Analysis of the Impact of eLearning on Quality Teaching and learning on Tertiary Education in Liberia …The Case of University of Liberia..

By: Prof Josephus M. Gray, Ph.D. Email: grayjm@ul.edu.lr

Prof. J. Moses Gray

This compressive assessment is intended to contribute to existing publications on the impact of eLearning on quality education on tertiary education, particularly nation’s flagship University of Liberia. It presents comprehensive synopses to the extent of the impact of eLearning on quality education at the institution, but with reference to other higher institutions of learning across the globe. The study further discusses the advantages and disadvantages, opportunities, challenges and prospects, as well as the strength and weakness of online learning. Going forward, the study evaluates the progress of students regarding eLearning education and how UL administration can earn credit for the introduction of eLearning to put the state university on par with others institutions.

      However, there have been claims and counter-claims about the usefulness and impact of eLearning on tertiary education particularly in delivering course materials to students and learners’ capability to digest the lessons. Considering the argument from the two perspectives, the equilibrium is clear-cut. There are advantages and disadvantages to eLearning.  In order to put this academic debate into an appropriate perspective without passing definitive judgment, the Dean of Prof. Amos C. Sawyer College of Social Sciences and Humanities (formerly Liberia College, Assoc.  Prof. Dr. Josephus M. Gray, has decided to join the pedagogic discussion to provide an instructive analysis of the subject, using the University of Liberia as case study to contribute to the growing debates.

In other numerous instances, other countries have been studied, while the works of other academics and authors have been cited to make this case from a neutral perspective regarding the impact of eLearning on quality education during these extraordinary times. Education, in the words of Dr. A. Kalaivani, is a light that shows mankind the right direction to surge. He argued that the purpose of education is not just making a student literate but adding rational thinking, knowledge and self-sufficiency to the students.

In the international sphere, profound new changes are evolving including the use of  e-learning which nowadays has become a channel for delivering lessons, teaching and learning and an alternative option for advanced training in education and attracting new ideas in delivering instructions. The traditional face-to-face classroom learning and eLearning have their own limitations, but online learning initiatives are crucial step taken by many higher institutions of learning. In fact, eLearning is here to stay and flourish, even though in-person learning has been around for as long as we can all recall.

It is self-directed learning, while the internet has become a major educational technological advancement tool in societies and higher institutions of learning across the globe.  The government of Liberia under the leadership of His Excellency President George M. Weah merited credit for supporting the idea of eLearning and for the digitalization of registration at the university and the tuition waiver which resulted in huge enrollment. Let it be known that these changes are not only unique to UL, but across higher institutions from one continent to another due to the complexity of man to easily accept change, although positive change comes with high cost.

To put it more bluntly: ELearning is no exception. Earning education through eLearning technologies is now inevitable. ELearning education is classified into several names: E-learning, cyber schools or distance learning, which is distinct from face to face traditional education because students do not need to visit an actual classroom and listen to an instructor talking to them.  According to studies, online education is a classroom on the internet that engages and assists students to study in their own free time. E-learning describes the usage of information and communication technology to develop web-based, computer, digital, or online learning (Moore, 2006; McDonald 2018).  E-learning is a technology which supports teaching and learning via a computer and the web technology.

E-Learning Communication technologies are generally categorized as asynchronous or synchronous. Asynchronous activities use technologies such as blogs, wikis, and discussion boards. Synchronous activities occur with all participants’ joins in at one, as with an online chat session or a virtual classroom or meeting. Accordingly, e-learning bridges the gap between a lecturer and a student in a particular geographical setting, while the advancement in internet and technologies is the basic tool to enable e-learning. This new paradigm is approached with varying degrees of enthusiasm and concern because the global trends in teaching and learning are changing rapidly as new technologies and interesting models of education are emerging. Generally, if one is accepted to teach online, the person is prepared to venture into the world of computer Literacy which is a must.

