Redundant bricks, wrecking balls, and architects of the virtual

Written by: Richard A. Powell – RUFORUM Communications Consultant

1For many years, pedagogues have been fixated on the bricks-and-mortar approach to knowledge transfer and learning: the goal primarily being to increase ad nausea the number of students living on a physical campus.

But advances in technology mean that the model of teaching has been re-evaluated. E-learning – the ‘e’, according to Bernard Luskin, a pioneer of the field, being interpreted as “exciting, energetic, enthusiastic, emotional, extended, excellent, and educational”, rather than simply “electronic” – is the use of electronic media, educational technology and information and communication technologies (ICT) in the process of education. It entails the numerous types of media that help deliver text, audio, images, animation, and streaming video, and includes technology applications and processes such as audio or video tape, satellite TV, CD-ROM, and computer-based learning, among others, and can be asynchronous self-education, synchronous and instructor-led (i.e., in real time), or a blended hybrid of the two.

The possibilities offered by e-learning are considerable. For those students with pressing personal or family problems or obligations, or whose lives do not lend themselves to attending a traditional university, the flexibility offered by a self-paced, asynchronous course can prove highly attractive. Indeed, the popularity of e-learning among such students is clear. In the USA in 2006, approximately 3.5 million students participated in on-line learning at higher education institutions. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) continue to prove popular, offering classes to global audiences.

However, as Nodumo Dhlamini and Lisbeth Levey observed in their side event at the 4th RUFORUM biennial conference – entitled “A new architecture for learning: looking into the future of ICT for teaching and learning” – for many years in Africa such pedagogic ambitions for the continent were entirely fanciful in nature. In 1996, Ms Levey recalled, there were only three African countries with more than 64 Kbhs of bandwidth, with dial-up modems emitting idiosyncratic noises into the night. However, four years later the internet had begun to take root on the continent and currently there is a recognition of the critical role ICT can play in teaching in many African higher education establishments. But as Ms Levey noted, agricultural colleges often lag behind the rest of their university counterparts.

RUFORUM has accepted the challenge posed by this state of affairs, campaigning for e-learning opportunities, sensitising some universities within its growing network to the benefits of the field, advocating for the development and approval of official e-learning policies, promoting open educational resources – which can be freely used across universities and adapted without permission by institutions with the only requirement being the attribution of credit to its originating source – and exploring the possibility of learning modules under the MOOCs framework using the ROAR acronym (RUFORUM Open Access Resources).

The future of the virtual alternative to traditional centres of learning in Africa seems certain, with infrastructure requirements increasingly no longer a stumbling block to ICT innovation. Examples include: remote desktop computer labs; virtual microscopes; virtual experiments; crop stimulation models; and open data sites, among others. Of course, this will not materialise by itself. It will require university ownership and leadership and, importantly, energetic, local champions committed to shifting the paradigm of how teaching and learning occurs. These champions will also be architects of learning; but building a new type of institution.

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