Challenges to e-Learning in Developing Communities of Africa

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Dr J Muwanga Zake

University of New England, Australia

The evern evolving nature of ICT requires teachers to participate in life-long studies. However, life-long teacher training opportunities in developing communities of Africa are scarce and require teachers to apportion their own time and funs. Challenges also crop up when ICT is adopted without giving adequate thought to pedagogic value

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The ever-evolving nature of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) not only makes it essential for a modern day employee to be equipped with ICT skills, but also continue updating it to keep up with the best and the latest. This makes it important that the ICT supported distance education systems are available for the new age technology driven growth.

Beyond this need, those engaged in training teachers should have sound level of familiarity with ICT, so as to encourage and pass on these skills to future teachers. ICT skills passed on to teachers not only enhance pedagogy, but directly help students become globally competitive workers. However, challenges crop up when institutions move to ICT adoption without giving adequate thought to pedagogic value, amid the existing digital gap that currently makes distance and eLearning for Africa’s developing communities an impossibility.

This article looks at challenges that confront eLearning in Africa, particularly in training institutions offering distance education to teachers. There is also a discussion on some ICT professional development (PD) models.

Problems facing educators in Africa In any developing community, the use of ICT in pedagogy is undermined by the problems of connectivity, access and Policy.

However, in Africa, the above issues are compounded by:

  • Age – older people are less inclined to use ICT;
  • Lack of ICT awareness, knowledge, and its uses;
  • Location – distant places and rural areas;
  • Language – ICT language is normally English, which is the second language for most Africans;
  • Level and quality of education in schools; and
  • Poverty – one of the most important barriers, especially due to the fact that ICT is imported and therefore relatively more expensive in Africa than in developed countries.

Communities in Africa are widely spaced out in rural settings and would arguably gain most from distance education, provided it became affordable to access ICT tools for education. This is where the voice of educational computing is submerged by poverty and other basic needs such as sanitation and potable water.

Use of ICT by schoolteachers in African countries

Initially, educators saw ICT only as imparting computer literacy, communication, lesson preparation, and in administration. It is only now that digitalised lessons have become more common, forcing teachers to make efforts to integrate ICT in their teaching process. But the ever-evolving ICT requires new teaching strategies and for this teachers need to participate in lifelong studies. However, life-long teacher training opportunities are scarce in Africa and teachers often have to spend their own time and resources.

Further, teachers have to acquire ICT skills alongside the pedagogy they support, because of the perception that ICT is merely a work-reducing tool. Thus, many teachers in Africa adopt ICT in their usual teacher-centric pedagogical practices rather than in learner-centric paradigms. My personal experience shows that the situation is the same in tertiary institutions as well.

I have quoted two studies to reveal the serious digital gap that inhibit eLearning and distance education for in-service teachers in Africa.

During 2007, I initiated a collaborative study between University of New England (UNE), Australia and Makerere University, Uganda, regarding the ICT penetration in schools. The level of ICT integration in Australia and Uganda varied to such an extent that we had to form separate questionnaires for Uganda and Australia and present it in various modes to teachers. Not only were Ugandan schools ignorant of modern advances in ICT, the teachers there did not have access to ICT. They gave written replies to the questionnaires, while in Australia we received email responses.

In another study done on a sample of 26 teachers from 23 schools in South Africa during the year 2000-2004 (Muwanga-Zake, 2007), it was concluded that: Forty-five % of teachers had not been trained in using computers, 33% had never used computers while teaching, and 53% had less than a year’s experience in using computers in teaching while only 16% had experience of over five years in using computers. Apart from five schools, all of them had irregular telephone and Internet connections and a shortage of computers and technical staff. Furthermore, students had access to computers only in four out of 23 schools, which show that teachers rarely used computers while taking classes, except for imparting IT skills for Matric certificate. Those who used computers were limited to simple IT skills such as processing marks using Excel, accessing the Internet for information, using e-mail and word processing.

There were complaints from teachers regarding high cost of ICT training, which was again urban-based. Lack of Internet connection denied teachers access to web-based courses and materials. Some schools had obtained obsolete computers and ICT educational programmes, which were too expensive to upgrade.

According to a Department of Education, South Africa figure (2003), while 72.7% of Americans currently use Internet, only 6.4% of South Africans have access to and use the Internet.
In Ethiopia, the International Telecommunication Union of ICT in Education in a 2001 study found low Internet access and use in schools, four times as expensive Internet in the United States, very few people with IT training, and a monopoly provision of all telecommunication services.

