Cathy Moore once said that “the most important principle for designing a lively eLearning experience is to see eLearning design, not as information design but designing an experience.” These words echo my lived personal experience as I participate in designing online learning at the Strathmore University Business School (SBS) together with a very good team of colleagues.
I remember the announcement made late afternoon on 15th March 2020 by the government that all learning institutions were to close that week. As usual, the first expression was a feeling of consternation and then, with time, a mental adjustment. Somehow at the same time, I remembered what I used to tell my students, a quote from one of my favourite books, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. In this book, which to me is a book about hope, Viktor Frankl mentions that everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of human freedoms- to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances, to choose one’s way.
I think hope is important when approaching the COVID-19 pandemic, we are facing. A person’s attitude will determine the actions the he/she takes and whether they come out of this stronger or weaker. I decided, and I think this is the same attitude I saw in my colleagues, that we needed to adjust and design a learning experience like what students were used to when coming to the university.
There have been many writings on how to make the most of online learning experiences. But I have not found any literature (at least so far) that can prepare one to engage in designing an online learning experience in an immediate ‘crisis’ situation (and for that matter within Africa). I remember brainstorming with some of my colleagues on how we can make the shift from the traditional face-to-face form of learning to one that is mainly riding on an Internet-based learning infrastructure.
At Strathmore University, we were fortunate to have adequate Information Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure and therefore the strategies and solutions had to rest on what exists. These facilities include a continuous Internet connection, a good learning management system-Moodle, students’ access to an Internet-enabled phone or a laptop which they use for their classwork and assignments and an automated teaching and learning process.
Nevertheless, for any information communication technology setup to work, there is a need for an interplay of structures, processes, procedures, and agents. The first two already existed but some of the aspects of the last two had to be ‘fleshed out’ further for a full-fledged online learning experience. Furthermore, we came to realize that to design an elaborate online classroom experience we need the soft ingredients of teamwork, communication, synergizing on different abilities, openness to change and willingness to fail.
At SBS, we are fortunate that it is rather easy to get along with colleagues and therefore work together. The critical players in designing an effective online engagement in our case were the ICT team, administrators, managers, faculty, top management, and other support staff. I have been working closely with managers and administrators and though I am barely four weeks in the team, I feel like I have been working with them for the past year. Many in this team are quite young and therefore there is no dearth of new ideas- a big plus. Another advantage is that some who were not so adept at using some ICT tools soon became experts. Social media groups have been critical in the exchange of learning experiences, challenges and solutions. The experience with some faculty was highly encouraging since some had to begin using tools that they had never heard of before like Zoom.
Nevertheless, within a few hours, the different social media groups like WhatsApp were buzzing with experiences and humor on what worked and what didn’t work. I remember on one occasion when we had a faculty meeting over Zoom and a senior faculty member forgot to switch off the microphone at home, we overheard which animals he kept including the mother tongue used at home. This brought a burst of laughter.
The ICT team has been critical in providing the necessary support to faculty and has tirelessly spent themselves. The top management has been critical in removing obstacles that staff and students were facing. Currently, we are working with one of the Telecommunication Companies on how our students can have a reliable internet connection where they reside and in a way that is manageable to most of them. However, this is still a work in progress.
The difference between mere management and leadership is communication (Winston Churchill). This was critical in resolving most of the dynamic complex issues we were facing. I would dare say that from 15th March, many Strathmore University departments immediately started working together on how they can continue operations online despite the announcement to close education institutions. I found this to be very positive and the energy reverberated from the top management. I will not say that everyone found it easy to adapt to online learning, it has been a challenge for some, but with constant communication and reassurance, many faculty and support staff have been able to continue working.
A critical aspect we found in maintaining the online learning experience was to have open communication from support staff, administrators, managers, ICT team, faculty and university management. We also have been regularly documenting our experiences to know where the challenges are and can resolve this as soon as possible.
A chain is as strong as its weakest link. This implies that if faculty have challenges using online infrastructure and tools and are not helped, then the learning experience will not be good, and this will affect others. Thanks to the good team, we have been able to share weaknesses and challenges and the team has tried as much as possible to see how to make up for any weaknesses. A case in point is the time spent by administrators to always be available when any faculty member needs help. The other weak point can come from mental stress that emerges in a shift from face-to-face to online learning. One way of managing this stress has been to communicate and to find out ways to assist people facing such issues. Another critical issue is that since managers and administrators bear most of the weight in terms of support, it is critical to always find out how they are doing and at times share jokes or memes.
Heraclitus once said that you never cross the same river twice. This saying applies to online learning experiences. The engagement expected with one constituent in the university is never the same as another. This has made the faculty amenable to change. It is interesting that when this whole conversation of moving digital began, we started with Skype for Business, then the conversation shifted to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, then to Big Blue Button and Google Classroom. All these tools for an educationist are as good as the context and the learners who can use the tools. A big plus is that faculty have been able to move from one tool to another (not without challenges) and adapted this to various learners with the assistance of administrators.
Another change, which I think will be critical for all universities, and I think Kenyan universities must lead in this, is to be open to online proctored assessments and the possibilities this offers. Several Ivy League (including Harvard) have used proctored assessments and yet many Kenyan universities are hesitant. The assumption is that physical supervision is more rigorous than online proctored exams which is not always true, and many times, proctored exams give more information on the conduct of students during an exam. This openness to change will be critical for the survival of many universities soon. I doubt after the Corona situation is over, that it will be business as usual for Kenyan universities. Students have experienced the benefits of online teaching and thus they will demand universities ‘to up their game’.
Steve Jobs in a famous speech at Stanford University in 2005 said, be hungry, be foolish. Hunger which means not to be satisfied and foolishness implies a willingness to push oneself. He gave this quote about the many failures he had gone through his life from losing a major stake in Apple to the challenges in his personal life. The willingness to fail and an ability to try out new things, not to be satisfied, is the hallmark of many great adventures, provided they are done after examining the facts. This willingness to fail, which was experienced by many who were BBC (Born Before Computers) was critical in ensuring they transit easily to using digital platforms. It was impressive to see how they were willing to try out new tools and how this can help them in their learning experiences. Some students even gave lecturers hints on how to activate and navigate some functionalities making the experience enjoyable. Many faculty members are geared towards trying out new things in the spirit of Harambee.
All in all, the shift to online learning and the design of this experience has been worthwhile, though not without its challenges. We hope that this path we have embarked on, relying on human freedom, will lead us to new lands and opportunities.
Article by Dr. Alfred Kitawi, Director, Graduate Studies, Strathmore University Business School.
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