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Universities grappling with online teaching

By Protus Onyango | May 16th 2020 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300


Prof Fred Keraro of Egerton University running an online training at the university. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Brenda Kwamboka, a Third Year Bachelor of Business Administration student at Technical University of Mombasa, is struggling to make up for lost time.

Occasionally, she says, her lecturers send her assignments on email and class WhatsApp groups.

“We do them and send them back through email and results are also posted online. However, some of the topics we are sent are new. Though this allows us to cover what we are yet to, we spend so much time trying to do research and understand them,” says Ms Kwamboka.

Coronavirus disease

You would think it would be smooth for institutions of higher learning. But in the face of the coronavirus disease, universities are grappling with how to conduct virtual learning.

The problem is profound in public universities which admit more students than private institutions. Private universities adopted online teaching years ago and are able to teach their students online without many challenges.

University of Nairobi Vice Chancellor Stephen Kiama said Covid-19 has affected the institution’s operations, but lecturers have adopted virtual technology to remain afloat.

“We have gone virtual. We have decided to take up the challenge and ensure continuity of university education,” Gitahi said.

Kisii University Vice Chancellor Prof John Akama said the institution is using virtual technology to train students and do research.

“We developed an e-learning platform two years ago and this has come in handy at this time of the pandemic. Our academic staff and students are at home but lessons are going on,” Akama said.

Susan Otido, a lecturer, said universities should take up the challenge now to make sure that all students own a laptop to make online teaching a reality.

“Public universities are still struggling unlike private ones that established efficient online teaching years ago. We should explore ways of adding the cost of a laptop on fees and spread it across four years of the undergraduate course so that all students own this important gadget,” she said.

Otido, who supervises five students in their projects, said most lecturers are now focusing on projects, leaving out the rest of the learners.

“With a few students, we are able to interact. They send us their projects for review and we send them feedback. But there are thousands of others whom we can’t reach,” she said.

United States International University (USIU) Vice Chancellor Prof Paul Zeleza said the institution has transitioned to online teaching and learning in order to complete the Spring semester that came to an end on April 18.

“The university is losing about seven per cent of its revenue which comes from the provision of auxiliary services such as housing, laundry and cafeteria income. The university has maintained a skeleton staff to support students remotely across key departments such as security, finance, IT operations, academic advising, among others,” Zeleza said.

Summer semester

He said the students are continuing with the Summer semester online which commenced on Monday.

“We will continue delivering the semester online through our online learning platform, Blackboard Learn, as the default mode of instruction, Zoom and BlueJeans as our video conferencing tools and e-books, e-journals and other e-resources from more than 76 online databases in our library,” Zeleza said.  

The VC said they have invested in an online tool that ensures the integrity of all their online assessments is maintained at all times and explored a number of ways through which they can use simulations and virtual labs to deliver practical-based courses via on-site and cloud-based solutions.

He said most universities are already facing financial challenges due to reliance on tuition revenue as their main source of income.

“Online teaching is the way of the future and massive investments will support this form of teaching moving forward. The cost of setting up online courses still remains very high but universities must earmark funds to enhance technology that supports online learning and teaching,” Zeleza said.

Another challenge is access to bundles which is expensive because students need more time to research on new topics.

David Wanjala, a Third Year Law student at UoN, said he has been forced to defer his studies due to lack of cash.

“The university only allows those who have paid to access their online tuition. Because of the current uncertainty, I have stopped learning until further notice when things get better,” Wanjala said.

Gad Wesonga, a student at Egerton University, who was to graduate last year, is also facing the same problem.

“I am to finish one topic, but can’t access the online teaching until I pay. Payment allows me to do assignments, but have to go to a physical venue for exams. This is a good platform, but it is expensive as one uses more money to access internet,” Wesonga said.

Universities Academic Staff Union (UASU) Secretary General Dr Constantine Wasonga said 100 per cent of the Kenyan university students and academic staff have been impacted by the pandemic.

Many challenges

He said though some public universities have implemented e-learning to ensure continuity of higher education, the delivery is dogged by many challenges.

“As many of the digital platforms were not used by the lecturers or students prior to the pandemic. The platforms are untested, and e-learning in many universities have proceeded through trial and error method. Consequently, it is difficult to assess whether the educational outcomes will be achieved,” Wasonga said.

He observed the delivery of learning through digital platforms, without an enabling curriculum design and pedagogical or andragogical framework may have adverse impact on quality of university programmes.

“This is so particularly for science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and clinical programmes which require extensive exposure to practicals or clinicals to develop proper skills,” Wasonga said.

Moreover, he said, e-learning has widened the divide between the economically advantaged and disadvantaged students who have no access to smart phones or computers.

Wasonga said a number of young university students and academic staff have reported that the pandemic is affecting their mental health, causing much stress and depression.

[The writer is a 2019/2020 Bertha Fellow]

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