Both students and facilitators must possess a minimum level of computer literacy and skills in order to function successfully in an eLearning setting. For example, both students and lecturers must be able to use a variety of search engines and be able comfortably to be navigating on the World Wide Web; with self-discipline as a matter of must. However, new technologies should not be imposed on students or lecturers without enabling lecturers and students to understand these important shifts and transformation.   People have to understand that with inherent challenges that come with eLearning, it might take time to be mastered and skilled. The development of adaptive technologies takes into account the lessons that modern pedagogy makes from the individual approach to learning. The platforms seek to diversify the range of courses and, at the same time, meet the demands of students. For example, the Moodle platform allows lessons to be customized to each student’s needs and work in dialogue with all members of the course and interact with the course lecturer.

For others, especially critics of the system, eLearning is ineffective and compromised education, as such, it should not be used in tertiary institutions as an alternative to the traditional in-person face-to-face classroom teaching and learning. In the same vein, others argued that the creation of digital learning should be welcomed and accepted on grounds that ELearning is very critical to learning in the contemporary COVID-19 pandemic era where movement and other stern measures are determined and levied by a single state, entity, institution or individual.  The coronavirus outbreak has interrupted teaching and learning in a variety of institutions, from one profession to another, without exclusion.

USA Today (2020) publication states that on March 11th, as the coronavirus outbreak was worsening, over 1000 universities in the United States of America cancelled in-person education. These universities include Harvard University, Stanford University, Washington state University, New York State University, Florida State University, Columbia University and University of Arizona. Wang(2021) disclosed that findings from 200 countries in mid-April, 2020 showed that 94 percent of learners – 1.58 billion people – were affected by COVID-19 all over the world (United Nations, 2020). Additionally, the UNESCO (2020) reported that the closure of higher institutions has influenced over 91 percent of the student population in the world and 23.8 million students may drop out or be unable to secure admission to schools in the 2021 academic calendar, according to Wang (2021). Therefore, in order to alleviate the education crisis, schools around the world have adopted online teaching methods to protect the education opportunities, as well as the health and lives of students

In spite of the very low monthly salary earnings by Africans, mobile phone users in mid-2010 were about 75% of the population, while Africans are rated to spend more time calling on mobile phones. The continent has become the world’s fastest growing place for cheap use of technology, especially internet and mobile phones, something which usually results in countless glitches but with effective network and regular daily communication. Interestingly, the population is also graded for growing demand for lower or cheap mobile devices and unit cost services to provide internet access and networks.

The University of Liberia, just like other tertiary institutions around the world, was forced to suspend their classes due to the severity of the impact of COVID-19. In December 2019, a kind of novel coronavirus was found in some patients with unexplained pneumonia in Wuhan, China (Li 2020). The virus is highly contagious, quickly spreading all over the country, and even all over the world. In 2020, University of Liberia administration issued a notice to postpone the start of the 2019-2020 second semester due to the impact of COVID-19 pandemic; other universities and colleges in the country followed by closing.

Subsequently, the administration made a positive determination not to keep students out of school perpetually and at the same time not to bring the population of about 20,000 students on campuses. Therefore, consultations were made with stakeholders both in the academic and other sectors; the acceptable option was to follow current trends of transformation of the global education system by introducing distance learning with focus on eLearning.  In a huge shift to traditional learning, the President of the University of Liberia, Prof. Dr. Julius J. S. Nelson, Jr. on July 2, 2020 announced that due to COVID-19, the University has decided to adopt eLearning as a way of ensuring continuity in the delivery of education to the future leaders of Liberia.

As a reflection, on April 8, 2020, President George Weah declared a three-week state of emergency which was intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus.   But with 76 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and seven deaths, the Liberian legislature has approved President George Weah’s request to declare a state of emergency following the president’s communication to the legislature requesting its concurrence to impose a state of emergency and declare a 21-day lockdown, with the measures that anyone “appearing in public streets and buildings must wear a protective device that covers at least the nose and mouth.

