Monday, November 27, 2006

Getting Close and Personal with Technology

Accepting and adopting eLearning is in away agreeing to your invasion of privacy. It also entails a move from a certain comfort zone, to a zone where you are moving to the very uncertain future of/with technology. It means that at anyplace, anywhere and anytime you are there! As an academic staff member, it means you need to put more and more efforts not only in course preparation, but also in online course facilitation among your other duties. A distressed student will send you an email a few minutes before you sleep, and you will have a number of recorded voice messages in the morning when you get to the office. Consultations are no longer restricted to the office hours thanks to technology.

In my previous blog, I mentioned the role of training and support - it is essential. However, it does not come if not asked for, or there is no need for it. To get close and personal with technology, one need to first acknowledge when s/he is stuck, and ask. Second, one should be willing to assist others with technology. Getting to out of "what would others think of me if I ask this question" or "will I appear stupid if I ask?" is the initial step. Asking technical questions come with practice - just like starting a blog like this one and telling everyone what your thoughts and reflections are. So, as a first step do not shy off asking your teenage daughter something to do with your phone. The second step is offering to assist. In line with an old Christian (I guess) philosophy that you gain more in giving than in receiving - offering to assist when you can not only boosts your confidence in the use of technology but also empowers someone. If the cycle of assisting each other with technology is enhanced and propagated, we can form a formidable team of experts!

In summary, to be close and personal with technology you acknowledge that you will be required to be available anywhere anytime, you admit that you cannot know everything to do with technology and that it is not stupid to ask a question, and you recognise the value of assisting others with technology related problems. To assess how close and personal you are with technology count the number of days you have worked from home, you have slept late replying to emails, you received 10 voice messages in a day, you called the technical department for assistance, you asked your son which key to press, you colleague came to ask you something about your latest laptop and so on.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Where does this Leave My Clients?

A few hours ago, our CIO issued a warning in a widely circulated letter that he will lobby for our institution to dissociate itself from any Novell software following the recent marriage between Microsoft and Novell. I do not feel obligated to comment about the bedroom matters of the marriage, but I wonder what two parties with a history of long court battles realised to seal the marriage deal. I personally feel betrayed by any move that would curtail the freedom I enjoy using Free and Open Software. I am also disturbed by the uncertainties that such marriages would bring on the face of the progress to more freedom. Is this not a betrayal of the people who have contributed to the success of the Novell applications? Or is there something am not understanding about the whole deal? Is this a genesis of more marriages of convenience? What is the next big news?

What is disturbing me the most is where decisions by organisations providing software applications agree on dining with the enemy, and the subsequent resolutions like the one our CIO is making leave the clients (the normal users of the services), who in most cases do not have an idea of what the marriage is all about. I wonder if the 6000+ users of our eLearning site know that it runs on SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) - a Novell product. Happily there we are in the process of getting other solutions for the site and Novell products are definitely out of the equation. While for the server technology it might be easy to do a change over without the users' knowledge, I foresee hardships (that can be overcame) in changing the client technologies like the Novell Groupwise. I am also happy that for two months since I got SUSE 10 DVD, I have not brought down the Fedora Core 5 I use on my laptop and the Mark Webbink of Redhat has posted his criticism of the marriage. For now, I wait for Fedora Core 6 to be available on our mirror site for my next laptop!

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Do Online Learners Need Special Reading Skills?

We have been advocating for an paperless society where everything is digitized. This, for the environmentalist is a good approach given that there will be fewer trees being harvested to manufacture paper. I am not sure if the same environmentalists have considered to study what is the environmental impact on the production and disposal of the electronic devices that we use. This would make a good blog for another day. In the digitized world, every thing would be stored in electronic form. This has advantages in terms of speed of access, physical storage space - and some may argue on security.

Our learning materials are now digitized and we expect our students to use them to learn. I believe there is a significant difference in reading styles and skills between paper-based and electronic materials. I remember a few years ago when I was an undergraduate student, one of the introductory courses at the university was code-named "Communication Skills". It was a compulsory course for every first year student. During this course we are were taught among other things, reading and comprehension, writing and library searches always geared towards the paper-based media. Do we need such a course for online learning especially where there is use of the web browsers? Are we assuming that our users who have just started using eLearning have the skills to "learn online"? I think institutions now are required more than ever before to offer the "Communication Skills" course and include some specific lessons on how to read online. I have experienced students who print all the course content presented online. Though some of them would argue they do not have internet access at home, I strongly believe that a good number do not have the skills required to read on a computer screen.

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

QC and QA in eLearning Courses in Higher Education

If we define quality assurance (QA) as the a standard procedure to ensure that an eLearning course conforms and abides to established requirements - pedagogical, technical and otherwise. And further define quality control (QC) as the operations geared towards checking for the fulfillment of the requirements, who would be in-charge of QA and QC in eLearning courses? Is it the eLearning support team. or the Subject matter experts (SMEs) or the faculty? What aspects of the Quality Assurance and Quality Control (QA/C) would fall on the hands of the eLearning support and why? Who determines the standards to be adhered to in eLearning courses?

I ask this because of a number of reasons. One, as a member of the eLeanring support team, I do not think its within my domain to offer the QA/C of eLearning courses - at least not the content. What I can only offer, is the adherence to the technical standards, that vary from one context to another. The level of educational quality of the content I cannot assure, neither can I control. Two, I wonder how QA/C is done for the traditional brick and mortar teaching and learning approach.Who does the QA/C of courses being offered f2f? How is the QA/C done and how often? Thirdly, with the emergency of 101 "eLearning Universities" what quality standards will we use to gauge the strength and quality of any certification attained from these universities?

