Behind the scenes at Virtual University of Uganda

P1090476our campus in Kampala

Virtual University of Uganda (VUU) was granted a licence from the Uganda National Council for Higher Education in 2011, and we have been growing steadily since. We are proud to be pioneering elearning in Uganda and the region, and we are gradually becoming more well known even outside the continent. We had our first graduation in July and it was a colourful and happy occasion presided over by our Chancellor Lady Justice Flavia Senoga Anglin. Our friends on Facebook number almost 27,000, and we are also very visible on Twitter and Google+.

Our students come from, among other places, Uganda, the Philippines, the UK, Belgium, Tanzania, Malawi, South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Burundi, and Kenya, including a number of Ugandan professionals living abroad). Our staff are sourced globally, regionally, and nationally and represent Belgium, Ireland, The Netherlands, England, Scotland, Uganda, Tanzania, Cameron, Italy, and Bolivia. We are a hard-working group and undertake all our tasks with professionalism and integrity.

Our Vice Chancellor is the veteran Belgian educationalist Professor Dr Michel Lejeune. He studied in Belgium, Oxford, and Canada, and holds two PhD degrees from Louvain. Having been a high court judge in Belgium, he was the founder Vice Chancellor at Uganda Martyrs University, and later the Deputy Executive Director at the Uganda National Council for Higher Education.  Those of you who know him, will remember that he is uncompromising about quality in higher education.

Michel pic

Second in command is Professor Dr Deirdre Carabine, Director of Programmes (Deputy Vice Chancellor Academic Affairs). She studied in Belfast, Paris, Munich, and Dublin, and is also the holder of two PhDs. She came to Uganda in 1993 to work at Uganda Martyrs University, and by the time she left, she was Deputy Vice Chancellor (AA), having also headed the Institute of Ethics and Development Studies and set up the School of Postgraduate Studies. She then founded International Health Sciences University before moving on to become founder Vice Chancellor at Virtual University of Uganda. She is passionate about online learning and has overall responsibility to ensure that all teaching and learning materials are of the best possible quality. She is also chief editor for the VUU Open Access Resources Series.

Carabine

The Chairman of our Board of Trustees is Professor Dr Charles Olweny, senior oncologist and educationalist, and previously VC at Uganda Martyrs University; the Chairman of our University Governing Council is Professor Dr Patrick Mangheni, formerly CEO of RENU, the Research and Education Network of Uganda. The other members of our full-time staff include Ms Lindo Victoria Ndagire, University Secretary in the Registry, and Mr Vincent Oloya in the Finance Office. All other staff members are contracted to teach courses in their areas of expertise. Our current programme leaders are Dr Ashis Brahma (Holland), Professor Adalbertus Kamanzi (Tanzania), Drs Arjan de Jaeger (The Netherlands), and Drs Jimmy Opoka (Uganda). I think you will agree that we are a diverse but well-qualified team.

It is because we have a very sleek physical infrastructure that we can concentrate on quality multi-media materials that make the student learning experience more enjoyable. This is what our Learning Platform looks like:

Moodle

You simply log on, go to your classroom, and learn! Simple. And we are always on hand to help you. We are proud of the fact that we offer premier student support both within and outside traditional office hours. So you do not have to travel to the university EVER: except perhaps if you wish to attend graduation! All registration, learning, Live Classes, and examinations are done online. All you need is a reliable internet connection. No more traffic jams as you struggle to reach the university at 6.00pm four evenings a week! Learn while you earn, as we say, and, most conveniently, learn at your own pace and in your own place!

If you would like to be part of this revolution in learning, visit our website to find out more about us. Currently, we offer Master’s degrees in Public Health, ICT4Development, Executive MBA (with Oil and Gas specialization and Hospitality Management coming soon), and MA International Development. We also offer a number of free online course each year (called LOOCs — Little Open Online Courses). These lead to postgraduate certification. We also offer training programmes for university staff who wish to learn how to be an online lecturer or how to manage an eLearning Platform.

To contact us, visit the website,  phone Victoria on +256 312 202137 or +256 772 202137, or mail Victoria at infovuu@virtualuni.ac.ug. You can also call in to our campus at 425 Zzimwe (Church) Road, Muyenga, Kampala (opposite Tankhill Parade).

We look forward to welcoming you as our student!

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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.

Blended Learning, Flipped Classrooms, and Yellow Notes

One of the latest buzz words in higher education is the “flipped classroom”. This approach to teaching and learning is a blended approach where the lectures are moved onto an asynchronous learning platform while the classroom becomes a place to reinforce student engagement and deepen their mastery of skills. So the teacher moves away from being the “sage on the stage” to being the “guide at their side” (as one website puts it).

I like it; it makes a lot of sense. After all, why do I have to spend time reading notes to my students when they can read them for themselves? A real teacher (in the Socratic sense) should be a support, a prod for deepened thinking on the part of the student.

This is what we do at VUU. The lectures and classnotes (including videos, reading materials, audio briefs, and links to urls) are situated on our learning platform (Moodle). We then use the synchronous sessions (live classes, and from September the face-to-face sessions also) to guide, discuss, and share ideas. Such an approach moves sharply away from the rote learning of yesterday and focusses on how to think and what to do with facts. Most of us carry encyclopedias around with us on our phones, tablets, and laptops — we do not need to learn facts; we need to be able to think and apply skills to all sorts of situations.

However, this approach can take the teacher out of our comfort zone. I cannot simply upload a presentation, even with audio (the craze for PPPs drives me mad in that it represents a serious dumbing down of education). I am forced to think, to read, to keep up-to-date.  What do students do when given an assignment? The generally “google” it. We teachers who dish out the same old same old each year to a fresh group of first-year students will have to start to do the same lest our students become the teachers! If we deliver quality, up-to-date learning materials online, and become midwives in the classroom, we could create a win-win situation all around.

For more on the flipped classroom see:

www.cst.usc.edu/teach/strategies/the-inverted-classroom.