For two decades the University of Pretoria has offered a blended approach to teaching and learning. Simply put, the University has adopted a delivery model that makes use of traditional learning tools such as classroom-based learning in combination with technology-supported platforms. This model has secured a place for the University of Pretoria as leader on the African continent in the use of a blended learning model. Since 2014, the University has significantly expanded the online component of its hybrid learning model. This move was enabled by the high level of maturity in use of the learning management system (LMS).
In addition to boosting the overall use of online elements, the University boasts half a dozen online programmes, most of which have been running for a decade or more.
Master’s in Early Childhood Interventions (MECI)
The two-year Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Intervention (MECI) was one of the first fully online programmes to be introduced at the University of Pretoria in 2001. It is the only programme of its kind on the African continent and was developed to address issues of service delivery for infants and children (0 to 6 years) with disability and those at risk of developmental delay. The programme is an outcome of a collaborative process involving disability stakeholders, government departments and various departments from the University of Pretoria (Faculties of Health Sciences, Humanities and Education). It is strongly rooted in the South African/African context and addresses the influence of issues such as poverty, violence, abuse, chronic disease and discrimination on child development. The students, all of them health-care professionals, are situated in every part of the country, rural and urban, as well as throughout the continent.
- How the course is delivered
Students meet twice a year for week-long contact sessions at the main campus of the University of Pretoria, but the bulk of the academic work is completed asynchronously (not bound to a specific time) in discussion forums on the University's online learning management system (LMS), branded as clickUP. Students are required to undertake collaborative work and are assigned to multi-disciplinary teams. Research undertaken among graduates in 2016 indicates that they use various social media platforms such as SKYPE Chat, Blackboard Collaborate, WhatsApp and email to keep in touch, brainstorm and plan their collaborative academic projects.
- Successes of using the hybrid learning model
A hybrid learning model allows the University to deliver programmes to students situated anywhere in South Africa, on the African continent or elsewhere in the world, allowing the targeting of more professionals in need of early childhood intervention training. It also enables the University to invite international experts for participation in discussions and presenting of guest lectures without physically having to bring them to the country, thus saving on costs.
- Some of challenges in using the hybrid learning model
From a facilitator perspective, the time dedicated to teaching online can be challenging since the asynchronous nature of the programme means that teaching can stretch across the whole day. Keeping academic arguments sound and giving feedback in order to guide students’ online discussion takes time but is crucial for maintaining a teaching and cognitive presence. The inclusion of an online medium requires speciﬁc skill development on the part of both the lecturers and students to ensure that the medium is optimally used and that higher levels of learning are achieved.
From a student’s perspective, the high cost of data in South Africa represents a hidden cost, especially for data-intensive programmes with online videos and streamed lectures. Uneven access to a stable and fast internet service, especially in rural areas, is another challenge highlighted by students in research conducted by the University. In previous years, an unstable electricity supply owing to load-shedding posed a significant barrier but this has largely been resolved. In addition to having to take leave from their full-time employment for block periods, students who do not live in Pretoria have ancillary expenses such as flights, as well as accommodation and living expenses, for the two weeks per year that they have to attend contact sessions at the University.
With acknowledge to Dr Alecia Samuels, Centre for Augmentative & Alternative Communication at the University of Pretoria