Therefore, to curtail the severity of the effects of lockdown and stern measures, higher institutions of learning administrators were constrained to strategy and found another approach to teaching and learning. For UL four approaches were placed on the table for a joint faculty senate discussion: (1) Wait until COVId-19 is successfully crushed (2) Make no effort (3) Adoption of asynchronous and synchronous, and  (4) Adopt one hundred percent eLearning. Following tense deliberations and suggestions among chairpersons, heads of departments, academic directors, deans and administrators at the institution’s Capitol Hill Campus Auditorium, the fourth option was chosen and accepted.

In the wake of the adoption of the hundred percent online teaching and learning, the UL administration was faced with an uphill battle to convince the Liberian populace, especially critics of the institution who mistrusted the capability and known-how approach of the university to be successful. Perhaps, the detractors’ miscalculation of UL administration’s ability to profoundly and effectively incorporate eLearning into its curricula was due to the unpreparedness of the students and faculty to adapt to change, especially due to the technological barriers associated with eLearning. However, the students and faculty have proven beyond all reason doubts and are coping with digital learning. Generally, the feedback from the public was strong opposition and condemnation without testing the capability of the institution. The public, especially critics, branded the adoption of the eLearning option a failure. But the UL administration was determined to implement the option and finally is credited for following current trends of transformation of global education into the nation’s educational system.

Indeed, as anticipated, Prof. Dr. Julius S. Nelson’s administration was undertaking a critical academic journey to empower its faculty with the needed skills and education, especially faculty who are jokingly classed, ‘born before computer’ (BBC). In order to achieve the much needed result, the administration was compared to engaged into two open-ended approaches: Holding daily training sessions for faculty members and students leaders and embarking on a public relations approach, run from one radio station to another, holding news conferences and engaging into other public discourses to restore public confidence in the ability of the school to carry out eLearning through the application or use of Moodle platforms.

Although the University of Liberia does not have the sophistication of advanced nations like Japan, America, Korea or the Republic or France, it is capable of advancing further in a positive direction if the current trends of digital learning are maintained and fully supported. At UL, it is clearly observed that e-Learning emphasizes on quality and effective contents deliverance, creativities, accurate course materials and other information. In the same vein, it is important to pay homage to the following personalities and academics for providing knowledge in the field of eLearning. They include Dr. Derrick Wilkins, Assistant professor Randolson Saye, Assistant Professor Adolphus Nippae, Mr. Thomas Sengbah, Mr. James Dorbor Jallah, Euriahs M. Togar, and several other lecturers who helped to empower our faculty. For the training and refresher exercises. It was one of the most difficult undertaking on grounds that it was teaching old dog a new tricks especially in a situation where faculty would not locate keys on the computer, or where some were neither able to switch the computer on nor know how to use email; nor either had any knowledge of the technology word “Google” and world wide web (www).

Some political pundits and critics of UL expressed prime concerns that distance learning is compromising the quality of education partly because one of the key challenges is lack of appropriate interaction between students and faculty or practices, to give students a new approach to quality education and to empower teachers to accept changes and engage into in-depth learning to deliver any instructional material to students.  Another concern was students’ behavior towards eLearning and faculty’s willingness to accept the introduction of the platform, as the global trends in teaching and learning continue to change rapidly in the wake of the advent of new technologies and interesting models.

The upward approach of eLearning is benefitting UL in many diverse ways. For instance, the common enrolment in online courses is somehow contributing a lot to upgrading the computer skills of faculty and students, with the courses online making it easy to connect with course instructors and classmates.  As a result, faculty and students are kept updated with technology, sharing of skills with others. Other benefits of eLearning for both student and instructor is that students no longer have to carry physical textbooks around, digital textbooks provide other advantages including fast text searching with links or a quick word search.

At UL, eLearning is structured in such a way that it offers unprecedented opportunities for our students and faculty who welcomed it. For example, our disabled students who would otherwise have limited access to classrooms, campuses and other learning facilities at the university, to participate in classes from anywhere in the country or their communities provided they have a computer and Internet access. The system is well organized so that eLearning classes have no restriction and no conflict with time, except in the case of exams when time is premier.

