 2010. Also, only two of the three tutors totally fulfilled their commitments. And, of the 33 who started the course only 10 completed it. These rather unfortunate developments can be attributed to several factors that dogged the implementation of the course from day one. First, frequent power outages which have become a common feature in Zimbabwe made the one week deadline per module totally unsustainable. Lagging became the order of the day and adjustments had to be done from time to time here and there in order to keep the numbers of completers of each module at a sustainable level. Compounding this problem was the erratic Internet connectivity for the participants (who largely relied on the NUST network which was down every other day due to power outages). Secondly, the constant postponements of the commencement and the subsequent endings of each module perpetuated the problem of adjustments. This automatically meant that the three tutors could not fulfill all their commitments as per the original timetable which shifted widely and inevitably clashed with other commitments that could not be shifted to suit constant changes in the course timetable. The unscheduled unavailability of one of the tutors shifted most of her responsibilities to the resident tutor. This lumbered the resident tutor with facilitation chores and, as such, he could not keep up not only with the learners’ posts but also with the marking of tests and assignments. This necessitated further postponements thus automatically perpetuating the problem. Thirdly, the rigours of the course (which was competency based) contributed tremendously to the attrition rate, which in the final analysis stood at 70 percent.

The odds that had to be overcome make the achievements of the ten completers a big milestone in the history of NUST. They had to contend with rigourous demands under very trying conditions and are without any doubt certified online tutors. It is hoped that they will become the nuclei of online training not only for their respective units but for the University as a whole.

The Way Forward

The way forward for NUST re online education is not going to be smooth. Virtually all the challenges outlined above are still very much in place and will continue to adversely affect the progress towards the wholesome provision of online education at NUST. While the institution cannot totally overcome these challenges, it can mitigate their negative effects on the efforts that are being made to promote online education.

 

Online Symposium
Source: Stanley Mpofu


 

 

 

 

To counter the challenge poised by the scarcity of computer technology, the institution can and has started a technological support scheme that seeks to achieve two things. First, the scheme seeks to put a computer laptop in the hands of all academic members of staff and senior administrators. Secondly, the scheme seeks to facilitate the procurement of individual mobile phone Internet services for all those academics and administrators who need them. Over and above this NUST has put in place measures to improve Internet connectivity on campus and at its three satellites, viz., the Library, the CCE and the Medical School at Mpilo Central Hospital. These measures will involve the installation of a fibre optic network and the installation of a wireless Internet service on campus.

As regards the suspicious minds in the educational market, the institution must be seen to be embracing online education with both hands. This can be done at both the information and practice levels. At the information level, this could entail the hosting of regular online learning symposia and sending relevant personnel to symposia elsewhere, on a regular basis. The recent online symposium (November, 3-5, 2010) which was meant to showcase the ten pioneer online educators is a case in point. Also, appropriate public utterances and pronouncements by the University management at the various forums can go a long way in placating the education market with regard to online education. The Vice-Chancellor’s statement at the 2010 Graduation Ceremony (October 29) in which he implored the public to appreciate the virtues of online education is a case in point.

At the practice level, the institution has to move beyond isolated and uncoordinated online education provision that is undertaken by a few enthusiasts, to concerted online education provision across all programmes that is coordinated by the Registry. Using a few selected block release programmes the institution could slowly ease online education onto the provision of higher education at NUST.

The first stage of this process will of necessity entail the modularisation of the chosen block release programmes. To this end, module writers ought to be hired to write modules for the chosen programmes. This step is necessary to avoid a situation whereby online education programmes at NUST become conduits for the transfer of other people’s creations to the learners. A home-grown online education programme is founded on home-grown knowledge bases for local learning needs. This is not to say that the online education programmes should not utilize the many other resource materials that are available for the subject matter at hand. The module writers and other relevant personnel in the field should identify relevant additional material that will, together with the modules, be uploaded onto the management system of the online education programmes. Of course, the necessary permission should be sought before the material in question is posted on the course site.

The module writing process takes at least twelve months. However, the first stage should not wait for the modules to be written. The identification and the uploading of the supplementary material should begin soon after the necessary Senate endorsement for online education (for the selected programmes) has been granted. The supplementary material that shall be made available online shall immediately begin to complement the block release sessions during and after the sessions. The construction of bulletin boards should begin during this initial stage of the pilot project. By the end of the first year, limited group discussions should be taking place online.

The second stage shall entail the uploading of the modules and additional reading material and, more importantly, the establishment of fully-fledged bulletin boards that will, in due course, enable entire courses to be held online.

Finally, to counter the lack of knowledge and expertise in online education at NUST and beyond, the institution should build onto the successes of the pioneer project and strive to train an average of 30 new online tutors every year. The 10 pioneer graduates should constitute the assistant tutors for the expanded online education programme that should initially adopt a nationwide outlook and subsequently a regional outlook.

For accreditation purposes, it is hoped that this training will be conducted by NUST in collaboration with another university of repute that is familiar with the subject matter.