One of the ways I think can be employed to improve on the quality of eLearning courses is making them open, or at least accessible through less restrictive licenses. This way, we will have a good review from peers, and also a good exposure of our ideas to criticism - that might point out to us all the misconceptions and inaccuracies that we might be holding and propagating in the courses we teach. Of course not everyone will be open to criticism especially if it is in a field where he believes to hold an unquestionable authority, but if through practices one can learn to accept criticism.

Another way of improving on the quality of online courses is through cooperation and collaboration. There are courses offered by different universities (or departments) that are similar. If all the universities collaborated in offering a course - say "Introduction to research methods", we will have, in my opinion, a superior course gathering expertise and resources from a number of professionals. This approach not only improves on the quality, but also it saves on resources due to the minimised duplication of efforts. For example, I took the faculty information booklets of a university and I found out that almost every department offers a course in research methods, each offered differently. This is a waste of the scarce resources.

For now, lets make our courses open, and lets also cooperate and collaborate with like minded people to ensure improved quality in eLearning course.

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Friday, November 24, 2006

The Question of ROI and eLearning

I facilitated a workshop yesterday on the role of training and support in eLearning success. This workshop was mainly around the issues I discussed earlier in my blogs (The Role of Training and Support in eLearning Success Parts I-IV).

One of the major question that was asked is how to convince the chief executives of African universities to increase/provide funding for eLearning. This is a hard stance given that in most universities, due to the commercialisation projects, one has to justify any expenditure with the Return on Investment (ROI). I am not convinced that asking for a justification for this kind of investment is really worthwhile or warranted. Elearning has become necessity that cannot be wished away. It is a way of life, an idea that is here to stay. Therefore the sooner the the CEOs in these universities realise this the better. A question might be asked, what is the ROI of the office spaces and lecture halls that we currently have in these universities? What is the ROI of a whiteboard or chalkboard in the lecturer halls (especially if we do not have students in the lecturer halls)? Would we still ask what is the ROI if a chemistry lecturer asks for funds to stock her laboratory with chemicals for students' experiments?

In my opinion, just like it is almost impossible to justify or quantify the ROI on educational investment, the same applies to eLearning. We do not stop sending our children to school because education has become too expensive and we do not know what we will get from their education. Or do we?

what if we see eLearning as an enhancement of our teaching and learning? Will still ask what is the same questions? What is the ROI of out teaching and learning - with or without technology? If we define eLearning as teaching and learning using technology, will we install overhead/LCD projectors in our classrooms/lecture halls?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Role of Training and Support in eLearning Success Part IV

In the last 3 series on this topic, I have tackled the key aspects of eLearning, the training and support, and methods and procedures that we have used towards our success. In this blog, I focus on what knits all the information and aspects that arose in the previous blogs together: The technology and the people. I have decided to combine the two because:

1. Technology alone cannot form what eLearning ought to be.
2. People, without technology cannot form that either.
3. How people use technology defines its success.

In the first part of the blog, I will give a brief introduction about the structure of our eLearning Division.

The people and the technology are the resources that we tap on most. Looking at our structure you will see we have a hybrid team with different roles towards a common goal.The eLearning Division is headed by a manager. It is divided into five areas. The number in bracket represent the current number of staff in each area.

  1. Instructional Design (6) supports sound pedagogy in the use of technology in teaching-and-learning, which is further enhanced by Learning Management System support of students - where I fall. 2 members of this team are fully dedicated to student training and support.

  2. Digital Academic Literacy (2) which trains students in computer literacy.

  3. ICT Staff Training (2) supports just-in-time learning for the use of software applications, and basic introduction to computers to members of staff.

  4. Digital Multimedia (3) services supports the use of digital multimedia such as video in support of teaching-and-learning.

  5. Materials Development team (2) develops of manuals and simulations to support training.

This 16 members form the strong team that is driving eLearning initiatives are UWC. In addition, through the spirit of capacity building and empowering people, we tap from the student community who help us not only in the administrative duties at the division, but also in research and training - I also started as a student assistant.

Also, we have the advantage of having the heart of AVOIR at UWC. Through FSIU, most of the technical issues relating to our elearning site are catered for.

The IT operations team also offer incredible services, and move with speed whenever we make any requests or complains on the level of services that we get. The computing facilities at the institution are improving to cater for the demands of eLearning.

Apart from the Learning Management System, we have a state of the art digital studio and student computer laboratories. The lecture halls are also being upgraded to make it easy to use recording facilities that can allow lectures to be hosted on our learning management system.

The Role of Training and Support in eLearning Success Part III

In is the third blog in this series. Part I dealt with the key issues in eLearning and Part II is about training and support. In this part, I discuss methods and procedures that we have adopted, and how they have contributed to our success.

We have adopted a number of methods and procedures to ensure that our work goes on seamlessly. This procedures are mainly administrative to make sure for example that all the training schedules are done and dispatched on time via campus communications, ensuring that all bookings for training are captured and if there is any additional information the trainees need to know is communicated to them, informing the office of staff development of the training for their records and also for catering purposes (we offer a light snack for every training that takes more than three hours), analyzing the training reports and where intervention is needed doing so promptly, reporting back to the office of staff development as well us updating our databases of the people who have attended training and most important that the training actually takes place. There are also elaborate procedures and steps that we follow in putting forward feature requests and reporting bugs to the technical departments. Other methods for success include proper documentation, sound project management, team and capacity building and marketing.

On the documentation, we create a report of each and every training, consultation, meetings with stakeholders, and things that arise during our course of duty. Also, at the end of every week, we prepare personal reports detailing out every major task that we have done, and its status. The personal reports are usually divided into administrative tasks, training, meetings, consultations, technical and seminars. These reports helps us in sharing of tasks and also when we need to do an audit of the capacity within the team. In addition, we prepare monthly reports with an audit of all the activities that have been taking place.

