eLearning and Knowledge Management in an African University Context

888By Professor Kingo Mchombu,

As the world moves gradually into the knowledge-based society predicted by Peter Drucker in the early 1970s, one of the challenges for developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America is how to create building blocks and vehicles to manage and quicken the transition process. One such building block is Namibia’s Vision 2030, which envisions Namibia becoming a knowledge-based society by 2030. For a country to become a knowledge-based society, organisational learning is of paramount importance because individuals need to engage in continuous learning to acquire new knowledge, not just to remain relevant, but also to make their organisation competitive.  Human Resources Departments as well as Information Management Departments, where they exist, have a key role to play. There is little doubt that two pillars which could accelerate the birth of the new knowledge-based society are eLearning and Knowledge Management.

eLearning refers to computer based training and education, and has a history dating back to the 1970s. In its effort to support education, eLearning provides structured education content to enable learners and participants to pursue studies in the format of distance education. Needless to add, technology plays a pivotal role in eLearning, including modern technologies such as the Internet, and other forms of computer based training. Bilinovac (2010:381) notes that the concept of eLearning has not only been made efficient, but faster by the coming of age of the Internet. He concludes “the learning materials are available through the Internet, and participants (learners and tutors) communicate between themselves by email, chat, discussion forums or social networks, and thus the concept might be used either as the main learning method or combined approach to classroom-based training”.

The eLearning approach is particularly valuable because it has flexibility and is cheap. Given these advantages, eLearning could be used by individuals and organisations that want employees to acquire new skills quickly without departing to a far off educational institution.

By comparison to eLearning, Knowledge Management has a shorter but no less illustrious history, having taken off in the mid-1990s. Although knowledge has no single universal definition, it is generally agreed that it involves acquiring, retaining, storing, communicating and sharing knowledge in an organisation using both the latest technologies and traditional means of communication. The aim is to get the right knowledge to the right people at the right time for the organisations to benefit from improved decisions made by the knowledge-enriched individuals (ABC of Knowledge Management, 2004). Knowledge Management has many processes which allow employees to integrate their cumulative knowledge content to address the organisation’s strategic goals. Like eLearning, modern Knowledge Management has benefited tremendously from the Internet and associated technologies. The current power of Knowledge Management lies in the extensive use of email, chat rooms, blogs, discussion forums, social networks and databases to leverage ideas and knowledge to benefit the various groups and teams involved in such exchanges. Similar to eLearning, Knowledge Management is now a valuable tool to support organisation learning in order to generate new ideas to address the complex situations in which organisations find themselves, as they struggle to achieve their strategic objectives and remain competitive at national and global levels.

Our major contention in this article is that both eLearning and Knowledge Management are required for African countries to become knowledge-based societies. The similarity and overlapping roles between the two concepts have not escaped the attention of some writers.  Aldrich (2005), for example, asserts that “both sides have a critical piece of the puzzle and the best of each will form a new paradigm”. Aldrich argues that given these similarities and overlaps, eventually Knowledge Management and eLearning will converge to form a powerful new entity which brings together knowledge, eLearning and organisational change. We argue that this mixture is required to propel Africa to the 21st Century where knowledge and intellectual property are key to achieving national development. Supporting the merger of the two concepts, Tom Barron (2000) in his article entitled ‘A Smarter Frankenstein: the Merging of eLearning and Knowledge Management’ points out that new ways to work and learn are just around the corner and web technologies will cement the marriage of the two buzz words.

The merger of the two buzz words, however, leaves several questions begging for answers. Although internationally both concepts are relatively well known, in Africa they have not fully taken root and are still a novelty.  Is there sufficient experience to adapt eLearning and Knowledge Management to African realities? Is there sufficient local content to form the bedrock of building the new paradigm? Do training opportunities exist to speed up the fusion of eLearning and Knowledge Management? Can training institutions rise to the occasion to offer the type of training required by a new breed of knowledge managers cum eLearning practitioners?

These questions matter to us in African universities. Many universities teach some form of Knowledge Management but few teach eLearning. A range of regional organisations in Africa are willing to support the spread of Knowledge Management and eLearning, as separate entities. A few such organisations include the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) based in South Africa, and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) based in Addis Ababa. Others are the local offices of United Nations Development Programmes (UNDP), World Health Organisation (WHO), and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Given that most of the above-mentioned organisations, and many others with local presence in Africa, would see Knowledge Management and eLearning as separate entities, universities have a unique role to play in providing bridging programmes which provide training in both eLearning and Knowledge Management as a single programme.

There is a fair amount of literature which addresses the possibility of training to bring to reality the fusion of eLearning and Knowledge Management. Patrick Dunn and Mark Iliff (2005) have written a paper subtitled ‘Why eLearning and knowledge management don’t get along’ noting that they have too many similarities which may generate some form of cannibalism rather than a blissful marriage. Donald Clark (2003), on the other hand, has written a white paper on Knowledge Management and eLearning while Ras, Memmel and Weibelzahl (2005) have also given their thoughts on the integration of eLearning and Knowledge Management. A brilliant paper written by Thomas Kelly and Diana Bauer (n.d) elaborates on how Cisco created a worldwide eLearning platform for its own staff which merges both eLearning and Knowledge Management. They note that “Knowledge Management initiatives at Cisco are not exclusive to eLearning, nor are they explicitly defined as Knowledge Management. At Cisco, eLearning is the preferred term describing the Internet-enabling of information, training, communication and collaboration. The end goal of Cisco’s eLearning initiative is measurable business impact…” What the various works cited above illustrate is that the merger of the two concepts is not only feasible but desirable to achieve the best returns for any organisation.
At this juncture, perhaps we should ask which Knowledge Management tools, among the multitude of available options, can enhance eLearning. Essentially one may note that the same tools which allow organisations to capture, store, share and enhance organisational knowledge, can be used for creating, enhancing and delivering learning and training to students.

  • Shared spaces offered by a Knowledge Management System for collaboration and teamwork, can become the ‘virtual classroom’ for teachers and students to interact, share ideas and learn collaboratively.
  • Content Management Systems (CMS) and, more specifically, Learning Content Management Systems can provide the content repository for learning materials or, more specifically, Learning Objects.
  • Learning Portals will provide the customised interface for a student’s personalised learning experience, where the student will be able to choose the learning that he/she requires, by selecting the “chunks” of learning needed, and linking to the teacher(s) who can facilitate this learning.

In conclusion, we quote the writer of the article titled ‘A smarter Frankenstein’ who has talked enthusiastically about a new paradigm shift. He calls it a  “a beast (which) combines formal training as represented by eLearning, and the free-floating knowledge swirling through organisations that Knowledge Management practices seek to snare and share” (Barron 2000). So the big question is: can the beast be snared and domesticated to serve Africa’s transition to a knowledge based society through combining the powers which these two innovative disciplines bring? The answer will depend on African organisations and tertiary institutions that have the courage to walk uncharted terrain, creating a hybrid profession: an area we shall hear more about in future.

Professor Kingo Mchombu – Professor of Information and Communication Studies and Dean: Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Namibia. 

“eLearning and Knowledge Management in an African University Context” is one of the twelve opinion pieces featured in the eLearning Africa 2013 Report. To read more about the annual publication, please visit: http://elearning-africa.com/media_library_publications_ela_report_2013.php.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *