UCU online Education: Despite Challenges, it’s here to stay

By Patty Huston-Holm and Nicole Nankya
For those who think Uganda Christian University (UCU) started online learning because of the country’s Covid lockdowns, think again. 

The movement started five years prior. The succession of government-ordered education lockdowns from March 2020 through December 2021 simply accelerated education delivery known globally as online, virtual, digital, edu-tech, and e-learning, among other terms.   

With a directive from former Vice-Chancellor Rev. Dr. John Senyonyi, Dr. Stephen Kyakulumbye, senior lecturer and business chair, Center for Open Distance Learning, was leading the charge early on, as well as when the new Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Aaron Mushengyezi, came on board in the height of the pandemic. 

“People who lagged behind were running around buying and borrowing laptops to get on board,” Kyakulumbye recalled of the mid-2020 period. “It was clear that Covid and restrictions were not going away and in order to work here, they had to adapt.”

On a late March 2022 morning and from his office inside the UCU admissions building, Kyakulumbye shared the story of how e-learning began at UCU five years ago, how it accelerated in 2020 and what role he played in it alongside the late Dorothy Mukasa and her successor as manager for UCU e-learning, the Rev. Dr. Jessica Hughes.

“It was not Covid that got us thinking about online education,” he asserted. “The pandemic both slowed us down and moved us faster.” 

The slowdown occurred because of the Ugandan government’s concern about fairness for economically and technologically disadvantaged students and because of the normal bell curve with middle and late adopters. The hastened move was motivated by job security.

“Jump on board or lose your job,” Kyakulumbye said, adding that he observed “the diffusion theory in action.” The theory is one that seeks to explain how, why and at what rate new ideas and technology spread. 

At UCU, the idea for virtual learning was advanced in 2016 when five UCU faculty members were chosen for an on-line teaching, virtual training out of Muranga, Kenya. Kyakulumbye, already known for his expertise in Information Systems Curriculum Design, relished the fact that he was among the five. 

Likewise, when Covid hit and on-line learning was a necessity to continue education while avoiding the deadly virus, Kyakulumbye was front and center because of his academic credentials and experience.  He has a doctorate degree in Information Systems (University of the Western Cape South Africa), a master’s degree in management studies with an ICT specialization and a bachelors in computer education.  His subject matter expertise includes on-line digitization of curriculum since 2010.

The work to get UCU deeper on line involved acquiring software to do compression, understanding that the hardware being used by faculty and students ranged from phones to computers, and instructing teachers and students in the new way of learning.  

Rev. Dr. Jessica Hughes, Manager, UCU e-learning
Rev. Dr. Jessica Hughes, Manager, UCU e-learning

In the midst of Kyakulumbye leading the charge and before Uganda had ready vaccines, he got a mild case of Covid. Still, and with a team that included the current manager for UCU e-learning, Rev. Dr. Jessica Hughes, and despite the Covid-related death of the then-manager Dorothy Mukasa, UCU pushed ahead – moving content and assignments onto an online platform called Moodle. 

“The perception still is that online is all about the lecturer’s content,” Kyakulumbye said. “If you do it right, there is peer review, peer chatting, e-badge awards and more.” 

One challenge was the bandwidth for lecturers to upload videos, assignments, and other content. According to Kyakulumbye, another challenge was lecturer “workarounds” such as having students send completed exams as email attachments, resulting in lost marks. 

Regarding unaccounted-for student test results, Hughes said, “ln that time, there were a lot of things happening that caused that result, which is unfortunate. We are continuously working to ensure that our processes are leading up so that students don’t have that experience again.”

Hughes, a lecturer with the Bishop Tucker School of Divinity and Theology with her first master’s degree in human performance systems, specializing in instructional design, defined the difference between online and physical studies as learner- and teacher-centered.

“A big difference is that in the classroom, it is teacher-centered education where by you sit for two hours and the lecturer talks for two hours,” she said. “Online learning should be learner-centered, by which students engage in more research, critical thinking, and analysis.” 

The UCU plan through 2025 includes delivery of face-to-face, on-line and blended curriculum. Due to emergency guidelines issued by the National Council for Higher Education, all the courses are being revised across the university to address online learning. At UCU, at minimum, all courses will be blended.

“The library is expanding the digital resources for research so that research students are able to use books and online journals,” she said. “When you come to campus, you have a blended experience, whereby some work will be online and some physical.”

Hughes said the online movement at UCU is leading the way throughout Uganda, making it “a very exciting time to be here.”

UCU Partners donates $50,000 to UCU’s eLearning platform

By Yasiri J. Kasango
Efforts by Uganda Christian University (UCU) to upgrade its eLearning platforms have gained momentum after Good Samaritans donated funds to assist.

