By Dr Krishna N. Sharma
Higher education training institutions across the country were excited to know that the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) finally released guidelines for adoption of an emergency Open, Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) system during COVID-19 pandemic.
It is also applauding of the First Lady and education and sports minister Mrs Janet Museveni, gave the go-ahead for online teaching to enable the higher institutions of learning to offer learning during the current lockdown.
Though a few institutions had already engaged their students in teaching and learning activities using online platforms, the students and institutions were still uncertain about the continuity. If we leave out the institutions that started online teaching and learning early, for some of them, this guideline is a vanity, appreciating it is sanity, but complying with it is a yet-to-be-tested reality.
Institutions were concerned about the delay in issuing the guidelines as it was affecting the sustainability of institutions and the progress of students. But after reading this carefully crafted five-paged compact to-the-point document, it becomes clear why did it take time. The good thing is that the NCHE consulted the universities, took note of their suggestions, analysed, and then came up with this guideline. So, it is expected that the majority of the institutions co-own it.
These guidelines ask higher education training institutions to avail 26 different pieces of evidence. But the beauty of this guideline is that it protects academic freedom and institutional autonomy. These essential pieces of evidence cover a wide range of areas including but not limited to students, human resource, ODeL model, evaluation and assessment, ICT infrastructure, quality assurance, health and safety, and compliance with relevant laws and regulations.
The very first expectation in this guideline is the existence of COVID-19 Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) as issued by the Ministry of Health. It indicates that NCHE has prioritised the health and safety of students and staff. It is something the higher education training institutions should already have in place as it has been long since the Ministry of Health issued the guideline.
The immediate challenge higher education training institutions may face is crafting a cost-effective ODeL system that addresses the need of institution and students. This can be well guided by doing a student survey to find out their readiness. Knowing the readiness and challenges of students will help institutions not only find practical solutions and build required ICT infrastructure but also help them propose reasonable mitigation measures and strategy of redress for time and learning lost. The survey will guide the discussion with relevant stakeholders on mitigation measures and approach.
However, just having the ODeL system and ICT infrastructure is not enough until the users know how to use it. Higher education training institutions need to train their staff and students on appropriate and effective utilisation of ODeL system for online teaching, learning, assessment and evaluation. It is also vital to ensure that the students and staff are aware of internet ethics and relevant laws and regulations such as the Data Protection and Privacy Act 2019.
There will be challenges at students’ end too. Few students may find e-learning financially constraining if there are longer face-to-face teaching and learning hours, mentally constraining if they have poor internet connection, and physically constraining (e.g. eye strain, neck pain, backache) if they don’t have quality tools to access ODeL. It is important to inform students about these constrains and help them learn cop up mechanisms.
Another important area, the institutions need to focus on is online assessment and evaluation. There will be a need for smart use of ICT to avoid cheating while ensuring security and privacy. Institutions should find creative and innovative ways to establish a framework that ensures fair assessment and evaluation without over-complicating the whole process.
In a nutshell, the guidelines have covered all essential areas and the ball is in the court of higher education training institutions and students. The post-pandemic period is not going to be the same and the e-learning is going to prepare both the education sector and the student for the same. It is not going to be a swift shift for many institutions and students, but it is worthwhile.
We must applaud the government on the move taken to allow e-learning. We should have had it in this country years back. The mere fact that now that the government has pronounced itself on the matter, this is highly laudable.
The writer is a Vice-Chancellor for Victoria University in Kampala.