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.”