The eLearning division is small compared to the demands of our clients. Good project management and planing is essential. Over the last year, we have been having a number of special academic projects (also as part of our marketing) going on. These projects had an overwhelming demand for our support and its only through good project management we managed to deliver. Due to the success rates of the projects, next year we have many more projects lined up. For next year too, only proper management of our training and support will make us succeed.

Continuous team and capacity building takes place during our "Capacity Building Sessions" every Friday afternoon. During these sessions, we hold our division's meeting and a team member does a training/demonstration of some of the talents or skills she/he has for the benefits of all the other members. Also, as part of the capacity building, members are encourage to attend conferences and seminars on eLearning.

Marketing and changing of mindsets is very important. We have to convert the traditionalists to use eLearning. Our approach to marketing reach-one reach-all. When a lecturer shows interest in using eLearning, we encourage him/her to setup a project. In this project, we offer all the necessary resources, support and training. We work to make sure that the project is a success. Once this project is successful, we ask the academic, now the champion to lobby within his/her department. The champion schedules and invites us for a meeting with the department. During these meetings we
informally discuss the fears, expectations, promises, challenges, etc of eLearning with the academics. It offers us a chance to not only listen to our potential clients but also to know them. This of late has been driven by the successes that have been reported by other departments. We also offer incentives in the form of laptops to the champions.

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The Role of Training and Support in eLearning Success Part II

I start this part with a quote from Micheal Fledstein's Blog, a reflection/reaction posted by Stephen on an article appearing on the Communication of the ACM. The blog article's title is "The Sesame Street Syndrome".

In the final paragraph Stephen notes

The misuse (or not) of technology in lectures is merely a symptom of a wider malaise in university teaching. Giving academics a “fair fight” must mean giving them all of the resources, training, time and support needed to be effective teachers, not just the bare minimum needed to be
boring lecturers.
The fair fight being quoted here arises from the perceived lack of control of the learning process by academics. It is seen as a problem when students are using the wireless technology in the classroom to do things that are totally unrelated to what the academic is offering.

Our approach to giving the academics a "fair fight" is training them for a mind-set shift. From seeing students as only passive recipients of knowledge to seeing them as active creators of knowledge. Training them to pass the control of the learning process to the students (the shift from the sage on stage to the guide on the side).

Training and Support
On training, the eLearning division in liaison with the office of staff development sends out monthly training schedules. The training times are varied and flexible to cater for the different timings and
schedules of the target client. On timing we have main training scheduled between 9.00-12.00 and 2.00-4.30 on weekdays, lunchtimes on Wednesdays (except when we have an elearning seminars). We only offer student training on request from the lecturers although we do a 10-15 minutes demonstration on how to navigate the eLearning site, on invitation to the lecturers' lectures. In the training, we have included other components like image editing. Image editing was introduced when we discovered that our clients needed to use graphics but they did not know how to scale them for the web.

The characteristics and strategies of the support that we give are:
  • On-time - We have an email address accessible to all members of the team where the campus community contacts us on. During office hours, a request is processed within the hour it is received. During weekends however, response may take sometimes but occasionally there is someone within the team who checks the emails. We also have a support telephone line that is maned always during working hours. In addition, the ICS helpdesk forwards to us all requests from the campus community that are related to eLearning. Our on-time support makes sure that we build and maintain a level of confidence with the stakeholders that -"we are with you throughout the learning process".

  • Clarifying the issues with users. It is important as a support division to understand what the users' concerns are. In the support environment we at times receive calls that we do not understand for example we receive call that the "eLearning site is not working", at a time when we are using it. We therefore, have to understand what the users' mean by and their perception of what is "not working". In some cases we find that the users have an incorrect url, or there are settings within their computers that are not properly set, or the network is not working from their offices among others. In line with clarifying the issues with the users, we show the them alternatives that exist - without over-burdening or confusing them. Again, we reassure the users that we are with them and update them regularly on the issues they have raised.

  • We also provide timely follow-ups to find out how the academics who have attended training, and showed interest in using eLearning are doing. The follow-ups are mainly on email. During this follow-ups we have found out that some academics at times get stuck and do not know how to ask for assistance.
  • Apart from the academics, we provide student training and support. This is critical for the success of eLearning as students are the recipients and main consumers of the eLearning products. It is a cumbersome process but manageable.

Apart from the training, we have departmental visits where on invitation by eLearning champions in the departments, we go to introduce eLearning to the departments. This visits are not so detailed in nature, but we use them to informally discuss the fears, expectations, promises, challenges, etc of eLearning. It offers us a chance to not only listen to our potential clients but also to know them. This of late has been driven by the successes that have been reported by other departments.

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The Role of Training and Support in eLearning Success Part I

I received a request this week "to put together a short workshop on supporting e-learning in the institution (University of the Western Cape, UWC) for the AVOIR meeting". The workshop need to cover things like "strategy, organization, activities, what works, what doesn't". I have 90 minutes to convince, showcase, and discuss with the over 30 participants the issues pertaining to the use of eLearning and related technologies. In these series of blog articles, I will go through the Mind2Finger issues that am going through in preparing for the workshop. In this first issues, I will identify the key issues in eLearning. These issues will form the foundation for the next sections and they are:

  1. Online tutoring
  2. Online Resources
  3. Assessment of Online Learning
  4. student issues
  5. Content issues
  6. Staff issues
Online tutoring is a challenging and daunting task requiring a number of interventions from a number of stakeholders in the higher education institutions. It involves among other things preparing lecturers and students for the online experiences, managing students in the online environments, and using a number of communication tools that are available in the learning management system(LMS).

