AKU's Network of Quality, Teaching and Learning led the move to e-learning through capacity building of faculty and students to ensure continuity in education.
To many in academia, the novel COVID-19 virus has presented an unprecedented crisis and as a result many academic institutions have either suspended learning or are now, for the first time, trying out alternative approaches to teaching, registering mixed results.
The Network of Quality, Teaching and Learning at AKU has led the move to e-learning through capacity building of faculty and students to ensure continuity in education. Dr Tashmin Khamis is the vice provost of Quality, Teaching and Learning at AKU and this is her account of how this team has worked with other departments to ensure a smooth transition into online learning, under the leadership of Azra Naseem, associate director of Blended and Digital Learning.
“Those of us involved in promoting quality teaching in higher education are used to working in the background, flying our flags as education developers but often overshadowed by the research-intensive focus of our institutions. And yet, all of a sudden, we find ourselves thrust in the limelight, as the academy looks to teaching-learning centres for ways to cope in continuing education during this time of pandemic and quarantine.
It is a well-known fact that universities and colleges are overly focused on face-to-face teaching. This is in part due to policies and regulations that govern their work including accreditation, professional courses, and credit frameworks. However, higher education institutions now have the catalytic opportunity, with regular self and peer assessment of their programmes, to engage in more blended and online learning and to develop more effective and responsive learning opportunities by using information technology.
The digital environment affords a mode of delivery off campus to reach our students which can be engaging and promote good practice in teaching. We also notice that as faculty are committed to their learners in this ‘new’ environment they reflect more deeply on their teaching practice and how to engage their students.
Both students and lecturers who have embraced the online modes of learning have also expressed a great deal of satisfaction. As one of my colleagues remarked:
‘Teaching online has made us question our standard teaching practices. Why are we so concerned about participation grading online when in face to face classes our measure of participation is just attendance? Why do we assume students are learning in class just because they are there and we are teaching?’
Another one reflected: ‘It taught me the power of planning. I can hide behind my powerpoint in a lecture theatre but to teach online I have to be prepared and have a plan, enabling my teaching to be as facilitator of learning on the VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) where students are at the centre and not us.’
The current situation – akin to the “uberisation” of higher education – has shifted the cost of learning even more so to students, and to some extent to faculty and staff, who are forced to access courses remotely or service them with their own resources. Whilst faculty must spend time in planning and preparation, the ability to promote a more ‘flipped’ approach to teaching ensures better use of faculty time to facilitate learning.
These are important considerations for the growth and the cost-benefit analysis of online and remote/distance learning. It requires dedicated resources – possibly those that are released from the university itself that will now use less electricity, have extra unused assets such as desktop computers, and freed up space that can be used for other purposes.
Of particular note is that there is also an enormous opportunity in this crisis. Teaching has never been more scrutinised and in that lies an opportunity as we move from the rapid phase of ‘quaranteaching’ to more blended approaches to capitalise on the reflective practice and thoughtful innovations that faculty are engaged in with students to promote effective teaching and an enhanced quality learning experience.
To realise our ambitions of equity, inclusion and access, we must be able to offer massive open online courses to larger cohorts of students and learners who are not able to access the University for any number of reasons: costs, distance, lack of recognised qualifications, and the like. Those who are in remote locations or unable to access University-based programmes in person should now be considered as potential candidates. This is in keeping with national development principles enshrined in our constitutions: the right to education and our values of equity, inclusion, and social justice.
Recognising that both student needs – who are designated as digital natives – and their preferences as having changed, which was validated by student evaluation of teaching, Aga Khan University promoted blended and digital learning since 2011 with the creation of supportive structures and faculty training. This has also complemented the inter-continental spread of the University.
Over time, the University has developed capacity in educational technology that is the envy of many higher education institutions in our region. Hence, AKU quickly had a preparedness plan in place, developed an online course readiness policy and procedures, established self-assessment online quality checklists, and instituted a suite of faculty training for the rapid transition from face to face or blended approaches to fully online learning.
But setting up online learning modules is not enough. There is great need for strong synergies with the academic institutions’ central services – in the interest of student need – to move to online learning expeditiously with the help of IT, library, academic support, and the registry. At times of crises people work best with what is familiar. Educational developers and faculty have responded readily and rapidly to familiar technology tools and a common learning management system rather than new platforms.
Opportunities now exist for universities to collaborate with one another to innovate and support faculty who face challenges not previously faced. These include initiatives for medics’ physical examinations at a distance, developing clinical skills remotely, and assessment regimes of online learning to mention but a few.”