On the other hand, globally, eLearning has its own disadvantages, among which are: self-discipline requirements and less interaction with other students. Cheating is inevitable since there is no lecturer to observe students during class work or examinations. Unlike regular in-person classrooms, it’s easy for online students to share answers knowing there’s nobody around to watch over them. In some cases, parents aided their children to cheat. E-learning is one of the causes of social isolation because one does not see course teachers and classmates face-to-face anymore, and interaction is very limited to all. Another factor is the limitation and poor access to the internet, this is sometimes compared to students or teachers going to internet cafes or using business center Wi-Fi which mostly not convenient.

But Hunter (2021) argued that eLearning solutions give users the freedom to choose when and where they want to learn. It also allows you to progress at a pace that is comfortable for you, the learner, not one that is comfortable for the facilitator. He added those are compared to in-person classes where scheduling a group can be a nightmare; conflicting schedules, winter weather, and last-minute cancellations are real considerations organizers must contend with. On top of that, sometimes work just gets too busy for a group of learners to be released from their work responsibilities to attend a learning session. Let us remember that one can’t beat the flexibility of asynchronous learning while eLearning allows learners to progress at their own pace and time that’s comfortable for them.

In recent times, there have been persistent concerns regarding the impact of the introduction of eLearning at the institution, and to what extent it has impacted the students and faculty members. But, the introduction of digital learning at tertiary institutions across the globe still remains a learning curve, for example, in other countries including the sophisticated ones in terms of effective technologies and communication, economic sustainability and political proficiency; yet, distance eLearning still poses a serious challenge. If the bigger powers, despite their technological superiority and economic viability, are still battling how to overcome the numerous challenges of eLearning, how about a third world state like Liberia with a high illiteracy rate, less sophisticated, poor internet connectivity, and poverty-stricken?

The reality is that in various countries, including the poverty-stricken ones, where the population lives on US$2.00 daily for daily meal, an alternative was adopted with eLearning being the suitable proposal since the usual in-person face-to-face classes had to be suspended to ensure the safety of everyone including school administrators, lecturers, students, patients and family members.

E-learning, like any method of teaching, has its advantages and disadvantages for both students and teachers. Let’s first discuss the advantages.  Currently, UL is offering blended learning in-person class and eLearning access to courses due to surge in the COVID-19 pandemic since the institution has recognized that many students will be dealing with the aftereffects of the pandemic for some time. Whether starting studies from afar or finishing their last few credits, the administration especially the brains driving eLearning at the institution have been working diligently to educate and empower our faculty, staffs; and students take advantage of the system and apply same to help them realize UL objective to impact quality education.

Mostly, there is a significant impact of eLearning on quality education at the university since quality teaching has become an issue of importance in the landscape of the UL. At the state run institution, contemporary technologies have been incorporated into departments’ revised curricula to enhance the nature of quality education, creativity, innovation and the interactions between students and teachers.

Our students voluntarily make decisions whether to attend in-person classes and eLearning, while UL administration is committed to responding to shifting safety measures, and has continued to provide detailed updates regarding safety measures of the coronavirus. For this current semester, the registered sections online are about 600, with Professor Amos C. Sawyer College registering 144 sections, as the college with a single highest number of sections online. For example, all the sections of English 201 and 411 are taught online, and the impressions regarding students’ full participation and performances have been positive, even though there still exist challenges.

Policies regarding this new paradigm make classroom accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week, while students can access their courses at any time of day or night. Further, they have continuous access to lectures, course materials, and class discussions. Overall, this academic new paradigm is transparent and allows students to follow their own progress while at the same time, it reduces the pressure of marking test papers and calculating students’ scores.

