In 2001, the University of Mauritius established the Virtual Centre for Innovative Learning Technologies (VCILT) to promote the use of ICT in teaching and learning and to use e-learning as an enabler for our students to have a quality learning experience anytime, anywhere. At that time, technology and high-speed internet access was a luxury. The Centre was in fact ahead of its time, and resistance to embrace technology overshadowed by far the timid involvement of a few academics willing to tread on unknown terrain. At that time, in our context, e-learning was not possible without having advanced technical ICT knowledge, and one specialist who would be the relay between the subject matter expert and the ICT expert. We discovered instructional design.

In 2001, there were two real barriers – internet connectivity and mindset. Many students would not even have a PC at home, so internet connectivity was a far cry. The second barrier was the mindset of academics and that one had been a long battle, experienced even today. In that situation, we were compelled to review our strategies and objectives if we wanted the initiative to survive. We started to research about teaching and learning transformation and technology-enhanced instruction. We focused on how to reconceptualize teaching and learning in technology-mediated environments. We then realized that to bring about a mindset change both institutionally and nationally, we had to build capacity in our own area of expertise. In 2002, the Government collaborated with the VCILT to launch the mass computer proficiency programme and had an ambitious project called the school IT project. The school IT project was about equipping schools with computers, and with digital resources to enhance the learning experience of kids.

To accompany the Government in its efforts, we initially launched the online masters in computer Mediated Communication and Pedagogies in 2004 targeting our academics and educators in the primary and secondary education systems and in 2009 the bachelor’s degree in education technologies which is a top-up course for in-service educators. The VCILT has been a pioneer in education technology and e-Learning in Mauritius for the education sector. However, as any innovation, it brings about some kind of disruption and for a long time, it remained on the periphery of the institution’s education system, often having to keep fighting for its survival and justifying its relevance. There was little interest in the future scenarios that were being elaborated and calls for action from practitioners and researchers in the area.

Covid-19 wakeup call

We have witnessed in the world over the past two months, and the past few weeks in Mauritius, about a sudden wakeup call regarding e-learning by many people coming from different spheres of the education sector, including the technology solution providers, when confinement was imposed rather suddenly and when millions of kids and individuals throughout the world found themselves to be out of school. What followed after, was mainly a series of communications, articles, and rush towards technology. We heard about Zoom and suddenly controversies emerged about security. We heard about Moodle, Google Meet or Microsoft Office 365 tools to allow people to keep working and classes ongoing. Everybody was focusing on one aspect – the technology. As usual, we witnessed a fierce battle from the solution providers but also the users and the corporate clients, where each one of them wants to show that the solution they embraced is the best.

And amidst of all this brouhaha, the educator, parents and the kids were lost somewhere in between the promotion of OER repositories, multiple Facebook groups, TV Channels or WhatsApp messages. We lost sights of the major stakeholder. The students. There was ‘infobombing’ everywhere, which was not conducive for meaningful learning. We have been advocating for years about student-centred education. We have been talking about 21st Century Teaching and Learning, in which technology is not necessarily central but is considered as an important enabler to make it happen. Yet, in this time of crisis as it came unannounced, and for which we were unprepared for, in a number of ways, the basic instinct of many was to get into a race to show whose technology is the best, and who is the leader because they have some piece of technology in there, but which in reality, was under- or not utilized at all. No one focused on the practice and the optimal use of technology. Practically no one had a framework including a continuity plan for the educational services to continue with a positive impact on teaching and achievement of learning outcomes in particular. The education systems lacked one major attribute: resilience.

What framework?

Technology in education can be broadly categorized in two namely high-end technology and low-end technology. Often, there is a tendency to think that high-end technology will have a higher impact on learning and vice-versa for low-end technology. This is not true as we can have a high-end technology with low impact on learning while we can have low-end technology with high impact on learning. When a course is shifted from a face-to-face environment to the e-Learning mode or to be delivered on mass media such as TV, there are a number of instructional design implications. If there is a need to replace a classic one-direction lecture online, then a simple video conferencing tool with a PowerPoint loaded on it will suffice. The impact or the success of the lecture will be determined mainly by the knowledge/expertise of the presenter combined with his or her presentation and communication skills. On the other hand, if a traditional classroom for primary school children that follows a classic lesson plan adapted for the classroom environment and the whiteboard is going to be shifted on television or online, then this is a completely different matter. It cannot be simply transferred just by using technology. Instructional design and methodology are important. There might even be a need to rethink and adapt the lesson to fit in the new delivery medium. Quality assurance is key, and there is no room for mistake, professional standards have to be top-level in such situations.

The technology is not missing, the content is not missing, and the teacher is not missing. But the conceptual and practical translation and transformation of a classic “teaching period” are very important to ensure the successful transfer of knowledge from one point to the other. I must also point out here that the knowledge cycle is not complete, as we are catering only for the transfer, but not for the application of the knowledge through learning activities. On television, for instance, the knowledge application phase is difficult to ensure, and the knowledge transfer phase is single-paced, which may not be adapted for all learners, as it will mostly adhere to the one-size-fits-all approach. A convergence of technologies is therefore needed to ensure both the knowledge transfer and application phases take place. All of this needs a framework to be in place and to ensure teachers, educators and academics alike are at ease with and have the necessary competencies to make it work. Capacity-building of teachers have to be on the operationalization of such a framework, and not rather ad-hoc training on scattered pieces of technology. Technical support to teachers is very important element to ensure the uptake is constant, as many will end up abandoning technology due to minor hiccups. This leads us to first of all gauge the readiness of teachers, but also engage in an honest assessment of the actual digital divide, as this is the most complex part of the problem. Digital inclusion should be on the agenda of Governments as a top priority especially for underserved population.

 

In a nutshell, in the rush to address the havoc caused by Covid-19, the following elements were overlooked.

  1. Digital Inclusion of the underserved population
  2. Organizational e-Learning maturity levels
  3. Quality assurance and instructional design processes for e-learning and for mass media delivery
  4. User Readiness and learning curve for technology adoption for instructional uses
  5. The occurrence of meaningful learning
  6. Technical and end-user support

All of these need to be driven by transformational leadership and evidence-based policymaking. I had highlighted it in the past, and for a long time advocated that empowerment of the teachers was an essential element in the integration of technology in teaching and learning. Decentralizing the digitization process of the curriculum is important to be considered, as today we saw that educators who were volunteers came forward to conceive technology-driven lessons albeit in an unorganized way. Their goodwill, however, makes them perfect to become the ‘change-agents’ of the future. But if we want to accelerate the digitization of curriculum, we need to find a model where this is decentralized in a distributed instructional design process model, using standards, and guidelines and rigorous quality assurance mechanisms. In this way, the content digitization process will be carried out in much less time to cover in full the curriculum.

Conclusion

To end this piece of reflection, we have to also accept the fact that we are not in an ideal world, and despite all the things we may write about, things will not happen in an ideal way. Covid-19 has exposed a number of weaknesses in the way most countries function in terms of their readiness to confront such unexpected situations. It is time that we rethink about our educational models to ensure they are resilient enough to at least meet their core purposes in times of crisis. Let us refocus on the students, teachers, the instructional approaches, and the pedagogy – not on the technology alone to bring about a digital transformation of teaching and learning which is pedagogically effective, and inclusive. This is the new normal.

Mohammad Issack SANTALLY
Associate Professor & Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Planning & Resources)
University of Mauritius