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Saturday, October 6, 2012

Brick or click universities?

As online learning lands in Rwanda, big changes expected in higher education
Showing up at campus, entering the classroom and taking notes from the professors’ lectures is common practice for most university students in Rwanda. But with the rapidly expanding online-based learning, the so-called e-learning, the university environment is changing and moving into a new era of higher learning.
E-learning is here to stay and will define universities of the future, according to experts. “E-learning is flipping the classroom approach. Students learn from one another and the professor is no longer the authority with all the knowledge,” explains Dr. Laura Haas from University of Tulane in the United States, adding that “the professor becomes mainly a learning facilitator, while students bring about knowledge as well.”  Dr. Haas was recently in Rwanda to oversee an e-learning project at Kigali Health Institute (KHI).
E-learning is an online-based learning system that moves teaching away from the classrooms into the student’s computers and living rooms. It constitutes a new mode of teaching, using mainly the internet to provide education through online courses, assignments and discussion forums, encouraging students to participate and interact with other students via the internet instead of a physical classroom.
“With e-learning, the internet brings the universities to the students instead of the other way around and makes the students in charge of their own independent learning,” explains Dr. Evode Mukama, Head of ICT in education & open distance and e-learning department at Rwanda Education Board (REB).

An expanding field
The field of e-learning is rapidly growing in Rwanda, and according to REB, several Rwandan universities currently offer online courses, often in collaboration with foreign universities.
Kigali Institute of Education (KIE) has e-learning collaborations with universities from India and South Africa, reaching around 500 students, while KHI, the faculty of Medicine and the school of public health all under the National University of Rwanda (NUR) are collaborating with American universities to upgrade the academic level of nurses online, reaching around 320 students.
And REB is working pro-actively towards increased e-learning, aiming towards higher quality and international competitive Rwandese graduates. “Today we need independent and innovative students to form their own learning, things we didn’t have before in Rwanda,” says Dr. Mukama.
Universities in Rwanda have a brief history as nationally established higher-learning institutions, most of them emerging in the mid-90s, and possessing a university degree is thus still a privilege for a small group of Rwanda’s population.
Today there are 31 higher learning institutions in Rwanda, 17 public and 14 private. According to statistics from the Council for Higher Education in Rwanda, in 2011, only 8.5% of young people in the country who could obtain a higher education were doing so, often because financial and practical issues were standing in the way.
Still, the number of university graduates in the country has increased massively over the recent years. The Council says 818 students graduated from a higher learning institution in 2000, while the amount of graduates had increased to 16,850 in 2011. A total of 73,674 students were enrolled in higher learning institutions around the country in 2011.
But with the quantity of students increasing, the quality of teaching can struggle to keep up but e-learning is seen as a solution to quality education. “Our education system is criticized for not being of good quality. Teachers are trained to be on the stage, telling students what to do and how to think. E-learning makes students see the world differently. See what the teachers cannot see,” explains Dr. Mukama.
According to Dr. Haas, e-learning is a way of embracing quantity and quality at the same time. “More and more people achieve higher education in Rwanda. But while the quantity is going up, the quality is most likely going down.”   “The amount and quality of classrooms, books and physical facilities at the universities is not increasing. The universities’ capacity to deliver quality is falling, and the students suffer from that,” she further explains.
But the Council for Higher Education is aware of the challenges to match the quality of international universities.  “We are not trying to say that we are as good as some of the European Universities who have had 300 years to develop. Rwandan universities are young institutions, and that makes it hard to compete,” explains the Council’s Executive Director Prof. Geoffrey Rugege.
“We want to develop our own institutions into matching international standards by expanding access, improving quality and acquiring more teachers. We are making progress, but it will take time,” Prof. Rugege further says.
College of Distance learning in the offing
The government is currently developing a new university structure, in which all higher learning public institutions in Rwanda will be merged to become one university, University of Rwanda. Some of the current higher learning institutions will become colleges, and one of them will be called College of Open Distance Learning, emphasizing online courses and e-learning. That will mark an increased focus on national e-learning providers within higher learning institutions and a step back from using foreign providers, according to Prof. Rugege.
“We do not encourage e-learning from foreign providers very much because we know it can be a subject of abuse. Our students are not used to it, and we do not have sufficient means to monitor the providers and the legitimacy of their courses. Our own national online-structures are easier to control, because they are under the government,” Prof. Rugege further explains.
If Rwanda engages with foreign providers, it is important that it is with recognized, foreign universities, not small unknown institutions, Prof. Rugege emphasises.
Rwanda already offers an enabling environment for experimenting the new teaching approaches for the online-based higher learning, according to Dr. Haas.
“In Rwanda there is a high level of leadership commitment to create digital learning platforms,” says Dr. Haas, adding, “The education system of Rwanda is a dynamic environment and telecommunication and technology here is often far ahead of its neighbouring countries, and many regions of Rwanda have strong internet connections.”
The increased national focus on e-learning is bound to change the education system in Rwanda, and according to Dr. Mukama, it is something a large part of the population will benefit from.
”Traditionally, higher education has been a privilege for few in our country. With online learning it will be open to many people. In 8 years we will have the same number of students enrolled in e-learning courses as we have in physical high-learning institutions.”
