The good and ugly of online learning

While these programmes have been praised for their flexibility and affordability, students and young professionals explore the pitfalls of this mode of study.

Patrick Mutisya was a mathematics teacher at Modogashe Secondary School in Garissa County when he enrolled for a master’s degree at Kenyatta University (KU).

He wanted to try a different career after he endured numerous challenges in the hardship area where teachers were forced to dig in the sand for water that sat more than ten feet beneath the rocky bed of a seasonal river.

That was in 2003, when staff at the school trekked several miles in the scorching sun to their rickety houses.

He had developed an interest in human resource management.

The only thing that stood in the way of his ambition was the 800-kilometer distance between Modogashe and KU.

Therefore, when Mutisya made up his mind to go back to school, the only viable option he had was to enroll in a distance-learning programme.

During holidays, he visited the university to consult with his supervisor. It was also an opportunity for him to secure the exam timetable and get copies of lecturers’ notes before he reported to Modogashe where he juggled work and his post-graduate studies.

Lack of supervision

While the learning process appeared straightforward, things did not work as anticipated.

During the three years he spent pursuing his Masters degree, there was zero communication with his supervisor. He says getting his Masters was a lonely journey.

“Owning a mobile phone at the time was privilege I could not afford and the only telephone booth in Modogashe town had long broken down. As result, not once did I communicate with my master’s supervisor at Kenyatta University while I taught at the high school in Garissa. There were no course mates to discuss with except for the instances I went to Nairobi to sit for my exams and other tests,” recalls Mutisya.

That was years ago before the growth of the digital space in remote places in Kenya.

Today growing digital platforms have made it easy for students to graduate from higher learning institutions with little or no physical interaction with their lecturers.

Also referred to as open or e-learning, this is a mode of learning that offers a flexible, cheaper learning experience away from the stifling classroom experience and fixed study schedules.

At Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKuat), digital students at the School of Open and Distance Learning are allowed to take the number of units they can handle.

The Director School of Open and Distance Learning at JKuat, Prof Rebecca Waihenya, says the programme introduced at the university in 2013 offers alternatives to young professionals.

“Open learning restores hope in employed people who didn’t have an opportunity to meet their higher education goals.  That is why many students who enroll at the school are professionals looking to progress in their studies while still working,” says Prof Waihenya.

The JKuat programme has attracted students from across Africa who are enrolled into certificate and diploma programmes, Bachelors and Masters degree programmes.

At the moment, there are about 200,000 students enrolled in 23 programmes at JKuat’s schools of Business, Entrepreneurship, Agriculture and Computing.

They report to the university occasionally to sit their examinations and continuous assessment tests.

Prof Waihenya explains that online students who are admitted in January, May and September pay a similar amount of school fees to that paid by regular students.

“But the advantage is that they avoid additional costs such as accommodation and transport to and from school,” Waihenya explains.

And at Moi University, the Institute of Open and Distance Learning established in November 2007 allows students to download e-learning materials on the university’s website. Other resources on the website include the university’s e-library and e-books for different departments.

Private universities have also cast their nets wide to attract the large number of students opting for e learning.

E-learning has been acclaimed for its flexibility, convenience and affordability.

Students who spoke to Hashtag, however, also shared their journey of solitude, poor correspondence and rigidity of the portals as the ugly side of e-learning.

E-learning teaches self-discipline

“When you are studying alone in a solitary place, the only person you compete with is yourself,” says Mutisya.

“This environment has two effects. It either depresses you to quit or forces you to work extra hard not knowing the amount of effort that your classmates are putting in their studies.”

To succeed, open learning students have to learn to stick to schedules even as they enjoy freedom of learning at their own pace.

They stick to a timetable, complete all their assignments in good time and prepare well ahead of their examinations.

Mutisya who runs EAGLE Hr, a city-based recruitment firm, says graduates of open learning programmes are usually more prepared for the work environment compared to their counterparts that go through the traditional face-to-face classroom interactions. Their biggest challenge, however, is lack of exposure to different views of fellow students in study groups.

