Academic networking, and elearning: the VUU experience

Elsewhere, I remarked that transformative higher education using technology-supported learning is a golden opportunity to make a clean break from the “Yellow Notes” paradigm as it challenges teachers to think outside the traditional box for innovative ways to enhance the student learning experience. Online education also requires us to re-think traditional approaches to assessment and ways of knowing because today’s world demands a different kind of education and a different kind of lecturer: one who is not solely a distributor of knowledge, but also a creator of knowledge and a curator of information. Creative, reality-rooted education which is “fit for purpose” can become a reality in all universities today if we embrace the idea of academic networking to deliver quality online learning materials.

I believe that today’s university teacher who is on her toes is more a curator than a repository of knowledge. In searching the Internet for up-to-date information, lecturers can compile course materials that are a mixture of their own notes, videos from the YouTube education channel, podcasts from universities worldwide (the Oxford ones are wonderful), lectures online, even whole courses online, and integrate these with discussions, wikis, and interactive debates. Putting the materials online for students to read as homework and then engaging with the materials in discussion in the (either online or physical) classroom – the flipped classroom approach – constitutes an enhanced learning experience for students. Given Uganda’s generally poor reading culture, engaging with quality 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 Virtual Learning Environment such as the Open Source Moodle.

The world’s foremost intellects in the university world have numerous videoed lectures uploaded to the internet; we can easily use these to stimulate and broaden our students’ learning experiences. We could listen to Amartya Sen on peace building, Martha Nussbaum on capabilities, Stephen Hawking on the future of robotics, Peter Singer on ethics, Germaine Greer on gender … all these are much more interesting than listening to me for three hours every week for a full semester. It simply takes a little creativity and time. I imagine an online academic course a bit like a long street. At various stages, there are books to read, notes to learn, and activities to complete, but we could also envisage more doors to the left and right of us that students could be encouraged to open and explore some side streets on their own. This enhances their experience and enriches the content – even moreso when two or more academics team up and curate content together. All this is possible using an elearning platform and embracing the flipped classroom approach.

But what about taking this even further? What if we network by pooling the best of our national, regional, and international resources. What if every first-year student of mathematics in six major Ugandan universities could simultaneously hear Professor Paul Mugambe on the importance of mathematics. Here we have one teacher, years of learning and experience, 1000 students in attendance at six locations. Mugambe does not have to deliver the lecture six times, but once only and it is recorded for posterity: future students also get to hear the lecture. Video-conferencing is a much under-utilized tool in higher education. If one university has an renowned international guest lecturer speaking about maternal health, for example, networked universities all get to listen to and see the guest speaker. They could share the costs and everyone’s a winner. And what about co-teaching: I teach in situ while my colleague’s class can follow the class while at a different location, and then the next week we swap places. Two creative minds, interested students, and more importantly, increased inter-university student interaction.

If teachers can relax, be a little more humble, learn to share knowledge and content, and stimulate student learners to think critically and outside the box (or rather as if there is no box) through various levels of networking, we would slowly bring our sharing of knowledge in the university setting into the twenty-first century. If we recognise the fact that the paradigms of the past no longer work, that our students are not empty containers waiting to be filled or dull mirrors to be neatly polished so that they reflect our notes back to us, then we can start the journey. Facts are certainly important, but knowing what to do with them is more important. Facts are on our smart phones in our pockets: we no longer have to keep them in our heads. Spoon-feeding and rote learning are no longer appropriate in a world that needs critical thinkers and innovators. And with a little more creativity, we can create semi-formal student networks for use in the blended or fully online teaching environment. Facebook, Twitter and What’sApp can also be used to deliver key messages to our student groups and being them into contact with each other. After all, who can resist a FB notification?

Taking tertiary education to the next level will mean a huge effort on the part of administrators and lecturers, but it is an effort that will reap rewards at all levels. Breaking the barriers that prevent us from sharing and working together in teams to be curators of the best possible teaching materials will not be easy. Here at VUU we have been trying with some limited success and we shall keep on looking for ways to network and work together to change the face of higher education.

One of our biggest obstacles is that online education suffers from a certain amount of stigmatization both as a result of ignorance and confusing it with traditional distance education. It will take time before the public and prospective students come to appreciate the value that results from designing online pedagogically-sound learning materials using technology and multi-media resources in higher education provision. As an online teacher, I can truly say that the quality of the learning materials my online students receive are much better that the materials I could deliver in a traditional classroom. For example, when discussing an author or a concept, we can create a link to information about that person or concept or create a clickable link to works s/he may have written. These are the side doors I mentioned earlier – doors that students can chose to open and wander around.

And while online learning programmes are still in their infancy in the region, I believe that it is only a matter of time before they are recognized as being equal to, if not better than, traditionally-taught university courses and certainly distance-learning programmes. I am 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. But online learning that mimics the traditional classroom practices will take us backwards and not forwards. Academic networking is one of the core components for the creation of quality online materials. You know the saying about many hands making light work? The same concept applies here.