Implications for professional development in ICT at school and university level

In a knowledge economy, life-long learning is a work requirement. Moreover, rapid developments in the field of ICT demand frequent updating of pedagogical and technical aspects for educators. An important consideration is the need for designated time for staff to engage with ICT frequently, which bears financial and work agreement implications. Distance education is key to life-long learning, but it requires ICT-trained workers as well as training institutions. However, in African communities, both the schools and universities lack cutting edge ICT, with which they can disperse education to far-flung and rural areas.

The scenario is: we have schoolteachers and lecturers in teacher-training institutions having to use distance education and ICT in pedagogically sound frameworks. In both cases, technical and pedagogical aspects of ICT have to be consistently researched and included in PD. Research would provide data to inform institutions about levels of and need for ICT skills among staff. Furthermore, the unique student and staff profiles, as well as differences in ICT equipment, demand inimitable PD and innovations. Hence, each institution has to research for and implement own solutions.

Challenges to institutions in distance education

Teacher training institutions in Africa are challenged to provide adequate ICT skills and experience of pedagogy in ICT. While literature about ICT potential is abundant, it is often short of practical exemplars for educators. Thus, potential users rely upon information from ICT experts, often keen to market their wares. Sound judgement requires understanding of pedagogical benefits and technical intricacies of ICT. Therefore, another imperative is for staff to re-examine their teaching strategies with a view of incorporating ICT in a manner that supports constructivist and active learning.

An important consideration is the use of ICT in distance education that helps recipients to translate information into knowledge. Against this desire are complaints of shallow information delivery, which encourages students to skim and write trivia. Such cases undermine ICT potential and probably discourage potential users.

It appears that some of the problems start with the administrators of institutions having conflicting and vague goals for ICT use. Although  ICT has its own conceptual knowledge and skills base, it requires staff to understand pedagogical implications of using  them. This is  a challenge since the evaluation requires an understanding of ICT’s pedagogical nature and a need for researching.

Apart from issues of reliability, another factor is launching of new initiatives with little evidence on the impact. The modernist cutting edge progressivism of ICT has apparently acquired a mythical image of the new and positive change – with terms such as revolutionary, powerful ideas, and student empowerment. This might scare potential users but also lure institutions to invest in ICT. Indeed, some ICT fail to live up to their claimed advantages, but the techno-centric culture sometimes distorts the actual potential of ICT. Techno-centricity seems to be responsible for instrumental rationality and dominance of training in skills at the expense of attention to pedagogy.

Since PD in ICT use is essentially for the ultimate benefit of students, it is important to consider students’ opinions and challenges. There is a need to look at the use of online ICT from a student’s point of view. For example, external students in the United States have  found problems with streaming video lessons, partly due to students’ lack of understanding on how to configure their computers and the necessary specifications of computer hardware and software.

Framing PD in ICT

PD would obtain from traditional models of Instructional Design, except that ICT are introduced at UNE prior to a needs analysis. Where ICT are already acquired, Conlon’s (2000) proposal seems to be viable. The proposal includes two hypothetical visions of PD in ICT use: post-modern and paternalistic, as bases for staff to take ownership of their vision of change with emphasis on pedagogy. These are in turn compatible with Davis’s ‘Conceptualisation of User Acceptance Constructs’ model, which suggests causative relationships between Ease of Use (EOU) and Perceived Usefulness (PU), i.e., the usefulness of a technology is perceived after achieving skills.

Some notable areas of adoption of Davis’s model include:

Initial generic training phase to ensure that all participants achieve a reasonable level of literacy in ICT: For this participants need to be allocated to a group based on their level of ICT capability. This would reduce the possibility of embarrassment. Short training sessions – not more than 2 hours – are required and there should be smaller number of participants to ensure attention to all participants’ and to monitor progress easily.

Another model that seems compatible with Conlon’s ideas comes from Prestridge.

The advantage of Prestridge’s over Davis’s model is its consideration of the school vision, leadership for PD, and the engagement framework – in this case, constructive dialogue during PD activities. Prestridge also considers the need to investigate ‘existing pedagogical beliefs and practices’ among staff before PD, and then constructing with staff new pedagogy around ICT, in a way, which Conlon describes as paternalistic.