UCU Partners has donated $50,000 (over sh170m) to the university to expand the platform. Mark Bartels, UCU Partners executive director, said the organization contributed the funds following a call by the university’s Vice Chancellor, Prof. Aaron Mushengyezi, for external funders to support the eLearning infrastructure. 

“The idea to support eLearning came from UCU,” Bartels said. “In all of the support that UCU Partners offers to UCU, we seek to meet the most important needs of the university. When the Vice Chancellor communicated this need to us, we were glad that we had some funds available to donate to UCU towards achieving its goal.” 

Bartels added that given the restrictions in Uganda due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the significant increase in eLearning needs, it was a natural place for UCU Partners to make a contribution. 

“We know that these funds will make a difference for so many students, even after the Covid-19 restrictions are eased,” he said “We have been so impressed with the way UCU has led universities in Uganda in terms of eLearning.” 

“It is always exciting to support a project that has shown promise with fewer resources, knowing that additional resources will make a big difference,” Bartels added.

At a recent virtual dialogue to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on education institutions, Mushengyezi advised the government and schools to follow the online learning path that his institution has taken in order to reduce the effects of Covid-related lockdowns on studies.

In March 2020, when the government of Uganda imposed a total lockdown on academic institutions in the country as precaution to limit the spread of Covid-19, UCU embraced eLearning and it is one of the few universities in Uganda teaching during the lockdown.

“We have invested in infrastructure of electronic learning and have something to share with other institutions,” Mushengyezi said at the dialogue, adding that such a move will not only keep students from lagging behind because of the pandemic, but also enable them to continue studying on their own time.

UCU Partners is a US-based non-profit charitable organization committed to raising public awareness about UCU by seeking material and spiritual support for students and other projects in the university. 

The University ICT Services (UIS) technical manager, Rebecca Kangabe, said the contribution from UCU Partners will go a long way towards purchasing cooling equipment for the servers. “The funds will also go towards improving the internet service capacity of the university and the PS link from 1GB to 10GB,” she said.

The increase in the PS link is expected to boost the communication at UCU, making the internal emailing system faster and also simplifying the teaching on the Big Blue Button. 

Kangabe commended UCU Partners for the generous contribution. 

UCU Law staff member shares story of Covid stigma

Andrew Ayebale is an Assistant academic registrar at the Faculty of Law at Uganda Christian University. Ayebale was diagnosed with the coronavirus in June at a time when Uganda was receiving a beating from the second wave of the pandemic. He narrates his story to Lule Eriah.

The biggest challenge people who contract Covid-19 have to deal with is trauma. Trauma from stigma as well as from the sad stories about the deaths and the suffering that people go through. The case was not any different for me. 

In fact, I had to temporarily go off social media, because there was an avalanche of negative stories about Covid-19. They only made me more depressed.

Andrew Ayebare (left) with the UCU Deputy Vice Chancellor, Finance and Administration, Mr. David Mugawe.
Andrew Ayebare (left) with the UCU Deputy Vice Chancellor, Finance and Administration, Mr. David Mugawe.

I contracted the coronavirus at a time when Uganda was just entering its second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Every time I was on my bed, my only prayer was for God to give me a second chance to live and serve Him. 

I watched helplessly as Covid-19 frustrated a lot of my personal plans and those of our department. We had planned a UCU senior staff retreat, for which I was the coordinator, but it did not happen. I was down. The country was plagued with both the disease and the restrictions on movement to reduce the incidences of infection.

The disease manifests itself
From May 29-31, 2021, I was feeling unwell. So, I decided to go to the Allan Galpin Health Centre (University Clinic). Surprisingly, the doctors diagnosed non-Covid infection and gave me medication.

On June 2, there was information that the University Clinic had acquired some Covid-19 vaccines and we were urged to get vaccinated. I did. As expected, I felt a fever at night. Surprisingly, for the next few days, I would be fine during day and develop a high fever at night. 

Could this be the after-effects of the vaccine? I asked myself. 

On June 3, I traveled to Mbarara in western Uganda, to play a football match, but I could not make it for the second half of the game. 

I was so dizzy and developed flu. When I got home, I began to rigorously steam and drink concoctions because the Covid-19 scare was becoming more and more real. 

On the night of June 4, I got a terribly bad fever. It was worse than the ones I had been getting the previous days. However, by daybreak, the fever was clearing. Indeed, it cleared.  In a bid to self-medicate (something not medically recommended) I took painkillers and antibiotics. Later, the fever hit again, and it was worse this time round. I had just returned from a trip to Jinja in eastern Uganda.

I went to hospital three days later, to test, not for Covid-19, but other diseases. I was still in denial. The doctor warned that I was suffering from a strong virus. He could not name it, since the test was not conclusive. Nevertheless, he prescribed Azithromycin, an antibiotic. Thereafter, I took Vitamin C tablets. 