A Student group which admired eLearning so dearly and continues to advocate for its perpetual existing, is UL Disabled Students Association, as they have persistently noted that without eLearning, they wouldn’t attend due to the challenge of movement from one campus to another, as well as from one classroom to the other – especially in competing with none disabled students to board school buses to and from school. The positivity of eLearning is not only limited to our disabled student community; instead it benefits other none disabled students and faculty members out of the country or in the leeward counties.

Interestingly,  some faculty members who are on study breaks attending seminars  or visiting family members are effectively delivering course materials to students while other students residing out of Monrovia either in the leeward counties and out of the country are also given the opportunity to attend and interact with their faculties online.

Interestingly, eLearning holds particular relevance to the University of Liberia to turn the impossible into possibility, to give students a new approach to education and to empower teachers to accept changes and engage into eLearning such as the use of all electronic media including the internet, Moodle platforms, Zoom, audio and video tapes to deliver any instructional material to students.  UL faculties who are delivering lectures are credited because without deep knowledge and spending a single rupee (dollar) for enrollment they are committed to the exercise and are advancing daily.

However, I can proudly say that those faculty members who were branded as BBC and asking these unhealthy questions can no longer ask such elementary questions due to their knowledge and skill regarding the use of computers and eLearning to teach and learn. With access to email and search engines including “google.com”, our faculty members are equipped with computer skills and knowledge, and managed to overcome the barriers. As anticipated, the result was not one hundred percent successful. Today, eLearning  remains one of the needed approach to learning and teaching at the university, with daily improvement.

Kumar (2921) pinpointed that the current trends of transformation of the global education system and globalization influence on higher teaching and learning at the greater level resulted in a quality education. In the abstract of her publication, Kumar named the effective use of ICT tools and technological advancement as greater factors that are transforming the global education system and changes in teaching and learning approaches especially virtual (computer online) teaching and learning.

Most significantly, the virtual education system to some extent ensures high quality learning and continues to provide easy access and promotes flexibility in learning so that one can learn from anywhere and at any time without the constraints of movement, place or time. Homan and Wood (2003) explained that in the era of the knowledge-based economy, owing to the sustainable development of information and network as well as the popularization of computers, e-learning has changed the way learners communicate, interact, and behave, and their cognition of learning.

As mentioned earlier, through the farsighted and illustrious leadership of Dr. Julius Nelson, the current faculty members of the Liberia College are comfortably teaching through digital education by using the Moodle eLearning platform. Presently, all the faculty members of the college are computer-literate, comfortable and are teaching through digital education by using Moodle eLearning to conduct classes and to interact with students. For the past six months the entire faculty, including the chairpersons, participated in numerous training sessions, including workshops, seminars and symposiums

Globally, students lack access to technology and are usually faced with poor internet connectivity in the wake of school closures, which are considered to be the biggest barriers for learning. The limitation usually cited by most of students and faculty members is the lack of availability and affordability of connectivity of internet and mobile communications.  Although students and faculty also cited lack of access to technology and poor internet connectivity, in many of the countries, especially the ones located on the African continent, the lives and livelihoods of the extremely poor often impact education negatively.

Across the globe, most of the students still prefer face- to-face in-person classroom teaching to eLearning education. They have a undesirable perception about eLearning education, while others have a positive attitude towards eLearning.  The students populace needs to understand that the use of the internet frequently can lead to changes in views, as eLearning education has a big advantage that the students do not need to resign from their jobs to take courses in the university; they do not need to look for babysitters to look after their children so they can go for classes; eLearning education has brought easy ways to study.

E-learning, like any method of teaching, has its advantages and disadvantages for both students and teachers. Let’s first discuss the advantages.  At the University of Liberia, e-Learning systems are becoming critical platforms for distance-learning and for general lifelong learning by students, especially students with physical disabilities. ELearning is becoming more important in recent times for our students because it can enable distance opportunities that have not been previously available to them or their colleagues. It’s a perfect source of earnings for tutors, where they can lecture from anywhere in their chosen period. With online learning, you can access material on an infinite number of occasions, which is extremely helpful at the time of revision or studying for an exam. One need not wander in the quest for learning as eLearning education is flexible and well-equipped to fit all learning methods.

