The challenges of open distance and online learning in sub-Saharan African educational institutions were well concretized and became evident on the first day of a four-day workshop organized in Lusaka, Zambia. The workshop was organized as part of the PBL-BioAfrica project, coordinated by Häme University of Applied Sciences (HAMK). It hosted a total of seven universities from Kenya, Zambia and Finland, and focused on issues relating to open and distance teaching.
Ironically, when the presentations about the status of e-learning in the project’s African partner universities were about to start, the digital devices were not working properly. It took a long time to get the laptop connected to the projector and presentations to be projected on the screen, thus delaying the start of the presentations. In addition, the Wi-Fi connection was from time to time very slow, despite us being in a rather well-equipped conference hall of a local lodge. If the digital facilities and the internet access are in this rudimentary state within a private conference hall, one can just imagine how they are in the financially constrained universities, not to even mention student compounds. It was thus rather easy to conceptualize the challenges faced by teachers and students in organizing and participating in online teaching.
The e-learning challenges related to lack of technology, limited and volatile internet access, and lack of finances to pay for internet are recognized and documented widely. However, there are also various other constraints hindering the implementation of and participation in online teaching within sub-Saharan Africa.
Challenges in online teaching
During the workshop, five universities from Kenya and Zambia presented their main challenges relating to online teaching and learning. Despite the various and differentiated stages of and focus on online teaching between the universities – with some having rather established online programmes and others suffering the reduced finances and policy support for online teaching – the challenges faced were more or less the same for all the institutions. Disregarding the constraints related to access to technology and internet, the main challenges hindering online teaching within all the universities can be grouped to four themes, presented below, together with the suggested coping methods.
Lack of technological skills. The teaching staff’s skills in using online teaching technology are limited. The staff members may not be aware of all the technological software and solutions available, and even if they do, they may not know how to use them. For enabling wide-scale adoption and implementation e-learning, the staff members do not only need the access to online tools but also proper training on how to use these. The training should be obligatory to all, not only to the already enthusiastic teachers, and tailored to fit different starting levels, both e-learning novices as well as accustomed users.
Lack of pedagogical skills. It is not enough to know how to use the e-learning and -teaching tools, but the teachers should also have skills to create interesting and relevant online content. In the workshop, it was acknowledged that many teachers struggle with creating teaching materials to online environments, as well as packaging it. A need for pedagogical training in relation to online teaching was recognized and called for.
Lack of incentives and support. It was reported that the teachers may not receive adequate time resources nor subsequent remuneration for online teaching. The time allocated to online teaching by the administration can be very limited and come on top of basic teaching work, and thus, keeping in contact with students outside of the online lectures may not be possible, unless teachers want to do this on their free time. This leads to students losing their motivation, as they do not feel to be seen or heard. For enabling quality online teaching and motivated teachers and students, a proper time and effort will need to be allocated to the e-learning processes, including time for planning, implementing and collecting feedback.
Attitudes. Transforming from contact teaching to online teaching requires adjustment, both from the teachers, and students alike. Some teachers have resistance to technology; not only do they not know how to use it, but they may also be unwilling to learn and try. Also, students’ disinterest in online-based learning has been recognized. As part of promoting e-learning, in addition to skills training, also the mindset needs to be changed.
Despite these above-mentioned challenges, it has become clear that all the participant universities are steadily on their way to digitalized and online-based teaching. The movement, motivation and enthusiasm within them can clearly be seen. It is, however, crucial to recognize and discuss the challenges and shortcomings, in order to be able to find solutions to them. HAMK together with its partners in the PBL-BioAfrica project will continue the important work on reforming education and teaching within Eastern and Southern Africa.
As one presenter in the workshop said, “this movement and us cannot be stopped”.
Satu Määttänen, Research assistant in the HAMK Bio Research Unit. HAMK Africa Team member.