The online resources that are available for the campus community at UWC are the learning management system, the multimedia studio, and a host of other computing facilities including computers, scanners, cameras etc. The participants in the online learning environment are trained on using the LMS, using multimedia, effective writing for eLearning, and creating interactivity. There is also a support division (The eLearning Division) to assist all the participants in their pursuit. In addition, we have the Information Technology operational and hardware maintenance section of the university, computer laboratories, and FSIU and AVOIR developers assisting in building tools for the LMS.

Lack of familiarity to the alternative forms of online assessments has to be addressed in the training and support. The lecturers are trained on the various tools provided on the LMS, how and when to use them, and how to prepare their students for the online assessments. The tools for assessment of online learning that are being used constantly are the discussion forum, work groups, multiple choice questions, and other innovative online assessments like the worksheets, assignments, and essays. The Problem-Based Learning (PBL) has also been used, though not as much as the other forms of online assessment above.

The main concerns for students in addition to training and support is access. Most student access their online course materials on campus, and we have limited computing facilities for students. A booking system for computer laboratories is in place to assist the students. Also, due to this fact, we encourage lecturers to extend and stretch deadlines for online activities over a longer period of time so that all students can get a chance in using the computers. As I will discuss in the next sections, we have structures for academic support for students offered by the lecturer and the computer literacy and induction offered by our eLearning Division.

On content, the main issues rotate around "dumping", size and type of content and copyright. In our training, we emphasize that the LMS is is NOT a dumping site for class readers and class notes. We advocate for well-thought, structured and manageable content. We encourage the lecturers to "pass on" responsibility of learning to the students through the use of the tools available. On the size, due to limits in bandwidth, we recommend the use of media that is bandwidth friendly. We also train and assist lecturers and students in optimising the size of the content put online, for example on image editing. In our LMS a host of media types are supported including text, images, video and audio, presentations, SCORM among others.

The staff issues relate to the lecturers and in some cases faculty administrators. The main concern for now is time and skills to facilitate online learning. For skills, we pass them through the various models of training and consultations we hold with the lecturers. This training also assist them in exploiting techniques that would speed up their online facilitation. We also encourage them to make use of their student assistants and workstudy programmes within their departments. Over the last few weeks, we have seen an increase in a number of student assistants being used to assist the lecturer in online courses facilitation. Staff training is done in collaboration with the Office of Staff Development at UWC.

In the next part, I will explain to some details the training and support strategies that we employ.

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Testing Performancing

I was looking for adds-on for my Firefox installation when I came across Performancing. Isn't it great what and how web technologies are being designed? With only a few clicks, I can be publishing my blog stories as they happen or to put it right, just think with my fingers on the keyboard.

Since blogging is setting the stage, and moving eLearning to higher grounds, cool tools like Performancing that not only saves time and clicks, but also offers a wide range of capabilities are welcome.

--Only if I had known of it earlier

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Time to Go eLearning Way

I have heard probably n times (where n tends to infinity)that the reasons we do not want to go use eLearning is because of time and cost. Needless to say, some of the people who believe they do not have time for eLearning or creating online learning materials, can spend on average 2 hours daily on a computer researching why time is a constraint in their dreams of having an online course sometime. Miraculously. I argue that we cannot have all the time to do all the things we want to, rather we create time to do the things that we value. The next time I hear someone say there is not time to create online learning experiences, I will translate it to I do not see the value of eLearning. For any good purpose, if any professor can have time to prepare learning materials for an face to face classroom session, and have them typed - and even goes an extra mile to have presentation slides done for the course, that professor has more time than is demanded for in creating a online learning course. Only a reorganization of priorities and energies is needed. One thing I however agree on, without contradicting myself, is that the initial time investment is enormous. But the gains once that is done it terms of man-hours is enormous.

I would apply the same argument for the cost. In life, we do not have all the money to buy everything - else we would not be having all these budget committees. But where do we direct our monies to? What have we done with the little we have? Have we tried to collaborate with other like minded partners in the pursuit for eLearning?

There are new and emerging cheap options that can be used to deliver eLearning. If this options are explored further, I believe eLearning can take off in a big way. But until then, I do not have more time and money to write another sentence in this blog.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

What are the Barriers to Widespread Adoption of Online Education?

There seems to be a bug with the editor on beta. So the emphasis might not come out now as I would have wanted them to.
I take a block from the just published "Making the Grade: Online Education in the United States, 2006" on the question of barriers to adoption.

Previous studies in this series have identified a number of areas of concern for the potential growth of online offerings and enrollments. Academic leaders have commented that their faculty often don’t accept the value of online learning and that it takes more time and effort to teach an online course. To what extent do these leaders see these issues and others as critical barriers to the widespread adoption of online learning?
The evidence: Problem areas identified in previous years are still seen as areas of concern among academic leaders.
  • Only 4.6 percent of Chief Academic Officers agreed that there are no significant barriers to widespread adoption of online learning.
  • Nearly two-thirds of the academic leaders cite the need for more discipline on the part of online students as a critical barrier.
  • Faculty issues, both acceptance of online and the need for greater time and effort to teach online, are also important barriers.
  • Neither a perceived lack of demand on the part of potential students nor the acceptance of an online degree by potential employers was seen as a critical barrier.

If 95.4% of the Chief academic officers say there are NO significant barriers to online learning, why are we not seeing high adoption of eLearning in the universities - especially the traditional ones? I have a problem though with the way the question was asked "There are No Significant Barriers to Widespread Adoption of Online Learning" and tend to think that the result would be significantly different if the question was "There are Significant Barriers to Widespread Adoption of Online Learning".

If student discipline is seen as a barrier to adoption of online education, what are the attributes that the online learners have to be regarded as disciplined?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Are African HEIs Missing out on eLearning?