E-Learning can also be seen as a promising way for improving the quality of higher education and effectiveness of learning. It can give increased flexibility of learning experience to students, and enhances access to information resources for more students. Furthermore, the use of e-learning platforms provides great benefits for students at the UL, especially those residing out of Montserrado and Liberia. The success of e-learning depends on many factors, including accessibility, usage of appropriate methods, course content, and assessment criteria. It directly helps to eliminate or at least reduce gender income inequality, at flexible learning hours. When eLearning courses are offered, there is no need for training to interfere with regular and routine work. ELearning courses can be taken by staff at home, during commutes or even on business tours and holidays. All it needs are a smartphone, a laptop, and a headset connected to reliable and high-speed internet

While there are also some benefits such as time flexibility, access to materials, removing stress for transportation, movement, photocopy of materials, removing limitations to classrooms, especially for disabled students who have difficulties to compete with their colleagues to board buses and locate classrooms. Other benefits worth mentioning include increased convenience, access to resources regardless of location and time.  It helps students to participate in eLearning classes on their own, and that students can have quick access to materials, students study at night on their own, and do not need transportation to move on and off campus, or for lunch.  Students can have quick access to the class, colleagues and lecturer of a particular course. Besides, eLearning is more flexible, unique, and less costly since it avoids photocopying, as there is availability of course materials 24 hours a day and a student can get them at any time convenient to him or her.

Other benefits include lack of stress from other students, students can work with speed, gives students enough time to think about materials to submit, helps remove burdens of interacting with lecturer and other students, can submit prompt messages and at the same time receive instant messages. It is also possible for a student to submit classwork, assignment or materials and at the same time recall the materials to replace such materials, while students and faculty can chat and share video meetings with others, record class lecturers and interact with others students or the course lecturer any time. Students can also receive instant feedback on progress and grade reports.

Regarding UL and other institutions of higher learning, e-learning education has limitations, including problems with internet access, poor quality of internet connection, failures of faculty and students to accept change and insufficient digital skills of the respondents. Other disadvantages include dearth resources at their various homes to complete course assignments, engage in practices and activities that help equip students to be successful in school. Inappropriately, numerous impoverished families lack access to computers, high-speed internet and other materials that can aid a student outside of school.

Unfortunately, studies at home can be very absolute, interference by home mates or yard mates, academic malpractices, unfairness with learning, being disturbed by neighbors, parties or loud melody and poor Internet connectivity are some of the disadvantages. It also involves dearth of physical interaction with classmates and course instructors, lack of classroom discipline. The disadvantages include lack of access to make new friends, share fun, lack of quick access to the class, colleagues and lecturer of a particular course.

Besides, it creates more pressure on students to browse their Moodle platforms during work hours, leads to constant distraction from normal home activities and creates health effects for the eyes. It puts more pressure on computer or mobile devices to constantly charge, and above all, confines students to computers for hours.

To conclude, my practical experience and interaction with our students and faculty, I hold a contrary view and generally, my impression about the successes compared to the shortcomings is high. ELearning is very critical to learning in the coronavirus era and holds specific relevance to the University of Liberia to turn impossible into prospects. We must accept global transformation and shift in the new approach to education. Hence, earning education through eLearning technologies is now inevitable, in fact, eLearning is here to stay and flourish. UL administration, deans, academic directors, faculty and students deserve pat on the back!

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About Cholo Brooks 17483 Articles
Joel Cholo Brooks is a Liberian journalist who previously worked for several international news outlets including the BBC African Service. He is the CEO of the Global News Network which publishes two local weeklies, The Star and The GNN-Liberia Newspapers. He is a member of the Press Union Of Liberia (PUL) since 1986, and several other international organizations of journalists, and is currently contributing to the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation as Liberia Correspondent.

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