By June 10, I had lost the sense of smell and appetite. I was feeling so sick. And it was my birthday.

The following day, when I visited the University Clinic, I was given a referral to Mukono General Hospital. There, I found a long queue of patients and could not wait. I considered testing for Covid-19 elsewhere. The results were positive.

By June 12, I was coughing incessantly. I instantly began medication and got onto the recommended regimen of taking vitamins, eating a lot of fruits, sunbathing, strolling sometimes for about 4 miles, among others. Thankfully, I did not get bedridden. 

On June 18, I regained my sense of smell and was feeling almost normal. Around that time, my younger sister, too, and her four friends were battling the virus. Together, we built a support system – praying together and encouraging one another.

On June 25, 2021, when I was declared negative for Covid-19, I was on cloud nine. It felt like being born again. I, immediately, took a photo of the results and sent to my supervisor, friends at work and family. I also requested for a scan to find out whether all my body organs were functioning normally. And all was well.

UCU welcomes students for in-person studies

By Joseph Lagen
For the first time in five months, Uganda Christian University (UCU) welcomed students on its campuses for in-person learning. The development follows a September directive by Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, allowing universities to commence physical teaching after education institutions were shut in June 2021, after a second wave of Covid-19.

According to an October 28 letter to all students and staff of UCU, Vice-Chancellor Assoc. Prof. Aaron Mushengyezi said freshly admitted first-year students who joined in September would report on November 1 for additional orientation sessions. Mushengyezi said the first-year students would then migrate to blended learning – online and in-person – starting December 4 before they sit for their exams from January 3 to 17, 2022.

Two freshman girls drag suitcases through the main gate to check into university halls of residence. Courtesy photo.
Two freshman girls drag suitcases through the main gate to check into university halls of residence. Courtesy photo.

“Continuing students who have been studying virtually will report on November 8, 2021, for face-to-face classes in a phased manner,” Mushengyezi wrote, noting that they will then take their examinations from December 4 to 17, 2021. 

UCU Communications Manager Frank Obonyo said the institution is not allowing all the continuing students at once because of “escorting potential health risk.” 

“We prioritized first years – the rest will have blended studies,” he said.

Museveni directed all education institutions to close, starting June 7, to reduce concentration centers that the government argued were increasing infection rates of the pandemic. At the time, the Covid-19 cases in the country had gone up by 137%. It was the second time that education institutions were closed in Uganda as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

In March 2020, Uganda closed all schools to reduce the chances of Covid-19 infection on learners. In October 2020, final-year students were allowed back to school for in-person learning as they prepared to take examinations. The rest of the classes, with the exception of lower primary, were allowed back to school for in-person learning starting March 2021. However, that excitement was cut short by a surge in the Covid-19 infection rate, necessitating the closing of schools in Uganda, again after only three months of opening. 

On June 18, 2021, the Ugandan government imposed a total lockdown on movement, with the Covid-19 positivity rate at 17% at the time. However, the lockdown was lifted at the end of July 2021, with many of the sectors of the economy being opened for operations. For the sectors that are still closed, such as the entertainment industry and bars, Museveni said in a televised address on October 28 that they will be opened fully in January 2022, whether people go for Covid-19 vaccinations or not.

According to the President, by the end of December 2021, the country will have received 23 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines of two per person for more than 12 million people, including 4.8 million frontline workers.

As UCU welcomes its staff and students for in-person learning, the institution has set up its university health facility, the Allan Galpin Health Centre, for vaccinations. The condition for in-person learning, according to Government, is that all institution staff and students above 18 years should be vaccinated. 

Despite the two lockdowns – of 2020 and 2021 – on education institutions, UCU continued with online learning. At UCU’s 22nd graduation ceremony held on October 22, Uganda’s First Lady and Education Minister Janet Museveni congratulated the institution for its “robust online education programme” and encouraged the university to share best practices with other institutions. 

At a recent virtual dialogue to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on academic institutions, Mushengyezi said UCU had invested in infrastructure of electronic learning and, therefore, “has something to share with other institutions.” 

Due to the robust online operations infrastructure, Obonyo said UCU was able to conduct online semesters, plus other virtual activities, such as virtual guild elections, conferences, and pre-entry exams for students for courses in law, medicine, and dentistry. 

The university has locally developed two online applications to supplement the use of tutoring e-services in its operations. These are the Alpha MIS for student registration and the E-Chagua, which the university uses during virtual elections. 

Among some of its other virtual activities, from October 14-16, the UCU Faculty of Journalism, Media and Communication (FJMC) hosted the 10th Annual East African Communication Association Conference.