Flexible study environment and access to learning materials

“I study in the office, in the gym and sometimes while waiting for friends at a joint where we hang out. There is no place I can’t study from provided I have my smartphone with me,” says Gad Wesonga, a resident of Nairobi and student at Njoro-based Egerton University pursuing Criminology.

Mr Wesonga ditched part-time classes for his degree at UoN after he realised he was wasting a lot of time stuck in traffic and arriving to class late. Today, all he needs is good Internet connection to study wherever he is.

At JKuat, Prof Waihenya explains that employed students are allowed to go on attachment at their workplaces.

“Employed students studying online don’t have to go through the hustle of looking for industrial attachment. They are supervised at their workplaces and awarded attachment marks,” she says.

On the flipside, building relationships with the course instructor and classmates requires a little more effort in an online environment, says Mutisya.

He says students hardly meet their supervisors to guide them through project work.

“I remember how determined I was to complete my masters in good time that I started my project earlier than the rest of the students. I had everything drafted only for the supervisor to rubbish the whole document. The problem, I would later learn, was that I had worked on it without his guidance,” says Mutisya.

He adds: “You work in darkness and only realise you have been doing the wrong thing all along on the day you are failed.”

Students who don’t pay their school fees in good time also risk their online portals being closed.

At Egerton University, these students also grapple with challenges such as missing marks.

“Students in public universities already grapple with missing marks in some of their units. It is worse dealing with missing marks as an online student as you are forced to chase after a lecturer you have never met in person,” says Wesonga.

Affordable way to get skills

Rollins Fred has completed hundreds of courses on e-learning platforms and only paid for a few.

The University of Nairobi (UoN) Business Administration graduate has completed 400 Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) courses that lasted up to three months each. Others took a few hours to acquire a skill and get certification.

He also enrolled for Google Digital Skills for Africa in 2017, a year after he graduated from UoN.

Trainees at the Google programme met occasionally at United States International University and at Serena Hotel in Nairobi.

The six-month training at Google equipped him with social media branding skills that complemented his software developer certification from Andela.

He then enrolled for two-month Barclays Ready-to-Work Mentorship Programme that he says filled the gaps in his job searching skills.

At Barclays bank, trainees were also equipped with financial literacy skills and allowed to interact with the bank’s regional director.

Additionally, Fred enrolled for digital skills programme that was provided by CNN to equip individuals with digital marketing skills. It is the only training where he paid Sh300 to get a certificate. These courses, he says, have shaped him into a competitive professional.

“I work at an IT firm as a business developer despite my background in business administration. Even my interviewers were convinced that I had a background in IT,” he says.

He adds: “I had completed tens of IT related courses, had even worked as a software developer at a global firm, and had even secured lucrative gigs to run social media campaigns for top politicians.”

Rollins urges graduates to grab additional courses to complement their university qualifications.

“Universities only teach us how to pass examinations. No one teaches you how to succeed in the job market, the right places to look for opportunities and how to relate at the workplace. No one teaches you basic financial literacy and how to grow your career after you land your first job,” he says.

Growth with Google, for instance, is a Google digital training tool that provides free training, products and tools designed to help people find a job, advance their career or grow their businesses.

Tips on e-learning success

The beauty of open learning is that you can attend classes online, submit some of your assignments at the comfort of your house, pay school fees, meet your supervisors and do a lot of student-related stuff without stepping into a physical university.

It starts with registration and once you get your portal, ensure that you always monitor it. It is there that you will get announcements and notes from your lecturers. There are students who do not submit their assignments because they missed updates. It is only on the portal that you know the status of your fee payment. Students who don’t frequent their portals wake up to find they were long closed because of unpaid school fees.

You also need to stay connected with the course facilitator whose contact details are usually available on the portal. Talk to them whenever you need any guidance and clarification. I have seen good students who went out of their way and sought face-to-face meetings with their facilitators. Some lecturers also organise meet-ups with their online students to further explain difficult concepts. There are students who don’t attend the meetings and end up failing.

[Prof Rebecca Waihenya, director, School of Open and Distance Learning at JKuat]

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