Furthermore, the financial burden of online universities is expected to be less than that in conventional universities. “E-learning only makes up about half the price of conventional institutions. It provides flexibility in terms of financial means and allows students to take modules according to what they can manage,” says Dr. Mukama.
However, e-learning does require regular access to computers and internet, and for many Rwandans, including students, owing computers is still a challenge. REB is working on setting up student centres in all regions, allowing students and teachers to access the internet free of charge. But the centres are yet to open and until then, infrastructure and connectivity is a challenge.
A new way of studying
At Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), e-learning is not new but it is still not implemented as part of the curriculum.
According to the Director of ICT at KIST, Ms. Mboyo Mukunde Sylvie, KIST is looking into implementing online learning next year, but so far, all education is delivered the conventional way with students and professors gathered in classrooms.
Ms. Mukunde says that e-learning is an effective tool to assist face-to-face teaching and help students become more independent and learn on own initiative instead of waiting for the teacher to provide knowledge.
“Today there is no close collaboration between students and teachers. If you need to teach 100 students in a classroom at one time, you do not have time to deal with each student. E-learning is more open for one-on-one discussion between student and lecturer,” says Ms. Mukunde.
Serge Zimulinda, a second year computer engineering student at KIST, also identifies e-learning as an opportunity of increased interaction. “It would be nice to get my degree online. It will give me access to more help from more experienced people from outside Rwanda. I think it will improve the quality,” he says.
Hard to adjust
But with new initiatives come also fears and doubts. E-learning brings about new dynamics in universities, shaking up traditional approaches and structures between students and professors.
And that can be hard to adjust to, according to Dr. Mukama. “With e-learning, professors are no longer the main sources to knowledge. This is a very big shift from how learning has traditionally been in Rwanda, and people will automatically question the quality of the content when the professor is no longer in charge.”
Ms. Mukunde also identifies the mindset as one of the greatest challenges of implementing e-learning, especially for professors who can feel threatened on their authority as the main source of knowledge.
“Especially professors should change their ways of thinking and adjust their way of teaching. It is a sacrifice but they need to understand the benefits of it, and in the beginning that it’s always hard.”
Not all students feel comfortable with receiving teaching from a distance either. Vital Gatera, a third year student at KIST prefers conventional teaching. “It’s better to be in class than to do it online. You get better support from your professors. Online you are on your own. I like to get knowledge from the teacher; to ask questions and get answers. That is more difficult online,” he says.
Another concern is for students to miss out on the social life universities normally bring about. But Dr. Haas says that the socialisation can as well partly be managed online. “People are reaching out and forming online communities, study groups across cultures and continents,” she says. “The students are never alone online.”
Ms. Mukunde is however of another opinion. “Socialising with fellow students is something the internet will never be able to compensate for. E-learning does not replace face-to-face training. It never will. A human being is a social person. We need to interact otherwise we become robots,” she argues.
A matter of quality
The main concern for the universities, students or government institutions is the quality of the content of online learning. “The most important thing is that the teaching provided online lives up to international standards,” says Ms. Mukunde.
To secure the quality of e-learning program, the national Council for Higher Education performs quality control and assessment of all pending online course providers wishing to enter Rwanda.
The quality control is based on national and international requirements and secures the legitimacy of degrees obtained online.
“We focus on the method of delivery; who will teach, how do students get instructions, how do they submit assignments, who gives them feedback, which institutions are in charge of the programs,” explains Prof.Rugege and continues, “We have to take extra care, ensuring the quality of e-learning.”
“It requires extra monitoring when most students are not going to see a teacher in the classroom. It puts a lot more responsibility on teachers and students. There is a lot more work to be done in terms of securing the quality of the material they get online,” Prof. Rugege further explains.
The council sometimes receives inquiries from employers to verify the legitimacy of an online university programs before hiring staff. But according to Prof. Rugege, the main factor is not whether people acquired their degree online or in a conventional university.  “The industry wants skilled people, whether they acquired their degree online or conventionally”, he says, adding that it is important to have the right incentives for introducing new modes of learning in Rwanda. “Focus should always be on increasing quality, not just to follow the latest trends.”
Prof. Rugege adds: “We are not introducing e-learning in Rwanda just because others are doing it. We are doing it because we want to improve and uphold our reputation of providing quality education. We have confidence that our product is competitive internationally. We have faced challenges but we are getting there.”
So, is e-learning a competitor to conventional universities in Rwanda? To KIST, online learning is not a threat but to REB, it is a major competitor to conventional universities. ”Currently the quality of online-learning is much better than in conventional institutions. In that sense, it is a threat to conventional universities because online universities are stealing their students”, says Dr. Mukama, adding that it is however not the end of conventional universities.
“The expansion of e-learning will force Rwandan universities’ focus and increase quality. Competition is good that way. Since 1994 focus has been on quantity. We need to focus on quality. And quality is key. ”
Ms Mukunde does not see e-learning as a competitor. “We are not competing with online universities. Some courses will still need physical classrooms; there are some things you cannot do online. We will have e-learning in the future but also regular courses.”
Despite challenges, obstacles and fears, e-learning will define the future universities in Rwanda, according to Dr. Mukama. “It is the University of the Future.”

Source: Independent

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