Thursday, 28 April 2016

Applying learning theories to online learning: Reflections on the T3 intervention at Jimma University, March 2016

Through the African Universities’ Research Approaches (AURA) programme, Jimma University (JU) recently offered the T3 intervention, one of a series of interventions designed to build the capacity of universities in Sub-Saharan Africa.

T3, which took place at JU from 21st to 22nd March 2016, is a practical course focusing on how learning theories can be applied to an online learning environment. The training was designed to enable instructors from the various colleges of JU to:

•     plan and organize online learning effectively on Moodle – JU’s existing platform;
•     apply pedagogical implementations to learning technologies such as Moodle;
•     assess learners using learning technologies.

Generally, T3 introduced a growing world of technology that may help to facilitate learning and teaching by making learning and teaching easier and more engaging, as well as cost-effective. Information technologies are one of a number of revolutions which are transforming lives in the 21st century and having an impact on countries like Ethiopia. Consequently, education and training needs to be reinforced with technology if we are to benefit from the opportunities offered through the digital revolution.  If the instructors at JU are committed to applying T3, then the training will impact positively on the teaching and learning process in Jimma University.

Online learning: technologies, pedagogical processes, and benefits

The mentors of T3 covered a range of technologies applicable to online learning, including Moodle, which was discussed and demonstrated extensively. According to the demonstrations and theoretical discussions on pedagogical processes, Moodle can be used to create courses for online learning with the use of various kinds of teaching methods and theories. It is possible to apply social constructive, and any other theories suitable for the course content, to online learning as well as face to face learning.  Moreover, various learning materials (such as videos, podcasts, texts, documents, portable document formats, PowerPoints etc.) can be easily embedded in the course page created in the Moodle. It is also possible to incorporate chat and discussion forums in the learning page we create in Moodle – these can also help us to apply social constructive theories (encouraging the trainees to be more independent in the learning process, to share the knowledge they have gained, and to benefit from opportunities for greater online socialization with each other around their learning). Moodle also enables us to assess the trainees online.

The task set by the training facilitators at the end of the training, (to create a technology oriented course on Moodle), and feedback after rating this, made us competent enough to translate the skills developed by the intervention into concrete action because the task was designed so that we would have to apply what we had just learnt by putting it into practice on JU’s Moodle platform.

In addition, other learning technologies (such as Google Hangouts, Google Plus, Skype for Business, Second life, Facebook, Twitter, email threads etc.) were discussed and demonstrated in terms of how these could be used for online learning by facilitators.

The T3 training was facilitated by educators from various universities in Africa and highly skilled pedagogy experts from UK. Their experience on online learning was another highlight of the T3 intervention - in addition to delivering the training, they also shared their experiences on online learning in the context of their institutions. Hearing about their experiences was an additional motivation for the trainees to use technology for learning. The facilitators also promised to continue to provide support remotely.

T3 key points of learning:

The training intervention has yielded two key changes to my ways of teaching and learning:

1.    First, I had not believed that you could use social constructive theory for teaching online as online learning has little space for interaction between the educator and trainees – or so I perceived before T3. After the training, I could see that interaction between the educator and the trainees online is definitely possible. Therefore, I learned that we can make online teaching and learning interactive and share our knowledge among trainees online as well as offline. According to the new skills I have gained, the educator not only transfers knowledge but also learns from the learners too because, when online learning is created with the application of social constructive theory, the learners are encouraged to be more independent in the learning process and to share what they have acquired with both their fellow learners and also with the educator.

2.    Second, what I learnt from T3 is that pedagogy matters more than technology in online learning. Before we start designing online learning we have to select appropriate pedagogical theories to deliver the course effectively. Then, we can develop an appropriate online learning page. “Pedagogy before technology” was the interesting motto of our mentor – to remind us what is important.

Now capacitated by T1 (the precursor to T3 – T1 focused more on the pedagogical theories and T3 on applying these to online learning), T3 and the remote assistance of our mentors, I am getting ready to revolutionize my way of teaching and learning in a way which benefits both the trainees and the institution I am working for. Furthermore, some of the departments in our college have also created opportunities to apply T3 so there is more to come from Jimma University.

Melaku Haile Likka, Department of Health Economics, Management and Policy at the College of Health Sciences, Jimma University in Ethiopia.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

The E-learning Landscape of Jimma University

Ethiopia is going through rapid economic development at a time when technological changes are influencing many aspects of human life, including higher education institutions. This context of rapid technological change in the world, and economic development in Ethiopia, means higher education institutions in this country need to carefully examine their educational practices with a technological lens. This context of rapid technological change is compounded by other challenges, such as the ever increasing population of learners from a variety of backgrounds, with diverse needs, motivations, abilities, and learning preferences, who are coming forward now and are eager to participate in a 21st century education. There is, as a result, an increasing demand for more responsive and flexible courses, and the drive to use information communication technology (ICT) in teaching is becoming a necessity for our universities – many of them ill equipped to respond to this demand and drive.