ICT Development Plan for Staff

Staff PD has to be with respect to the objectives of the institution such as constructivist active learning, a need to reach external students, the status of ICT tools, the level of ICT skills among staff, and to how each ICT could support pedagogy. Furthermore, because ICT are acquired without evaluation for pedagogical potential, every ICT has to be researched to determine the ways it could support pedagogy. From models illustrated in Figure 1 and  Figure 2, another PD in ICT model emerges – ICT Development Plan for Staff – and illustrates the steps in the process of producing online resources, which would be researched during PD.

This model borrows from Davis’s model in considering staff familiarity with ICT tools as the first step. But it differs from Davis’s model by involving staff in identifying their pedagogical preferences in relation to an ICT features at the time staff is learning about the ICT. A combination of step 1 and 2 should yield ideas about pedagogy in step three. That is, staff would be able to design pedagogical environments given the ICT features in light of their pedagogical preferences.

Action research

There are two strands of research: one is about how each ICT could support particular pedagogical frameworks; the other is about finding the best file formats for quality online resources, which are at the same time easy to download. The two strands happen together (Figure 3) as staff works with each ICT. The goal of this research
is to develop staff and to provide feedback to UNE that would inform the processes necessary in PD and in adopting ICT.

The research additionally considers that staff are adults, and secondly that their work agreements do not necessarily include PD in ICT. Therefore, staff involvement is to some extent voluntary, and works better by first surveying staff interests regarding ICT. Of course staff could renegotiate their work agreements to include PD in ICT, but this assumes that staff and the UNE have firstly realised the potential of ICT in pedagogy.

Another consideration has been assessing the level of skills among staff. This has been done through questionnaires via the UNE website, as well as by a one-to-one engagement, by appointment, with individual staff. Further PD will be based on ICT skills levels of each staff, with a view of grouping those at similar expertise or helping some individually.

Implications for teacher-training institutions

The current problem is that teacher-training institutions (including UNE) are not obliged to use ICT by any authority. However, distance education is already a necessity, not only for development, but for most tertiary institutions to remain in business, particularly for in-service training of teachers, who cannot leave classrooms without attention. Time is high when teacher-training institutions will be compelled to pedagogically use ICT to deliver materials and lessons
for in-service teachers, and in their lectures to the extent that pre-service teacher-trainees will be examined for computer skills.

In African developing communities, particularly for teachers in rural areas, where teachers cannot afford broadband, other means of sending resource materials that are not paper-based have to be investigated. One option is to use CD-ROM, but after finding out the most common and affordable software among schools. Alternative cheaper interfaces include mobile phones, or MP3 players. Finally, ICT in-service training should be certificated.

Implications for teachers as workers

Teachers in developing communities are far from becoming effective participants in the use of computers. African governments should set policies that enable cheap teacher in-service training in ICT pedagogical use. Other issues include: Training in a sustainable framework, that is not once-off events, but lifelong preferably through distance ICT-based
courses; Getting involved in action research that focuses on pedagogy in ICT use; Time allocation for life-long PD in ICT during school hours;
ICT operation skills ought to be mandatory for students and teachers; Using ICT in a context such as a subject area, and relocating computers into classrooms;
Acquiring ICT evaluation skills. This would reduce on schools purchasing useless ICT;
ICT in-service training should culminate into certifiable outcomes, which should improve the teachers’ salary;
Schools setting rules on ICT and timetables that include ICT uses; and Negotiating work agreements that include as matter of right training in ICT eLearning and implications for educators in Africa’s developing communities
Firstly, developing communities have to cope with the digital gap; specifically the high cost of ICT as well as of expertise in ICT skills and pedagogy. Such communities have also to craft policies that would entice educators to improve ICT use and pedagogy. Unfortunately, these requirements are beyond the powers of teacher training institutions, and calls for advocacy groups or NGO proactive campaigns. While most of the developed communities are aware of the ICT competencies their teachers need, these competencies and standards have to be determined and included in the education systems in most of the African developing communities.

There is also a need for creating databases of ICT courses, organisations, and service-providers in the education sector so that these are efficiently and economically used.

Within the powers of educators in tertiary institutions, is designing quality courses for eLearning and distance education, in consideration of ICT students can afford. However, these assume ongoing PD through action research, to the extent that
each institution would develop frameworks that are considerate of its unique situation.

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