Stephen R. Ruth in the current issue of educause discusses financial and strategic perspectives of eLearning in a study that found that the market for distance education is increasing annually by about 25%. In the paper, the revenues growth rates for for-profit higher education institutions in the USA that have adopted eLearning have quadrupled those of the traditional universities a fact that Stephen asks whether it is too good to be true. Other interesting findings are (excerpts):
  • Three-fourths of academic leaders at public colleges and universities believe that online learning quality equals or surpasses face-to-face instruction.
  • The larger the school, the more positive the belief in the quality of online learning compared to face-to-face instruction.

In the US, many traditional universities use eLearning, but are unwilling to offer fully online programs. This is a fact I have observed with the few universities that offer eLearning programs in Africa. There are suggested strategic/financial approaches suggested that the traditional universities can use to "achieve full utilization and possible profitability" from eLearning investments:
  • Investigate mergers and integration.
  • Establish a no-nonsense, globally oriented virtual university.
  • Limit bricks-and-mortar investment in favor of blended learning.
  • Support the deliberate proliferation of distance-learning adjunct faculty.
  • Accept that e-learning is costly but crucial.
I will highlight the last one, which I think the players in the African Higher Educations should concentrate on before checking on the other four. Stephen puts accepting that eLearning is the way to go " is an easier solution, far less painful than any of the approaches already suggested". A quote by Victor Hugo can be used to explain the eLearning idea: An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come. And Stephen says "e-learning is a necessity, a significant convenience, an indispensable service, and a way of life".

And to answer my question, African Higher Education Institutions are missing big time on the eLearning issue. To the best of my knowledge, there is NO university in Africa that has an eLearning financial model to sustain it other than that financial vote that usually goes to the Information and Communication Technologies department. I can already see someone thinking that there is always the issue of lack of resources and some other excuses, but my question is what have the HEIs in Africa done (or are doing) with the meager resources at their disposal? We got first to work optimally with the little we have, stretching it for maximum returns and that would give us something, albeit small to grow.

Palaver: I am disturbed by the news that there are people who use the scarce bandwidth in Africa to watch and engage in pornography and other weird online behaviors at the expense of the taxpayers.

Hand-helds in Education

Today I had a very interesting conversation with my friend from Sokoine University of Agriculture. The talk was about using just-in-time and and what I would adaptive technology for learning. He had ideas of how to use hand-held devices in elearning - especially because the people who own cellphones in Tanzania has increased tremendously over the last few years. This according to him would extend the reach of education to people who are diversely located. One of my reservations though on the use of hand-held devices for learning is the type and size of content. Can the cellphones be used to convey meaningful - and I mean significant content that can be used as learning material? In as much as every technology would bring along its limitations and challenges, I do not think the cellphones are yet evolved for the level of interactivity in content, that I would say can facilitate learning. That is not to say that they can not be used in learning. I believe they can, for example in sending out notices, reminders and any information that can be sent in short messages, urgently.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Using Chat to Support Teaching and Learning

Today I was scheduled to attend a meeting outside town, to go there and find out the meeting was postponed without notice because the main presenters were not available. I just felt it was a wasted morning, but it was good I managed to pass by the barber shop for a clean shave. The taxi that I came back with was being driven by a lady, and behind her seat there was a big sticker "I am a Taxi Driver NOT a Woman Driver". It just hit me that we might still be experiencing stereotypes on the job choices when it comes to the gender and some jobs. Anyway, I managed to reach home and start my other scheduled activities for the weekend.

I received a call to assist someone with some assignment on Break-even Analysis and Sensitivity Analysis. I just remembered this topics I had encountered them 4 or 5 years back when I was doing my undergraduate degree. I think the course name was either Decision Support Systems or Operations Research or both. Since I engage financial arithmetics when colleagues and friends seek programming solutions for their assignments (sometimes someone brought to me the Black Scholes method to optimise some solution, I could see the disappointment on his face when I told him I had never heard of Black Scholes models), I had to take it on. Luckily it was some of those very straightforward things that I could find easily after doing a very simple web search. The next minute, I was the sage in financial accounts taking someone through profit and loss calculations, break-even analysis and so much more.