Cognizant of the importance of technology in improving educational quality and access, many universities in developed and developing countries have been trying to implement e-learning.  Likewise, Jimma University (JU) has been trying to implement e-learning for about ten years. In spite of the huge investment made by the university on expanding ICT infrastructures, we have yet to see real progress in the university as to the use of technology in teaching and learning.

Four years ago a few staff members took training on e-learning but no one has yet started using the e-learning Moodle infrastructure of JU. Just a few interested staff members are currently applying e-learning in the university. The majority of those staff members who took the e-learning training have since left the university due to a variety of reasons. Efforts made in this regard are clearly not satisfactory... The university has offered training to academic staff members, developed the e-learning Moodle and put in place some institutional arrangements for the introduction and implementation of e-learning. However, the re-organization of contents and change on mode of delivery of courses during the modularization process seems to be one of the major factors that has led the university management not to push the colleges to move further forward in this regard.

Other major limitations with regard to the sustained implementation of e-learning in Jimma University include the following:
  • Poor follow up and support from the university’s leadership (department, college and corporate level);
  • An absence of incentive mechanisms for academic staff members who are champions of e-learning;
  • An absence of awareness raising and capacity building trainings; and
  • The malfunctioning of e-learning offices.
Major challenges to the sustained implementation of e-learning in Jimma University include the following:
  • Interruption of electricity and internet connections;
  • intolerable student-computer ratio;
  • deficiencies in e-learning knowledge and skill on the part of teachers and students;
  • centralization of ICT related privileges; and
  • a confusing structure of e-learning at the university level.
Based on these findings, the university has been developing an e-learning strategy for the coming three years. There is strong belief that the university will get invaluable inputs from the African Universities Research Approaches (AURA) partnership universities to help us with this challenging situation. We hope that the AURA partner institutions will share their experiences around what they have done and are doing in their respective institutions to develop technology- enhanced teaching and learning. This will strengthen blended distance learning programs like JU’s Health Economics Masters program.


Pirani, Judith A. 2004. Supporting E-Learning in Higher Education Roadmap, July 2004. EDUCASE Center for Applied Research. Retrieved 19th April

Shimels Challa is the ICT Development Team Leader at Jimma University, Ethiopia.

Bekalu Ferede is the E-learning Coordinator at Jimma University, Ethiopia.

Elias Ali Yesuf 
is based in the Department of Health Economics, Management, and Policy at Jimma University, Ethiopia.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Fostering Competencies in Research through Project-based Learning

R2 Highpoints
Photo: Emma Greengrass/IDS.
The Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (MUHAS), through the AURA programme, recently conducted the Research 2 (R2) workshop focusing on strengthening the capacity of conducting research among MUHAS academic staff. The R2 workshop was conducted over a six week period from February to March 2016. It adopted project based learning approaches and blended learning approaches which included pre-online, face to face, and post-online learning activities. The teaching modality was participatory, and focused on independent learning, learning from instructors, and peer to peer learning and assessment. Some of the topics were completely new to participants (i.e. social network analysis, mixed methods) while other topics were familiar to faculty, such as topics on comparative and surveys research designs. Given their medical science backgrounds, MUHAS faculty members were not aware of some of the social research methods offered and were able to learn and appreciate these through R2.  They also learnt and appreciated the application of qualitative research approaches, and how they can combine both qualitative and quantitative research approaches in their practice.

Participants were also able to refine their individual research methodology, and gained practical knowledge on how to apply mixed research methods, especially sequential mixed methods. This kind of training was very important and also timely given the fact that MUHAS is currently implementing competency based curricular. Furthermore, participants were able to develop a group proposal, which was multidisciplinary in nature, to compete for funding. Through the group work, participants appreciated the fact that they were able to learn from their colleagues and to share what they knew regarding the topic they were working on. Participants were also able to expand their network of researchers to work with, through the task that of writing proposals as a multidisciplinary group.

In conclusion, the R2 workshop enabled participants to acquire useful skills on how to develop competitive proposals for grant application, various study designs, and to learn the advantages of working in multidisciplinary research groups. Participants also appreciated the teaching methodology and it is expected that they will adopt this modality into their teaching, especially the use of project based learning.

Dr. Doreen Mloka is a Medical Microbiologist/Molecular biologist. She is a Medical Education Fellow and the Director of Continuing Education and Professional Development at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (MUHAS), Tanzania. She currently coordinates two medical education projects and several microbiology projects.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Participants’ Reflections after the AURA Programme’s Research One (R1) Learning Intervention

There has been an increasing stream of feedback since October 2015 that indicates the potential benefits of AURA programme impacting individual participants at different levels.  What follows is a short summary of the key moments.

