The Department of Computer Science at the University of Botswana has recently won a highly regarded Microsoft Research award. The award was announced by Microsoft to encourage researchers from around the world to pursue research in technology to improve health, education, and socio-economic conditions. The project, Integrated Healthcare Information Service through Mobile Technology in Botswana (IHISM), will investigate wireless and mobile technologies that enable users to access health information using PDAs and mobile phones. Only 17 out of 162 proposed projects have been awarded, with the University of Botswana the only one from Africa. Meeting the University’s vision to be leading academic centre of excellence in Africa and the world, this is a great success story.
Information technology and e-learning have come a long way at the University of Botswana. In 2001 the University of Botswana eLearning (UBel) programme was started with the vision of providing a student-centred, intellectually stimulating, and technologically advanced teaching, learning, and research environment. An e-learning support team in educational technologies was formed in 2003, consisting of an Instructional Designer, an Online Media Developer, and a Graphic Designer to support academic staff involved in e-learning as well as students using educational technology provided by the University.
After a slow start in 2002, the University has seen a rapid increase in the development of e-learning courses. By April 2006, 343 new online courses have been created, out of which 205 were created during the current and the past semesters (60%). A steady increase in interested lecturers can be noticed, according to the e-learning support team. To date, 145 lecturers use e-learning at UB. This constitutes 18% of the total academic staff at UB, which is 788. The number of students enrolling in e-learning courses is also growing. This semester more than 13,000 students have been added to courses, on average 90 students per course.
This acceptance is relatively recent. “Both among students and staff, we found a lot of technophobia, fear of using technology, back then but also fear of change”, reports Daniela Giannini-Gachago, Manager of the e-learning support team. “We came to realise that introducing e-learning at UB was a change-management process. Our main objective was to make teaching and learning more learner-centred, collaborative, independent and life-long for our students is slowly being achieved. (link)
The above approach meant a paradigm shift in teaching and learning which neither lecturers nor students reacted well to that at the beginning. What we’ve done is to provide extensive support, coaching and training for our staff and students. And we’re giving them a lot of time to adjust to change.”
Similar to many other universities in the developing world, the implementation of eLearning of at the university of Botswana was not all smooth sailing. The major challenges are in the area of limited resources particularly availability of computers.
For instance the University’s computer ratio is one computer per fifteen students. Students can access computers in the library or departmental or faculty computer labs, when free. It is definitely not enough, and that’s one of the biggest complaints amongst students, faculty, and staff. Most of the lecturers use e-learning as an addition to their face-to-face teaching, and learners can use it on a voluntary basis. But there are also some faculty members who, for example, expect students to submit their assignments through WebCT, and then the students have to fight for access. The University has three eLearning SMART classrooms that lecturers can book for their students. “I hope that e-learning will have a lasting effect on learning and teaching at our University. At least students now type most of their assignments, use the Internet for researching information, have email access and some do use WebCT”, explains Gianinni-Gachago. “It has definitely put more responsibility on students: most lecturers upload their notes on WebCT for students; they communicate via email or the forum with their students. Assignments have to be submitted via WebCT and some lecturers use online quizzes.”
The Educational Technology Unit (EduTech) of the University of Botswana has managed to infuse learning technologies into teaching and learning processes successfully. Interest in e-learning continues to rise as the infrastructure becomes increasingly available and stable, and confidence of lecturers in using technologies grows through continuous support and training. eLearning has, however, reached a critical point – with the current technical and support infrastructure, further growth is limited if certain quality standards are to be maintained.
There is need for management support in further developing the required infrastructure, e.g. the setting up of e-learning SMART classrooms for each faculty, and increasing the staff of the e-learning support team. This year the EduTech plans the mainstreaming of eLearning in Distance Education, the upgrade to WebCT 6.0, and at the same time, the re-evaluation of WebCT as compared to an open source system, as well as the creation of a proper student support system.
Clearly there is much work ahead if the University is to fulfil its vision. But the future looks bright: with high student enrolment rates, a remarkable wealth of facilities, and a continuously growing record of achievements, the University of Botswana can play a major role in fulfilling the country’s vision of becoming an informed and educated nation by 2016.