However, the focus of this blog is not more on the solution, but the media used to offer the solution. We were using an Instant Messenger (IM) to communicate (for the friend was in Kenya and am more than 3000 km away). It was interesting how for example I had to minimise the formula to fit the situation. Here is a snippet of the IM chat with permission from the anonymous friend. It has breaks where I put on comments to show the advantage and disadvantages of the chat as a teaching and learning tool.
(13:29:25) Anonymous: i am in the middle of calculating break even analysis, please assist
(13:30:06) James: break even analysis....
(13:30:21) James: I came across it in decision support system in my undergrad
(13:31:27) Anonymous: it is a team case study and have got to contribute....
(13:31:42) James: is it online?
(13:31:55) Anonymous: yes
(13:32:10) James: whats the url?
(13:32:43) Anonymous: let me attach it here, coz you'll need authority to login
(13:32:51) James: ok....
(Anonymous tries the inbult IM file sending option that does not work for us. A chat is only useful for text-based communication, and mainly when the text is not extending more than a couple of lines)
(13:41:00) Anonymous: did u receive my attachment?
(13:41:24) James: let me check
(13:41:35) James: no
(13:41:47) James: send it to my email
(13:46:16) Anonymous: whats ur address
(13:46:29) James: myemailaddress
(13:47:37) Anonymous: ok, thankks
(13:47:46) Anonymous: when do u respond to it?
(13:48:07) James: we can discuss
(13:48:15) James: if you will be online
(I believe in showing people how to fish, not to give them fish. I was alse learning, and I needed to learn together with Anonymous)
(13:48:21) James: I got it now
(13:48:23) Anonymous: when
(13:54:46) Anonymous: do we discuss now or later?
(13:55:01) James: lets go through it
(13:55:17) James: do you know the calculation of the first bit?
(The assignment had eight sections. The first one was straightforward. I also wanted to know where Anony got stuck)
(13:55:33) Anonymous: yes
(13:55:48) James: second?
(13:56:06) Anonymous: no
(I know now. I offer the formula)
(13:56:17) James: for that the formula is
(13:56:22) Anonymous: calculating break even analysis
(13:56:49) James: Break even= Fixed Cost/(unit price - variable unit cost)
(13:57:01) James: simply put
(13:57:29) James: Q=Fc/(Up-Vc)
(13:57:56) Anonymous: i'll work out later
(13:58:00) Anonymous: next
(14:00:41) James: a minute
(I receive a call from a friend and have to answer it, I need to inform Anony to hold for me. With the formula Anony can be able to proceed with the calculations)
(14:07:13) James: AC=Total Cost/# of units
(14:09:10) James: Fourth
(14:10:25) James: you can use the formular for one with 150,000 units
(14:10:53) James: derived from if 40%=60 000, 100%=?
(14:11:06) James: got it?
(14:11:37) Anonymous: yes
(14:12:09) James: for four, adjust the Vc=150 000*30
(14:13:16) James: six follows the same formula
(14:13:23) James: but with 120 000 units
(14:13:56) James: ditto to seven
(14:14:04) Anonymous: ok
(14:14:13) James: and the rest are discussions
(14:14:23) Anonymous: thanks a million
(14:14:29) James: Do you see the whole picture now?
(14:14:49) Anonymous: i'll workout the rest iin the evining, i owe you one
(14:15:55) Anonymous: u going out for a drink?
(14:16:18) carice2: am not drinking this weekend
(Anony now comfortable and happy with the help so far)
(14:16:56) James: let me forward you a powerpoint ppt that I have downloaded from the net, and check out if it is helpful
From the above, the chat can be used to support and enhance teaching and learning. However, it is not possible for one to simultaneously offer support to more than a given minimum number of students. Also, its archival is sometimes limited as it is too personal to be opened up to the rest as Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) that those who might be having the same problem can refer to.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Are you Using Ubuntu in Schools?

Today I attended a function to launch the IADP International Association for Digital Publications' (IADP) Affordable Access Program for South Africa. The special guest at the function was the South African Minister for Education Naledi Pandor. Her speech touched on various issues of importance to education. However, she is like my dad who is neither a digital immigrant nor a digital native, maybe more advanced than my dad because she can use a computer. She said that earlier in parliament, the Minister for Finance had sent a missive to her asking her "Now that you are rolling out computers in schools, are you using Ubuntu?". She did not know what Ubuntu is, despite it being a household name here in South Africa. Luckily she had the local daily which, while she was scanning through she had seen Ubuntu being mentioned. She quickly opened it and read through and discovered that Ubuntu is a computer 'system'. With this vital knowledge, she sends a reply back to Trevor "Yes, my department is looking of ways of rolling out computers with Ubuntu". She say she thinks that the Finance Minister went home thinking that she knows what Ubuntu really was.

For my readers who are like the minister, Ubuntu is a linux-based operating system that is available as a free and open source software.

Do you use Ubuntu or any other free and open source software?

Open Access, Free & Open Content & Coursware

There is an anonymous comment on my blog "eLearning in Kenya Universities" to the effect "e-courses on CD courseware because we first got to resolve the big issue of content ownership. Lecturers seem to believe only in selling their courses and feel that they are not being paid for putting their course lectures in public domain". I agree with the author of the comment that Intellectual Property (IP) is a big issue especially when it comes to digital publishing. However, I do not agree with the notion that knowledge is a commodity that should be out there for auction to the highest bidder. In my earlier post, I mentioned that knowledge becomes power when its transferable, and can be used to improve and enrich lives. You are not powerful if you have the knowledge that you have intentionally hoarded. To put it into context, I will copy-n-paste blog I had done elsewhere on open access. Here it goes.
Open Access (OA) is resources or allowing resources to be openly (as opposed to closed, clandestinely held, or shut) available to users without restrictions or requirements for authentication or payment. OA initiatives ensure that any information that is deemed helpful to the society is opened up to the community.

From the scholarship point of view, the focus for the OA drive would be to have the all the academic articles published from renowned journals, and that researchers and scholars in the institutions need, be made openly accessible. There would be an incredible cost saving from the exorbitant prices imposed on the purchase or subscription to such journals. The money saved can be channeled to other uses. This can be made possible especially because most of the research publications are from research that has already been funded by other agencies. Achieving the OA from the scholarship point of view can be done by negotiating with the academics and researchers who publish those journals to openly avail them (divide and rule), or by negotiating with the publishers to publish the journals in OA.

What are the advantages that you gain as an individual by availing your materials for Open Access? I will give three reasons. One, you will be fulfilling your moral duty and obligation to the society for giving back to them. Recognising that the research that you undertook would not have been possible were it not of the society that was there. This is in the premise that there is no research that is done in a ‘vacuum’ or on an ‘island’ without people. Secondly, you are empowering others, who would otherwise not be. This in a way will create a fertile ground for you to do further research, and also get some feedback from more people who might have been looked out by lack of access to your research. Thirdly, you are fulfilling the very reason of your research – solving problems for humanity. By locking your research finding to the few who can afford the prices, you are propagating human problems that you claim to solve in your research. People who can not afford to get your solutions will seek solutions using other means thereby allowing unnecessary duplication of efforts and costs.