Application of critical skills in information literacy

One of these concerns application of critical skills in information literacy. One participant, a young scholar, began reading more widely on the topic of her PhD concept note and made an effort to contact the author of a paper she felt contained content that was core to the concepts of her research. She received positive feedback from the author and was motivated to keep working on the paper and has since gone on to present a poster at the GKEN4Africa 5th International Multidisciplinary Conference 2015 .

Opening up research opportunities to undergraduate students

The other area is the effort to open up research opportunities to undergraduate students, especially using approaches that impact society. One of the participants has demonstrated how the learning obtained in the AURA programme’s R1 face to face learning intervention has encouraged him to involve his students in research activities that have an impact in their communities. One of the student teams went on to present a poster on this initiative at an internal research event at Strathmore.
 These developments indicate the potential impact of the AURA intervention in promoting research amongst Strathmore students. Therefore,  it is becoming clearer how learning interventions can be beneficial in supporting young scholars in fostering confidence, in developing skills to develop their work and to take up opportunities to communicate about this both internally and externally.

Application of critical thinking skills

Another area is the application of critical thinking skills. One of the participants has been conceptualising a difficult research topic concerning the need for research outputs to contribute to the transformation of the society. In the local setting, most research findings remain on the shelves as scholarly outputs that do not influence policy or practice in the industry or within the communities.
The participant benefited from the R1 learning intervention and became more confident that the chosen topic was researchable and could be actualised, especially following detailed feedback from scholars in the AURA network.  It will be interesting to see how this student’s work progresses.

Concluding remarks

These developments indicate the potential impact of the AURA intervention in promoting research amongst Strathmore students. Therefore, it is becoming clearer how learning interventions can be beneficial in supporting young scholars in fostering confidence, in developing skills to develop their work and to take up opportunities to communicate about this both internally and externally.

Stephen Ng’ang’a and Cavin Opiyo are based at Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya.

Experiences Beyond the Aura Programme’s Research One (R1) Learning Intervention

The implementation of the AURA progamme at Strathmore has become a reality. By September, 2015, the participants had already engaged in various online activities such as: the diagnostic and pre-online learning session undertaken in preparation for face to face learning (The face to face learning took place at Strathmore from 30 September to 2nd October 2015.)  What follows are reflections on the approaches, processes and methodologies encountered in the learning interventions.

Blended learning approaches

The implementation of the AURA programme has involved a blended learning approach complementing face to face interactions with online experience. The main benefit of this blended learning approach is that the participants have the possibility of internalizing, and practicing, specific skills from the interactions between themselves and the facilitators. Non-mediated human interaction has a special element that cannot be bridged effectively by technology hence combining face to face with the online learning. This approach could be one of the key factors contributing to the effectiveness of the AURA programme in transforming participants’ research practices.

Benefits of a diagnostic process to customize content

In the process of the face to face delivery, it emerged that there was a difficulty in maintaining the consistent participation by senior researchers, who were of the opinion that the sessions did not address their specific capacity building concerns but were more focused on the needs of young scholars.

An attempt had been made to ensure that the content would appeal to a mixed audience, but it was difficult in practice to achieve this objective without a deliberate content re-design prior to running the intervention. This highlights the benefit of the diagnostic process in customizing content and demonstrates that poor participation in this process may have contributed to the problem of the undifferentiated content arising in the first place.

Using an experiential learning facilitation methodology

The experiential learning facilitation methodology that was employed by the AURA team is the enduring strength of the face to face intervention. This methodology is learner-centred and successfully engaged the faculty, who themselves are teachers in their own disciplines and can be highly critical of traditional teacher-centred approaches.. The assessment of learning at the end each day, using the reflective journal, is a best practice tool that helped participants internalize and document their personal learning. The R1 face to face learning is a valuable precursor to, and has raised expectations for, the forthcoming teaching intervention which will be rolled out in 2016.

The other appealing, and motivating, aspect of the AURA programme learning interventions is the practical assistance the participants received through detailed feedback on their assignments from enthusiastic professors in the AURA network. An opportunity presented by the GKEN4Africa 5th International Multidisciplinary Conference 2015  for two participants from Strathmore to showcase their “work in progress” – this opportunity has further fuelled the excitement of other participants.

Future considerations

Looking to the future, it is anticipated that individualised attention to the participants will be critical in achieving the anticipated programme results, such as publications. This is a strong learning point that Strathmore University would like to carry into its internal capacity building programmes for teaching and research.

Stephen Ng’ang’a and Cavin Opiyo are based at Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Benefit of Flexibility in Keeping the AURA Programme Vibrant

There are two levels at which flexibility has contributed to making the African Universities' Research Approaches(AURA) programme become vibrant: the level of participants’ engagement; and the level of institutional collaboration - and this vibrancy has developed in spite of a number of challenges encountered in the initial programme conception as experienced at Strathmore University (which we have written about in a previous blog post). 

