Digital Decision: Understanding and supporting key choices in online and blended teaching in Sub-Saharan Africa

Coughlan, Tim; Goshtasbpour, Fereshte; Mwoma, Teresa; Makoe, Mpine; Tanglang, Nebath; Bonney, Solomon; Aubrey-Smith, Fiona and Biard, Olivier (2021). Digital Decision: Understanding and supporting key choices in online and blended teaching in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.



Key findings

The Digital Decisions project analysed how staff in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa made decisions to make greater use of online learning. We explored challenges, how key decisions were made, and the impacts of these on students and staff. We also gathered views on good practices in digital decision making. Key findings of the project are that:

What were the challenges? Key difficulties in decision making were that staff lacked essential knowledge and skills, and that the primary tool for their work – a technology-mediated connection between them and the students - was constrained and not consistently available for all. Staff faced challenging decisions when they noticed limited attendance by students, who for reasons such as timing, awareness, connectivity or availability of appropriate devices, were not engaging as expected.

Pedagogical decisions were challenging because accepted approaches in areas such as assessment were known to not be suitable to online learning. Staff may know what they were aiming to achieve (for example, increased engagement of students with teachers and peers) but not how to achieve this. Alternatives to accepted approaches were unfamiliar, or not in line with policies (such as the use of social media tools for teaching, or moving away from face to face exams).

What types of decisions were made? Rule and policy related decisions were a common focus, given that the existing policies were not appropriate to online and blended learning. These could take time but were ultimately seen as important and beneficial to progress in delivering effective online and blended teaching. As noted above, pedagogical decisions in areas such as assessment and activities were also commonly required.

Decisions to proactively reach out and engage with the student community were seen to be essential, recognising their unfamiliarity and potential lack of motivation or confidence to engage online. Staff became aware that their roles were changing, and this could prompt concerns for their jobs as well as interest in personal development.

How did decision making happen? In the context of the pandemic, providing continuity of teaching was the key objective influencing senior management decisions across the whole institution. Other staff made decisions in their areas with the objective of teaching and supporting students effectively through a period of substantial change. Tensions were apparent between the objectives of individual decision makers and their communities, rules and tools. These tensions had to be accounted for in decision-making, such as in considering limited staff capacity to deliver the desired training or course creation activities, and making choices about tools that some students were not be able to access.

The use of new forms of communications technology for making and communicating decisions was very apparent – staff as well as students adapted to new ways of working across locations. There were positive stories about the use of tools among staff, but decision making about tools for teaching were fraught with tensions, due to the problems of connectivity and device availability already mentioned.

What were the impacts of decisions? In line with the key objective, the primary impact of these decisions on students was seen to be a continuation of teaching and the mitigation of pandemic-related disruption. This can appear to be distinct from using technology to innovate or offer a better study experience to students, however there was evidence that the decisions had supported improved opportunities and access to learning materials, prompted students to develop their digital literacies, and increased satisfaction for some. There were also opportunities to have a positive impact on areas such as assessment, which already required attention. The majority of staff saw positive impacts for students, but there was recognition that some students had no ability to access the internet at all, were left behind, and needed to be supported in other ways.

The positive impacts aligned well with institutional goals of offering flexible and accessible learning, overcoming barriers of distance. There was also a recognition that the resilience of teaching had improved and that this could be beneficial in the future, with more ability to teach through any crisis or unpredictable event they could face. For staff, valuable skills had been developed, but for some, workload had increased to a worrying level.

What good practices should be shared? The experiences of participants led them to describe a range of practices that had positive impact. Attention to these in decision making should be effective for other staff and institutions as they move online. Good practices in pedagogy include the introduction of continuous and formative assessment, proactive communication with students and clear information about course activities, and, in blended learning, identifying how to make best use of the combination of in-person and online study time.

Institutional policies need to be revised to be appropriate to online and blended learning. Some flexibility in the application of policies can also be important to support staff to deliver teaching for students in any interim period before this is complete. Institutional strategies should also look to compensate staff for new costs incurred in order that they can complete their work, and incentivise their efforts to learn and adapt to new ways of working. Along with workload planning and harnessing of benefits such as sharing resources across locations, this can encourage a positive attitude towards these changes among staff.

The project co-created a professional development resource that summarises key areas of decision making and related good practices: Making Digital Decisions. This resource encapsulates findings on good practices in a practical format, with a set of ‘Key decisions’ and guidance on good practice across six themes derived from the project workshops:

Upskilling staff and students
Changing the pedagogy
Overcoming barriers
Working together
Effective strategies for teaching
Achieving quality This report complements the Making Digital Decisions resource by providing a rich and more detailed analysis of our findings.

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