I maintain that providing open or free access to your course content empowers you, as you will get feedback, and it does not in anyway debar you. There are examples of Open Courseware Initiatives (OCI) that one can emulate. The widely refereed is the MIT. There is also a host of other organisations that have availed their materials openly and freely. Others have chosen to use the less restrictive licenses like the Creative Commons.

So do you have the knowledge power?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Communication in the Digital Era (error)

Whenever I want to talk to my dad, I send an SMS text to inform him I will be calling at a certain time. My dad is neither a digital native nor a digital immigrant. He is just there. For this discussion, a digital native is a person who was born and brought up in the digital era. Digital immigrants are those 'people of before' who, even though they were not born in the digital era, they have 'migrated' to it. My dad was not born in the era, and he has adamantly refused to migrate. His radio 'shikas only one station', only that the station is not Capital FM, but Citizen so that he can listen to 'Wembe' and another dude I do not like (his presentations) called Mohamed Juma Njuguna.
In the era where bytes portray some power, and whoever is able to communicate using them is highly (although not any longer) regarded, I still find some digital natives who come up with every reason not to use technology to communicate. There are others who use it to communicate but inappropriately, and there those who can ONLY communicate using technology, when it comes to constructing a simple sentence in a f2f conversation they fall flat on their bellies. There are also the class of the people especially in the field of Open Source Software (where I belong) who, INMHO (In my humble opinion), use every jargon to prove that we are not compatible with the rest.
So what is the best communication in the digital era?
I believe the KISS (keeping it simple, stupid) is the best way to approach communication. Digital Communication 101 (The first course in digital communication) should train people on how to use an understandable way of communication. For instance, I receive calls from my elearning clients that "the site kicked me out". Surely, how can a site kick a person out? Is it a figure of speech that my English teacher didn't think was important? How then would you explain to such a client what is happening? Do you tell her(not to be accused of gender bias) that the site is meant to 'kick' her out if she is just idling for more than the minimum time set in it for her own security? Or do you tell him "You were actually not kicked out, your session expired"?

Digital communication 101 to continue.

A guide to paper work.

This is a brief guide to inform all of the people who would care to know what it entails to get a student visa in South Africa. It is just paperwork that can sometimes get into your nerves.

The obvious:
A passport valid ore than 30 days after the expiry of the intended study permit.
R425 or $47 or its equivalent (if you are passing through an agent, add some more $$$)
For the under-18s proof of guardianship and its transfer thereof.

The easy to get
1. The police clearance (Certificate of Good Conduct) from CID headquarters.
2. Us$ 600 or R3030 or its equivalent as repatriation fees, just in case there is need to deport you.
3. Letter of acceptance from the institution you intend to study in.
4. The course outline
5. The fees outline of the intended course.
6. Full medical certificate and radiological report.

The not-so-easy to get
1. Proof of financial means to support you through the intended period of study.
2. Proof of medical cover for the period you are in SA.
3. The application forms.

Its a document driven process and you should not laugh if you find someone asking to get the signature of your dead great grandfather on one of the forms.

Reading, Oh Reading

Last night, just before I slept I wrote the blog about reading. I thought laying something about the feelings that I experience whenever I have to read will make me better prepared for a reading journey. Was I wrong, or its just another reason not to read? Anyway this is not the topic for discussion today. I just want to mention that my PhD proposal has gone through the second and most crucial stages in the process. I can now, officially say I have an admission for next year. The first stage was its development with the supervisors and departmental presentations where it went in cycles, each cycle coming back to me me with lots, and I mean lots of suggested modifications - that were time bound. The second phase is the faculty Higher Degrees committee where they gauge if a student has enough energy* to do the study. The third phase is the Senate Higher Degrees committee.

It is a long process, but for now, am concentrating on the comments of the second phase. The comments are just simple to understand, too abstract to do but doable, and too much to read. The comments are:
1. Please ensure that your proposal outline and proposed thesis outline strictly follow the faculty guidelines on proposals and thesis.
2. Ensure that you do extensive reading to get deep into your subject, refine your research methodology, and improve your proposal (it will be chapter one of your thesis).
3. Make sure the scope of work you set to do is achievable within the 2-3 years you are doing your PhD.

Seems that I will have to start reading right away, the technical outline of the proposal and thesis can be done in a day when the other things are in place.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Triggering and Maintaining a Desire to Learn

What is the best way to trigger and maintain an urge or desire to learn?

I ask this because whenever I feel like I should know anything or something, and the only way to know is to engage or interact with some literature, people, contexts, and so forth, I feel a certain edge of discomfort. I do not want to start, although the need to know is so irresistible. This is the time I feel I should sleep, go out to bask, drink a beer, do my dishes and all those sundry things just to find a reason not to engage with knowledge searching/building/acquisition. I often find myself looking for a reason why I should not engage with any learning. I procrastinate. Unfortunately, if I heed to any of these, when the obstructing session is gone, there is no more urge to know. I believe there is pain in knowing, there is more discomfort in knowledge, BUT there is more pain in knowing that you have intentionally killed an opportunity to know, that you have failed in creating knowledge that would have saved mankind from its problems or still you have looked on as your time on earth elapse fruitlessly. However, there is relief in ignorance because the mental disposition that would have been caused by such knowledge formula is not going to haunt me - but how long will I resist the need to know?

Why should I sit here reading for 3 hours everyday? I mean to ask, what knowledge is enough knowledge? Is knowledge like money or power that when you get drunk of it you want more? Does one actually get drunk of knowledge? When does knowledge become power? For me, knowledge becomes power when its being transfered from one person to the other or from one state/form to another. I do not have the power in knowledge if I cannot be able to empower others with the knowledge I have, transform it from one form to another, use it to create solutions, use it to predict and forecast on the future - in short to improve and enrich life. This can only be done by foreshadowing the past, living the present and prognosticating the future. Therefore, once there is the disturbance of the mind with genuine need to learn, there is no end to the hunt for knowledge.

