A comprehensive new study, led by Professor Tim Unwin of the University of London, will review Africa’s Learning Management Systems. How best to deliver, track and manage education on a broad scale is a controversial subject in Africa and it provided the inspiration for several high-quality sessions on Learning Management Systems (LMSs) at this year’s eLearning Africa conference. Professor Unwin’s study draws on information collected from 385 educational experts in 25 African countries, including both declared LMS advocates and “newbies”. The study, which was undertaken as a joint venture between ICWE, SPIDER and ICT4D, is due to be published soon.
Professor Tim Unwin’s new study of African Learning Management Systems identifies several major problems affecting the development of education and training in Africa.
Apart from common infrastructural obstacles, which make internet connections unreliable, participants in Unwin’s survey have also raised organisational and conceptual concerns regarding LMSs in Africa. The first findings of the study refer to the basic difficulties; the second to the respondents’ differing views as to what eLearning actually is.
eLearning is much more than just accessing information from the Internet, and the fact that eLearning involves active engagement with various online tools for learning and knowledge-sharing is not widely understood. Among those who had regular access to the Internet, it was predominantly used for carrying out basic functions such as sending e-mails and surfing the web. The full potential of LMSs as an educational tool remains, in many cases, unrealised.
eLA: What is a Learning Management System, or LMS?
Tim Unwin: The role of an LMS is twofold: firstly, it is an important means through which distance-based learning can be delivered; secondly, it is a central pillar in the learning solutions that have been adopted in many education systems, whereby learners can access a range of materials electronically to supplement more traditional teaching methods involving books and classroom teaching. LMSs are also an important way to make learning resources freely available by institutions, and through which Open Educational Resources (OER) can be accessed. LMSs are thus now commonplace in schools, universities and businesses in many of the richer countries of the world, and there is strong competition for this lucrative market. Well-developed LMSs make use of wikis, RSS feeds, glossaries, chat rooms and provide extra course materials and links. Where LMSs are already in use, they tend to be one of the following types: open source LMSs, most notably Moodle but also Sakai/Vula, which are open source solutions, as well as proprietary solutions, such as Blackboard. Among the respondents, Blackboard and Moodle were the most commonly used, followed by WebCT. As the study also shows, there is some geographic difference in the use of various LMSs, with Sakai/Vula being used exclusively in South Africa, and knowledge of KEWL/KEWL.NextGenbeingused predominantly in South Africa and Tanzania. Moodle and Blackboard appear to have a more widespread distribution. Generally, the overall awareness of LMSs seems to be high – 62 respondents mentioned that they were aware of LMSs other than the 14 listed in the survey.
However, the implementation of an LMS does not guarantee its effective use – 25 percent reported having received less than two hours of training and most said they were self-taught. The study revealed some disparities between the purported knowledge of LMSs and their actual use in learning environments. No teacher claimed to use LMSs on a daily basis and 56 percent said they used it only once a month or even less frequently. Learners appear to use LMSs a little more regularly.
[callout title=Africa-specific priorities for eLearning]
In a paper attached to Professor Unwin’s study, and once again produced in collaboration with ICWE, David Hollow discusses some of the priorities for eLearning in Africa, as highlighted by participants in the study. Having covered the uses of LMSs, the survey then considered current priorities for action within the field. The intention is that this information will provide an overview for decision makers about current practitioner needs. Respondents were given a choice of eight categories within which to identify their priority for action on eLearning. The categories were hardware, software, training, management, bandwidth, electricity supply, donor funding and “other”. It should be noted that the participants of the survey were already engaged in eLearning to some extent, otherwise the most common response would undoubtedly have been closely linked to the need for a consistent electricity supply.
Firstly, when asked in regard to the programmes with which they are personally involved, three clear priority areas emerged. The issue of training was named the top priority by 35 percent of respondents due to the simple fact that teachers and students currently have little opportunity to learn how to use eLearning programmes. This was linked to a reported lack of appreciation of the potential of eLearning to provide a fresh approach to learning and teaching. A second major issue related to training that was raised (by 20 percent) was that of donor funding. In cases where people were interested in eLearning and keen to implement it, the high start-up costs and lack of budget for staff training rendered the proposal unviable. Thus, donor funding was deemed necessary in order to support eLearning schemes already in operation and to help get further schemes off the ground, particularly in poorer areas. A further priority issue, which was identified by 18 percent, was insufficient bandwidth. Its high cost means that the amount of downloadable content must be limited, thus leaving access to certain online tools and LMSs out of the question.
Also identified were: the need for investment in dialogue, sharing experiences and coordination between programmes; the involvement of African educationalists in the design, monitoring and evaluation of programmes; the involvement of community-based organisations with the consultation process; and the research and development of effective methodologies.
The paper (PDF) is now available at http://www.gg.rhul.ac.uk/ict4d/workingpapers/Hollowelearning.pdf[/callout]
eLA: What is hindering the spread of LMSs in Africa?
Tim Unwin: Among those already using LMSs to some extent, the principle obstacles limiting LMS usage revolve around low connectivity speeds (56% stating “very much”) and unreliable internet connections (45% stating “very much”). A further constraint was reported as being the lack of an eLearning policy (44% stating “very much”) in institutions, as well as a general lack of training and technical support. There is a lack of training manuals and courses on the implementation and use of LMSs, which leads to a shortage of people – even within universities – who are able to take advantage of what LMSs can offer both to the teacher and the learner.
However, regardless of the numerous stumbling blocks, Unwin is confident that there are reasons to remain positive about the future of LMSs in Africa. With encouraging reports from those who are using LMSs effectively, Unwin remains optimistic that the installation of LMSs will grow across the Continent.
eLA: What can Africans do to drive this further?
Tim Unwin: To put LMSs to effective use in African teaching institutions, there must be a considerable investment by the people. This includes making more LMS training courses available to a greater number of people, at both the university and school levels. Furthermore, it is crucial, says Unwin, that learners then have sufficient opportunities regularly to put their new skills into practice. Closely linked to this is the establishment of concrete eLearning policies, which will require an acknowledgement not only of the benefits that LMSs can bring but also an understanding of how they function.