Saide is supporting the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) in its efforts of supporting and strengthening the capacity of higher education institutions to impact sustainable livelihoods in the Southern African region to enhance access and quality of delivery over the next three years. In this initiative, COL is targeting higher education institutions that offer distance education programmes. The University of Zambia (UNZA) is one of the beneficiaries of this initiative where Ephraim Mhlanga of Saide facilitated a project design workshop.
The purpose of the workshop was to support the UNZA to conduct a situational analysis aimed at identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of expanding distance education and e-learning at the university, and conceptualise projects to be implemented within the remit of the COL strategy over the next three years. The specific objectives of the workshop were to:
- strengthen the capacity of the participants to understand quality delivery of open and distance learning programmes, including e-Learning (ODeL);
- facilitate the identification of opportunities and challenges for increasing access through high quality ODeL programmes;
- support the process of defining improvement interventions to be implemented over the next three years under COL support;
- lay the foundations for the development of a robust quality assurance system for distance education programmes at UNZA; and
- facilitate understanding of the COL higher education model and the proposed framework within the context of sustainable development goals.
Although the COL workshop was targeting the Institute of Distance Education at UNZA, other universities that offer distance education in the country also attended, including Copperbelt University, Mulungushi University, Zambia Open University, Texik Ame University and University of Africa. Also present at the workshop were high ranking officials from the Higher Education Authority, Zambia Qualifications Authority and the Ministry of General Education. The overwhelming attendance demonstrates the importance that is placed on distance education in the country, and the resultant expansion that has happened over the last few years. The greatest challenge however is to maintain quality.
The three-day workshop was centred around three themes, ODL and quality assurance on Day One, SWOT Analysis and Strategic Planning on Day Two, and Project Prioritization and Design on Day Three. Professor Enala T. Mwase, Deputy Vice Chancellor of UNZA officially opened the workshop. Day One activities were aimed at supporting participants to identify aspects of distance education provision that need to be quality assured, quality challenges they are facing, and the approaches that can be used in order to achieve quality delivery of ODL. Through the SWOT analysis, Day Two focused on the identification of key areas where quality needs to be strengthened. This was based primarily on the challenges identified in Day One. In particular, the workshop emphasised the need to adopt appropriate organisational structures and deploy sufficient resources for dual mode institutions to roll out high quality distance education. On Day Three, participants identified and planned improvement projects to be implemented with COL support over the next three years. Four projects were identified, namely enhancing quality assurance in ODL in Zambia; supporting ODL institutions to harness appropriate technologies in order to enhance access and quality; supporting the development of an appropriate ODL policy environment in Zambia; and developing a Community of Practice Network through the Open and Distance Learning Association of Zambia (ODLAZ). These project initiatives applied not only to UNZA but to all the other distance education providers in the country. Of the four projects proposed, all institutions represented at the workshop prioritised the quality enhancement initiative.
Several recommendations came out of the workshop and were flagged in the report submitted to COL soon after the workshop. The first recommendation is about establishing appropriate structures and systems at dual mode institutions in order to facilitate both expansion and quality. For ODL to operate effectively and influence public perceptions of this mode of delivery positively, appropriate investment and planning is required in setting up the right structures and putting in place appropriate systems before students come on board. This includes putting in place key staff to co-ordinate effective rolling out of programmes.
The second recommendation is that capacity needs to be built in the ODL institutions, working together with the Higher Education Authority, so as to establish a culture of quality in ODL in the country. This process entails developing a quality assurance framework and quality assurance guidelines for ODL. Staff in ODL institutions also need to be trained in conducting the kind of self-improvement processes that lead to the establishment of a positive culture of quality.
Given that ODL provision is still at its embryonic stage in most of the institutions in the country, there is need to support the development of a strong and vibrant network of providers whose role it is to promote collaboration and sharing in various aspects of ODL provision. For example, institutions within the network will be encouraged to share well-developed teaching and learning materials with their counterparts without the capacity to develop good materials. This process can also be enhanced by establishing a common portal on which resources can be deposited and shared, possibly as OER. The same portal can also be used for hosting scarce resources in identified disciplines offered through ODL. There should also be regular reviewing of each other’s processes in order to enhance improvement.
Lastly, a recommendation was made that through a national network of ODL providers, support should be given to academics in ODL to research ODL issues. and that the common portal can also be used as a platform for promoting joint research.
For the above recommendations to take root, a catalyst organisation is needed in order to constantly drive the process. As the oldest institution in the country, it was suggested that UNZA is best placed to play this role.
In 2018, UNZA continues to enjoy COL support in implementing the quality enhancement project as a way of providing a more viable distance education system in the country.