By Paul Okanda
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many economic sectors and allowed a number of them to accelerate their hitherto slow adoption of information technology systems for efficient service delivery.
One of the showcase emerging sectors remains the education industry with the adoption and use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in education systems, popularly known as “EdTech”.
Global bodies such as the World Bank Group have stepped up engagements and support to help countries leverage EdTech investments to develop resilient hybrid learning systems.
Locally, due to pressures occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is increasingly evident that the traditional instructional methods, modes of knowledge production and consumption, and institutional conceits of exclusivity are no longer tenable if education institutions are to remain relevant for Africa’s regeneration.
Lifelong learning in which learning occurs at our convenience (wherever we are, at whatever time, via a variety of delivery platforms) is increasingly gaining a foothold globally due to the dynamics of 21st century skill sets that the job market demands.
Guided by my personal experience while implementing ICT solutions and charting the technology policy for United States International University-Africa (USIU-Africa) with my dependable colleagues, I recently reflected on the key ingredients that make for a solid technology in education (EdTech) foundation.
Firstly, education institutions must focus their energies on the governance and staffing structure of the ICT function. Due to the increasingly centralized nature of ICT as the nerve center of an institution’s day-to-day learning and administrative operations, there is a need for a staffing structure that places the head of ICT operations at the highest possible level of the organization structure. ICT integrations and operations are a management function and cannot be in peripheral management positions.
Secondly, technology adoption must be regarded as a change management lever. A learning institution must be conscious of the negative impact changes in technology and or software can have on learning, teaching, and the institution’s operations if these changes are not adequately communicated to all constituents.
Invariably, an institution’s strategic plan, financial resources, and focus will guide the selection of what tools senior management prioritizes in their quest to offer quality education that supports teaching, learning and administration.
Due to the unreliable nature of connectivity in most parts of the African continent, there is need to deploy a couple of internet links which in our local context, Kenya Education Network (KENET), Kenya’s National Research and Education Network (NREN) provides at highly subsidized rates. There is also need for redundant power (from the primary grid and backup from a generator) that encompasses failover capability. Closely linked to access is the need for technical help desk tools that handle queries and guide users.
Due to cybersecurity risks, storage, backup and remote services are also crucial factors. The operationalization of robust Disaster Recovery (DR) measures at three levels (on-site, at a remote location e.g. on the cloud and via tapes kept in a vault) as part of the organization’s Business Continuity Plan (BCP) should be considered to support data restoration in case services fail.
Effort should be made to maintain and upgrade the core ICT infrastructure. This ought to be guided by a 3 to 5-year ICT strategy that builds into the overall strategic plan.
Integrating a robust Learning Management System (LMS) and a Student Information System (SIS) is a necessary requirement. An LMS is essentially a virtual learning environment used in the delivery of educational content to learners and paperless assessment through a variety of technological functions which are connected to the Internet.
Institutions must also invest in videoconferencing platforms which support synchronous learning. Comprehensive videoconferencing tools provide support for scheduled study groups, class sessions, remotely locating students, recording lectures, co-teaching, connecting laboratory environments to lecture halls, and facilitating various modes of pedagogy such as online, blended, hybrid and hybrid-flexible (hyflex).
The integration of an SIS helps to elevate the student management process to a higher level and acts as the learning institution’s Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. An SIS holds and processes data that relates to every student’s learning journey at the institution and is possibly a learning institution’s solution for missing marks management.
Other useful ICT tools for academic delivery include library systems that are accessible from remote locations securely using Virtual Private Network (VPN) platforms, an e-Repository that hosts the institution’s academic artefacts, operational workflow systems (e.g. clearance, grade change, procurement etc.), Electronic Data Management Systems (EDMS) that host the institution’s anti-plagiarism platforms and tools that support inclusivity for differently-abled persons.