Participants’ engagement

Participants who have showed an interest in this programme have been encouraged to retain their interest, and engagement, in the activities through flexible arrangements. For example, as Project Cordinators (PCs) for AURA, we negotiated new deadlines for completing the diagnostics, and made sure that polite reminders to participants went out regularly.

The management of email communication has also been a key challenge, and an important point of learning for us as programme coordinators. A significant number of participants suffered from email overload and started to drop out of the programme on account of repetitive communication from different contacts in the programme.   As PCs, we took a proactive approach to ensure that the issues experienced with email overload were communicated within the programme, and we then agreed a communication strategy which was more appropriate to the needs arising within our institution.  This is now working adequately for us.  

Institutional collaboration

At the level of institutional collaboration, the true spirit of co-creation around content, and the authenticity in which inputs from implementing institutions are accepted, has helped to build trust within the partnership – an essential part of the process. This is demonstrated by the on-going consultation between us as Project Coordinators (PCs), and champions, for the AURA programme at Strathmore University and the lead contacts within the AURA consortium and this on-going consultation makes it much easier to resolve issues and maintain momentum within the programme.

Lessons learned

The benefit drawn from these experiences is that it is critical to be sensitive to the varying needs and interests of participants and try to accommodate this in programme implementation and management. This can mean changing procedures so that these meet institutional needs, or negotiating a deadline where this is necessary.

The AURA programme is developing good flexibility to accommodate a participant-centred approach in meeting challenges as they arise.  It is this approach that enables us as PCs to maintain momentum for the programme internally.  This approach also supports programme responsiveness at both the AURA consortium level and institutionally at Strathmore University.

Stephen Ng’ang’a and Cavin Opiyo are based at Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya.

Early Experiences in Engagements around the AURA Programme

Strathmore University, a member of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), accepted an invitation to participate in their Structured Training for African Researchers (STARS)programme. This took place in August 2015 when Strathmore was already in advanced engagements with the Consortium to implement AURA programme.

Structured Training for African Researchers (STARS) programme

The STARS project is an online professional skills course implemented collaboratively with African universities to develop and refine professional development for academic staff early in their careers. The project aims to institutionalize and embed early career support and build the skills and confidence of early career academics. The resources in the programme are collaboratively developed and are openly licensed under a creative commons license so that universities can adapt and embed the material within their own professional development offerings.

The programme was designed in a three year cycle. The first year involved the design of online content for training early career researchers. The second year involved piloting the online course in twelve universities. The third year involved implementation of the course with additional universities. This is the point at which Strathmore joined into the programme.

Similarities and differences between STARS and AURA programmes

The major similarities are that both programmes are focused on research capacity building among a more or less similar target group. The key differences are that STARS is already at an advanced stage of implementation while the African Universities' Research Approaches (AURA) programme is still in its first year. The key distinction in design and outcome between the two programmes is evident in the implementation.

At the point of recruitment, faculty were presented with details concerning the objectives and the implementation format of the two programmes. It appeared that the majority of the young scholars and early career researchers opted into the STARS programme, partly due to the perception that the amount of commitment was shorter and less intense than the AURA. However, early feedback shows that those in the AURA are making significant and demonstrable transformation in their research undertakings.

This experience highlights the importance of taking a strategic institutional view and developing a strong implementing capacity when taking on board similar programmes to avoid failure or collapse.
This experience provides an opportunity to learn and to better scrutinise future engagements against institutional capacity and goals

Engaging in both AURA and STARS provided Strathmore with an opportunity to explore how to position both programmes in the context of institutional goals.  We also had an opportunity to provide staff with a choice to enrol in either programme. The model of co-creation in the AURA Programme required creativity on the part of the champions in order to persuade staff to sign up for AURA especially because the STARS programme presented a perception of lighter work load commitment as compared to the AURA programme. 

Final reflections

Whilst it may appear that competition between the two programmes could pose challenges in maximising the benefits, this was not the view we took at Strathmore. Since there is an intended end in both programmes to empower the institutions involved to deliver and implement internally driven and sustainable capacity building programmes that will bring research outputs to a new level, having the two programmes provides our institution with an opportunity to complement the lessons learned from both programmes. Furthermore, Strathmore has taken an active step to harmonise the benefits by concentrating the programme management under a collaborative approach between the Research and Teaching departments to avoid scattering and duplicating efforts.  This would be a key recommendation for other institutions that when an institution is involved in two programmes that are addressing similar areas, or include synergies, then it is very important that the programme management is shared collaboratively between departments in order to avoid a silo mentality, to ensure that the programmes complement each other, and to prevent duplication.   

Stephen Ng’ang’a and Cavin Opiyo are based at Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya.