When Virtual University of Uganda was conceived in 2010, a lot of work lay ahead to prepare for the provision of education to graduate professionals who could not afford to leave work to gain a higher qualification. As the first online-only postgraduate university in Sub- Saharan Africa, VUU is built on the idea that tertiary education that is sourced globally and locally, and enhanced through appropriate technology, can provide solutions to the perennial problems of quality and access by transforming the educational experience for students and teachers alike.
This young university is a testimony to the fact that technology-supported learning can save human-power hours and cut costs; it can enhance content quality; it can bring the very best content to more students, and it can enhance the development of critical minds through the provision of education that is truly fit for purpose. But most of all, it can enable young professionals add to their skills and knowledge portfolio without sacrificing their salary. We build on the fact that students no longer need a desktop with a dial-up internet connection: cheap tablets and smart phones can connect to the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) via an app that enables students to study offline as well as online.
Governing Council VUU: old and new teams
As a pioneering e-learning university, VUU delivers online education in a creative and challenging way to provide first-class education that can rival, and even surpass, the traditional full-time programme where one teacher stands in one classroom, teaching one class, for one timetable hour. In a world where multi-media is no longer a set of different technologies to be brought together in one learning package but is encompassed within the computer itself, stimulation is a major component of an online course. Given Uganda’s generally poor reading culture, engaging with online materials that include video and audio clips at the click of a mouse makes the learning experience much more pleasurable and satisfying for the self-regulated learner using a VLE.
Globally, online education is being used in a creative and challenging way to provide first-class education that can rival the traditional full-time programme. In a Sub-Saharan Africa context, despite the often-cited difficulties, VUU was successfully set up as a result of much creative thinking that compensated for limited financial resources. VUU uses the best Open Source Software (OSS), and was the first fully cloud-based university in Africa. Using the OSS Moodle as our VLE (All teaching materials are uploaded to the VLE which is hosted and backed-up in The Netherlands), and we make the most of Google Apps for education as shared work spaces to host our administration files, and our curriculum, while the documents for and minutes of our meetings are shared webpages (with security certification) with all documents stored in Google Drive. VUU has no servers on site and uses Google Apps for mail, chats, documents, hangouts, sites, and a number of other apps that enhance our internal networking and our student communication. In order to deliver quality online content, we pioneered an IT architecture that is made up of many parts, all of which work together to deliver what we need in a very cost effective way. This approach obviates the need to re-invent the wheel and lets the experts at Moodle and Google do what they do best.
At VUU, we believe the university teacher who is on his/her toes is more like a curator than a repository of knowledge. In searching the Internet for content, VUU lecturers compile course materials that are a mixture of their own notes, online lectures from world-renowned authorities, videos from the YouTube education channel, scholarly articles, and podcasts from universities worldwide. As “virtual” teachers the quality of the learning materials our online students receive are much better than the materials we could deliver in a traditional classroom. Putting the content online for students to read as “homework” and then discussing the materials in the live classroom (the flipped classroom approach) constitutes a satisfying learning experience.
And while online learning programmes are still relatively new in Africa, we at VUU are convinced that it is only a matter of time before they are recognized as being equal to, if not better than, conventionally-taught university courses. Rethinking the traditional idea of the university and its practices will take time. In today’s world a university does not necessarily need physical classrooms, lecturers’ offices, and student hostels, but it does need investment in appropriate technology as a key priority in setting up programmes for tomorrow’s student. A slim physical infrastructure means that more can be spent on sourcing the best materials and tutors. In this way, servers (whether local or in the cloud) become the centre of the university.
Through our Moodle platform, our students can access learning materials, post assignments, enter discussions with their peers and teachers, search, download, and read in our e-library, and keep in constant contact with their course tutors. Our e-library is an extensive collection of resources that can be accessed by staff and students 24/7. The tutors for the courses are drawn from highly-skilled, well-qualified educationalists and professionals from Uganda, the region, and globally. Their wide range of skills, competencies, and strengths will ensure that all students are exposed to a variety of viewpoints and knowledge in the pursuit of knowledge enrichment.
Students login to their classroom for eight hours each week. This means 64 hours online for the duration of each course. Our student care service monitors student activity on the platform closely. For self-regulated learners (as in distance learning), the course materials are carefully designed to facilitate students learn at their own pace and in their own place. Group discussions are built into the course and all students must participate. Again, this is monitored by the Registry and is participatory on the part of the tutor. Wikis are also part of the learning experience and students are encouraged to participate in these shared learning spaces. One hour per week is dedicated to a Live Classroom. This software works in a similar way to video conferencing but is adapted to simulate a classroom. Here, students discuss the various topics they have been introduced to, and tutors have an opportunity to answer questions and throw more light on some difficult topics. Individual course libraries with required and recommended textbooks and articles are available 24/7 online and can be downloaded to read offline.
This approach to higher education represents a golden opportunity to make a clean break from the “Yellow Notes” paradigm of the past, as it challenges teachers to search for innovative ways to enhance student learning. It is in this way that VUU is trying to provide creative, reality-rooted education that takes learning today to the level of tomorrow. At VUU we are convinced that online learning initiatives are a creative and challenging response to providing tertiary education in a world that is becoming increasingly smaller as a result of information technologies. We look forward to better and better academic practices in the future as we continue to embrace recent and newly-emerging software and technologies to the benefit of the entire higher education sector.