Seems like I do not have a reason to procrastinate today. I will seek knowledge first. Think of this: A politician would tell me knowledge would become power when its in the hands of the people. It is the same politician who would like to blatantly lie to me, even when he knows that I posses the knowledge-power. I can tell from the letters of his words that he is telling a lie. So in this case who has power?

If you read this, and have answer to any of the questions send them to me, else seek ye knowledge.

New generation of web-based tools

New generation of web-based tools for elearning and challenges of elearning

I am reposting this blog that I did sometimes back and posted it on this site. I repost it here to seek new discussions on the Web 2.0 tools and any other technology that we can use for elearning, especially focusing on the learners' ability to develop themselves as knowledge builders, showing creativity and developing an active community of learners.

What are the new generation tools for elearning? What are the challenges of elearning?

In doing this blog, I did not have the right title that would capture the message I need to convey. I started of with “E-learning Technology and Tools for the Medical Field” later to “Advances in e-learning tools for e-health” to “Advances in E-Learning tools for Online Health Profession and Education” and finally to the one appearing here. Although the papers discussed here are from the medical field, the tools and approaches can used in any discipline for an online learning experience. The quest to write this blog was triggered by two articles published recently, dealing particularly with e-learning tools and technologies for the medical field. Boulos, Maramba and Wheeler (2006) demonstrate a set of Web 2.0 tools available for use in the medical field while Clegg and Heap (2006) expounds on ways of dealing with the challenges of e-learning in the medical field. It is worth mentioning that both journal articles are available as “Open Access”.

Web 2.0 tools is a collection of website features that seek to take control of both their use and content to the end users and have certain characteristics like simplicity and flexibility, provision of rich user experience, compatibility with a variety of media and devices, Open to access, decentralized and using the web as a platform. These tools include but not limited to Wikis, Blogs, Podcasts, social software and RSS(Rich Site Summary/Really Simple Syndication).

Boulos and colleagues (2006) argue that the Web 2.0 tools and specifically blogs, wikis and podcasts are easy, cheap and easily available especially because they are distributed as Open Source. They continue to say that “if effectively deployed, wikis, blogs and podcasts could offer a way to enhance students', clinicians’' and patients' learning experiences, and deepen levels of learners' engagement and collaboration within digital learning environments”. Podcasts “have the potential of offering superior support for auditory learners....and visual learners in case of vodcasts”. The authors note however, that these tools have their own disadvantages like being prone to vandalism because of their openness, copyright infringements, anonymity of wiki authors especially where such wikis are to be used for assessment purposes. To counter these disadvantages the authors recommend moderation and monitoring of open wikis and blogs which can be time consuming; using a closed scenario where the access to the tools is restricted to a certain group of people; and seeking copyright/patent approvals when posting copyrighted/patented information on the blogs and wikis. On the issue of pedagogy and teaching practices, the authors recommend that “research should be conducted to determine the best ways to integrate these tools into existing e-Learning programmes for students, health professionals and patients, taking into account the different, but also overlapping, needs of these three audience classes and the opportunities of virtual collaboration between them.”

Clegg and Heap (2006) shows innovative ways that can be used to deal with the challenges of elearning, especially e-moderation in contexts where learners are independent and the tutors take the roles of facilitators and resource persons. In their paper they address the questions raised by this approach:

• How do facilitators recognize the need to intervene in discussions?

• How successful are they at recognizing potential intervention points?

• What style of facilitation is appropriate in the context of e-learning?

• How do facilitators promote independent learning within the module?

• How do facilitators balance the need to give students space to solve their own problems with the need to address anxieties that students may feel in an e-learning environment?

To deal with these questions, they review three message boards that “can be considered to represent three levels of a hierarchy of abstraction in term of the cognitive skill required by the student.” At each level, they recommend a number of facilitator interventions:

Level 1 - presenting self, relating to each other, making sense of self in relation to others; In this level, the facilitator should be responsive, nonjudgmental, encouraging, promoting discussions and descriptions, validating feelings, acknowledging concerns, giving advice on resources, and acting with prudent inaction(purposefully doing nothing).

Level 2 - relating new concepts to practice, making sense of professional relationships and clinical environments.
In this level the facilitator should demonstrate that is available and listening to the learners, probe and tease out of professional issues, give online support, providing additional resources, give positive feedback and reinforcements, raise subjects for debates and link theory to practice.

Level 3 - relating new (statistical) concepts to challenging academic materials.
At this level the students have some level of control of their learning process and the role of the facilitator is to maintain positive relationships with students, giving clear and positive feedback aimed at developing professional and academic confidence, challenging misconceptions, questioning global statements and ambiguities, encouraging students – especially on intellectual risk-taking and interactivity in difficult concepts, encouraging students independence, clarifying expectations of academic work and encouraging accuracy of referencing.

To achieve this, the facilitator needs to be equipped with facilitation skills. If facilitators adopted the model by Clegg and Heap, some of the concerns raised by Boulos and colleagues would be dealt with making a very successful learning experience for both learners and facilitators.


Boulos, M., Maramba, I., & Wheeler, S. 2006,Wikis, blogs and podcasts: a new generation of Web-based tools for virtual collaborative clinical practice and education, BMC Medical Education 2006, 6(41). Available from External link (accessed September 3, 2006).

Clegg, P., and J. Heap. 2006. Facing the challenge of e-learning: Reflections on Teaching Evidence-Based Practice through Online Discussion Groups. Innovate 2 (6). Available from External link (accessed September 3, 2006).

Further Reading

O'Reilly, T,. 2005. What Is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software, self published on External link [Accessed September 3, 2006]