E-learning involves electronic applications and processes to learn. It comprises web-based learning, a virtual classroom and digital collaboration. However, online learning is typically delivered via the internet and a content or learning management system (CMS/LMS).
LMS refers to software primarily designed to support corporate training, management and delivery of self-paced courses, learning, electronic registration and in performing various enrolment and related tasks. CMS software supports classroom learning in academic settings, such as universities and high schools. Over time, the two terms have somehow merged and are used interchangeably.
Potential benefits of online learning
The benefits of online learning in higher education are innumerable and have been articulated in the literature and various reports to include comparable access, quality education and the ability to close the digital divide. It saves instructional delivery time, assists in exploratory learning, and supplements core physical interactions in a blended learning environment.
With the current demands for higher education in Africa, online learning can support increased enrolments, provide a reliable source for accessing course materials, provide quality open educational resources, and the opportunity for institutions to utilise a variety of pedagogical and collaborative tools to engage learners in reflective and critical thinking.
Unlike structured residential systems, online learning students are not under undue pressure to learn; rather, they can learn under flexible conditions and self-pace their learning experiences.
Notwithstanding the potential benefits, many of our higher education institutions in Uganda are challenged by inadequate organisational capacities to accommodate online learning and the use of educational technologies. To many, managing the processes of instructional reforms and digital course content development is very daunting.
Operationally, many of the institutions do not have the capacity to synchronise student learning, databases, support systems, use innovative educational technologies, and university-wide connectedness. The least said about ICT and general infrastructural support systems including network security, high speed internet, users’ competencies and integrated institutional policies, the better.
Rigidly structured systems
In fact, our rigidly structured educational systems do not support innovative educational practices; thus restricting transformational leadership, creativity and experimentation. Until the COVID-19 pandemic, many of our institutional leaders did not believe in online learning and went further, not only to deny the appointments of academic faculty with online degrees, but also refused to recognise online empirical-based publications that were submitted for promotions.
Besides, almost all institutions are still using rigidly designed curricula and instructional delivery methods. Lecturing seems to be the dominant form of course delivery in higher education and our academic faculty do not have the support systems regarding investment in professional development and incentives. There is a disconnect between the structured residential system and the flexibility that goes with online learning in higher education in Uganda.
Fear of change
Managing the processes of student learning online in terms of student performance data and analysis, ICT literacy, instructional media, digital content design and deployment, and managing e-learning solutions is another major barrier.
Since many of the institutions do not have integrated e-learning policies to guide innovative teaching and learning practices, it becomes difficult to get the ‘buy in’ from all stakeholders, including faculty and students. Going online is seen by academic faculty as an additional responsibility and a threat to the status quo.
There is a general and ‘genuine’ fear of reform or change. From practical experience and informal interactions, others have expressed the fear of losing the ‘human touch’ since they may not be physically present with their students.
Again, there is the issue of digital content design and development. In contrast to developed countries where a team of experts are usually engaged to design and develop online courses and instructions, many institutions in Uganda require academic faculty to design and develop their own digital course content.
Without adequate training, compensation and support systems, and dedicated offices and instruments to guide the processes of content design and development, many lecturers are compelled to post courses online that were originally structured for physical interactions.
We can confidently say that the existing physical structures in higher education systems in Uganda are not designed to support emerging educational technologies. Many of our systems are constrained by ICT infrastructure such as poor network security, inadequate wireless technologies and low-speed internet bandwidths, as well as ineffective infrastructure management to ensure contributions of technology as a means to improving student learning.
Our institutions have limitations in making entries to electronic databases to capture the requirements and support for student data warehousing, server technologies to host online learning systems, data rights, e-libraries, and general performance management.
Many are still using computer operating systems that are no longer supported by the manufacturers, and the majority are unable to differentiate between the requirements of ICT and educational or instructional technologies since they are relying solely on ICT staff for the implementation of all aspects of online learning such as infrastructure management, e-pedagogies and student support systems.
Considered as adult learners, the students in higher education will be expected to manage their time effectively and develop communication and technological skills. They must be self-motivated, exhibit commitment and accept the flexibility that goes with online engagements. However, these internal conditions and expectations of students may be challenged by poor internet access, misinformation, and inadequate institutional support.
Many of our higher education institutions do not have dedicated academic support services to orient students towards online pedagogy and learning requirements and competencies. Students from financially challenged backgrounds may find it difficult to access data and the internet because of the high cost.
Our rigidly designed curricula and instructional delivery based on lecturing from school level to higher education levels have conditioned students to be passive recipients of knowledge. We need a massive drive to reorient them to own their learning and prevent frustrations, mistrust and high attrition rates, and to succeed in online learning.
We have taken note of the fact that transitioning between the use of mobile technology for social media engagements to online learning is incomparable.
In sum, there seems to be misinformation, mixed attitudes and perceptions, and inadequate general knowledge on e-learning requirements and expectations by all stakeholders. Many academic faculty members lack the online pedagogical competencies to support innovative teaching in higher education. There are a few known instructional designers and technologies and their roles are yet to be recognised.
The lack of national policy and performance standards regarding the use of educational and emerging technologies, and uncertainties regarding the recognition of online diplomas and degrees militate against online learning in Uganda. The existing physical structures in the educational system have not been designed to support effective integration of innovative educational technologies.