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How can universities quickly adopt Online Classes (eLearning) in mist of COVID-19?

There have been lots of demand on the information technology/telecommunication infrastructure recently. The pronouncement from the President of Liberia, H.E. George M. Weah that all schools should remain closed and that schools should seek innovative ways to still engage their students has given the increase need for online classes. Most schools are in the state of confusion since the implement of online learning is somehow new to Liberia. Online learning is for everyone including K12 to higher education. This paper will cover higher education.

Recently, the commission on higher education and the Ministry of Education met with all universities to discuss and plan forward as it relates to universities continuing regular academic activities (virtually). Lucky, some universities have already started using some form of eLearning. Those universities are using the SchooLinkePortal which allow students to plan and register their courses online. These students already have their student’s username and password which is the very first pre-requisite for any eLearning platform.

Many big questions come to mind as universities are strategizing to roll out plans for online learning migration and other academic resources. Some questions to ponder about are: How can universities quickly adopt online learning in mist of this Covid-19 pandemic? Are Universities prepared? Are the students prepare to take classes online from the comfort of their homes? What are the tools available? Before I provide answers to these questions, let us first understand the concept of elearning/ online learning.

What is Electronic Learning (eLearning)?
eLearning, or electronic learning, is the delivery of learning and training through digital resources. eLearning is based on formalized learning, it is provided through electronic devices such as computers, tablets and even cellular phones that are connected to the internet. This makes it easy for students to learn anytime, anywhere, with few, if any, restrictions.

There are many terms used to describe learning that is delivered online, via the internet, ranging from Distance Education, to computerized electronic learning, online learning, internet learning and many others. I define eLearning as courses that are specifically delivered via the internet to somewhere other than the classroom where the professor is teaching. It is interactive in that you can also communicate with your teachers, professors or other students in your class. Sometimes it is delivered live, where you can “electronically” raise your hand and interact in real time and sometimes it is a lecture that has been prerecorded.

Components for eLearning
1. eLearning platform (software) – the most important decision to be made is the type of eLearning platform that the university wants to use. Each platform offers different options and benefits. Due to the pandemic, universities should be discouraged from using any on-premise eLearning platform. The cost to maintain an in-house (on-premise) eLearning platform is expensive and does not provide the needed benefits. Universities should consider cloud-based eLearning platform. They should be free to use open-source or proprietary platform.

I will highly recommend that universities go with platform that has local support that is reachable, reliable, responsive and customer centric. After testing SchooLink eLearning platform, I strongly recommend it for university using to start eLearning in mist of COVID-19. Based on my experience, proprietary option provides better support as compare to open-source in Liberia. In mist of COVID-19, universities should adopt the agile rollout approach. They should focus on the most critical functions that are needed to keep their students engaged. Those critical functions are:

a. Posting of course material – lecturers should be able to post different learning materials, notes, pdf, word, excel, powerpoint, images, audio, video and links. Whichever platform should allow lecturer to post the above seamlessly.

b. Discussion board – lecturer should be able to discuss with their students. Students should be able to post questions and the lecturer should be able to answer the questions. The discussion board should be interactive that it shows who posted and when it was posted.

c. Posting of assignment – the platform should allow lecturer to post assignments and set the due date for the assignment. Student should be able to view these assignments and submit their assignments before the due date.

d. Login/Permission – the platform should support both faculty and student to login and based on their permission, lecturer should be able to post course materials and student should be able to see posted materials. The platform should be able to assign student to a section as well as faculty

e. Mobile Responsive – due to the mobile penetration rate in Liberia, it is important that whichever platform, it should be mobile responsive so that students using their mobile phone or other mobile devices will be able to access the eLearning platform without the need for a laptop or desktop.

2. Internet connectivity – eLearning cannot be possible without the internet. Internet connectivity is the cornerstone of any eLearning platform. Currently in Liberia, 80-95% of students are either using MTN or Orange network. Universities should begin discussion with these operators to allow their eLearning platform to be ZERO rated. That means students and faculties accessing the platform should not be charged. I know the Ministry of Education has been discussing with the GSM operators but universities need to understand that these infrastructures need to be maintained to support the learning demand. I will recommend that they begin discussion for a discounted rate for their platform. Example, student should pay a weekly 1$ to access the platform. Or the universities can subsidize the cost for students and faculties. This is the fastest and best approach.

3. Faculty participation – my experience in implementing university management system has taught me that faculties are the most difficult group to embrace change. This is evident to the fact that they are accustom to doing things a certain way and they are very methodical when it comes to moving to something new. Faculty involvement should NEVER be overlooked. They are the group that can make the system to success or fail. Universities should be discouraged from opening multiple online session. The maximum online sections should be at least five. These sections are not traditional sections; therefore, you can have more than one faculty providing support to a particular section. The best approach is to have three faculty members to run a particular course:

a. The first person should be responsible for posting all learning materials, courseware (notes, pdf, links, images), assignments, announcement, etc.

b. The second person should be responsible for engaging the students in term of answering questions, posting questions and moderating discussions.

c. The third person should be responsible for marking student’s assignment and test as well as providing feedback.
Because eLearning is a new concept, having one faculty to operate an entire online section could be overwhelming especially if they lacked the experience. Detailed training should be provided for each of those group of lectures to focus on their area of concentration. Training should be organized based on the role-based approach where faculty are only train in the role they will be performing in the system.

4. Students Involvement – students are our major end-user. I usually refer to them as the system owner. Students acceptance to the platform is as important as the platform itself. The platform should be user-friendly and EASY to learn and use. Since massive training isn’t possible due to the health protocol (social distancing), universities should invest in creating online manual, easy step-by-step guide and how do I manual. Universities are encouraged to do webinars and these webinars should be recorded and posted on youtube or other media platform where student can access these materials and learn on their own. Again, if the platform is not easy to use, those materials wouldn’t make a significant difference. User-friendliness is important for student acceptance.

5. Rollout – the rollout process should be aggressive. Faculties should give homework/assignments within the first two week. These assignments will keep the students busy and change their perception of online learning. Once the assignments are submitted, it is extremely important that faculty read through each and provide individual feedback to the student. Since student will be reading at their own pace, a detailed lesson plan should be shared with the class so that students can read ahead if necessary.

For universities to quickly adopt eLearning in mist of COVID-19, they should first identify the platform to use. Second, they should discuss with the GSM operators to get a data package for their faculties and students. They should implement the role-based training approach to jumpstart the eLearning platform. The first two to three weeks are the most challenging period that will determine the success and failure of the platform. Faculty should remain focus and persevere. This is a cultural change and it requires all support to make the adoption process smooth and effortless. There are companies in Liberia who are willing to help universities move to online learning. MWETANA SchooLink is a cutting-edge platform that is designed for Liberia. http://elearning.schoolinkcx.com which is worth considering during this COVID-19 period.

About the Author
Karl R. Smith
Karl is a seasoned IT expert who has spent the last 11 years building systems in Liberia for the Government, Private and NGO sectors. Karl is passionate about technology in Liberia and his vision is to use technology to transform and contribute to other lives in a meaningful way. Karl holds a Master Degree in Computer Science from the University of Leicester; UK and he is also one of the founding members of the Information Communication Technology Association of Liberia.
Editor’s note: The view above is that of the author and not of this paper. Every inquiry should be directed to the author.

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