Digital Pedagogies During and after the Coronavirus Emergency in a Low Resource Environment: The Case of State University of Zanzibar

Maryam Jaffar Ismail, Said A.S.Yunus & Michael Gallagher

The State University of Zanzibar (SUZA) is the only state-owned university founded in 1999, and officially commenced its academic activities in 2001. SUZA is located in Zanzibar, which is composed of two islands, Unguja and Pemba. It has more than 315 academic staff, 300 non-academic staff and 4742 registered students in the academic year 2019/2020. SUZA has 64+ academic programs from Certificates, Diploma, Bachelors, Masters and Doctor of philosophy (PhD). Currently, SUZA has nine (9) operational schools and one (1) institute.

Various projects and partnerships have been implemented at SUZA which brought significant changes in the use of digital technologies in teaching and learning. These projects are Building Stronger Universities (BSU) funded by DANIDA that helped in establishing Learning Management System (LMS) and equipping lecturers to design and develop digital modules to teach students through SUZA LMS. Another project was Science and Technology Higher Education Project (STHEP). This project helped in establishing Center for Digital Learning (CDL) which aimed to help lecturers to design and produce digital contents.

Last but not least is Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning (PEBL), a regional collaborative blended learning network led by the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) funded by the Department for International Development (DFID) of the United Kingdom (UK) under the Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform (SPHEIR) initiative. Three more partnerships added value in digital technologies, e-learning and remote teaching include SUZA, Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) and Milele Zanzibar Foundation (MZF) on STEM for SUCCESS Zanzibar, Digital Education in Africa and SUZA-University of Otago partnerships.

In the 2014/2015 academic year, SUZA with support from (BSU) II project piloted implementation of e-modules through LMS for selected courses. The pilot study was done in the 2016/2017 academic year to investigate the adoption and usage of LMS as pedagogical tool among students and instructors at the State University of Zanzibar (SUZA). Previous studies depict that 70% of lecturers and 44.4% of students showed preferences to the LMS system as a tool to be used in teaching and learning. Before the pandemic, SUZA already had its working Learning Management System (LMS). About 70 lectures were already given some basic training on the use of LMS and blended learning.  In the first semester 2019/2020 around 28 courses from different disciplines were uploaded on the SUZA LMS in blended learning mode.

Digital pedagogy before and during Covid

The use of digital technologies at SUZA can be traced back since 2006 when the distribution of lesson notes in text format for students through a simple e-learning tool was implemented and then the establishment of SUZA LMS through MOODLE platform enriched the use of digital technologies. Various studies have been conducted on different uses of digital technologies at SUZA such as integration of web 2.0 in teaching-learning and the use of Open Education Resources (OER) at SUZA. Like other institutions of higher learning in developing countries, SUZA faces different challenges in integrating digital technologies in teaching and learning.

Studies shows recurring challenges such as internet connectivity, access to computers and digital devices, being unfamiliar with Moodle and integration, technophobia and limited skills in using ICT for learning, and low awareness of OER. Due to the threat of pandemic, SUZA had to make decisions about how to continue teaching and learning while keeping the university staff and students safe from a public health emergency that is moving fast and not well understood when will the crisis end. The MOODLE Crash Course (MCC) for lecturers was designed with the support of staff from University of Edinburgh and University of Copenhagen and officially launched in May 2020. The lecturers were trained online at first, and then shifted to blended learning mode when the campus reopened in June 2020. The content of the MCC is illustrated in Fig 1 & 2:

Fig 1: MCC for academics: Course Structure 

Fig 2: SUZA LMS Walkthrough

A rapid assessment of the experiences of COVID-19 crisis exposed SUZA to many significant short and long-term challenges including: limited resources for institutions, personal and academic challenges for institutions and students, and demand for improved infrastructure to support online, distance and blended learning models. Also the pandemic triggered various changes at university teaching and learning and revision of E-learning policy and guidelines. Lecturers themselves were struggling to maintain the same depth of engagement they wish to have in a classroom setting. Covid crisis led to the need to adapt teaching methodologies, due to the impossibility of having face to face classes.

Generally, the higher education community at SUZA as a whole reacted promptly to the disruption caused by the pandemic and that the emergency solutions adopted were considered as successful in the majority of cases. However, as a consequence of the outbreak, lecturers and students had many struggles as mentioned. The main questions that still cling: will academics and non-academics continue to view online learning as a threat in terms of online assessment? How can they avoid a dip in the quality of education they are providing and the quality of learning which was  affected by the shift from face-to-face to unplanned online teaching?

Critical pedagogy and praxis

The sudden shift online as a result of Covid-19 facilitated a migration to what can be described as more digitally responsive pedagogical approaches, a process facilitated by previous work done at the university on adapting existing pedagogies into more active and student-focused ones. The vehicle for this pedagogical shift was the MOODLE crash course described prior. The university drew on this past experience in response to Covid-19 shifts online, drew on regional and international partnerships and networks already in place, and drew on the specific contexts in which SUZA operates. All informed the pedagogical approaches currently being advanced. Pedagogy is positioned as the practices of teaching, and their manifestation in the student-teacher.

The team at SUZA drew on past institutional work and current research to shift these pedagogies and to stimulate a reflective praxis: a conscious, skilled activity that can be understood by researching from the inside. Freire defines praxis in a more critical way as: ‘reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed’. This is especially relevant in periods of transformational change, which in Covid-19 timelines is persistent. Schools at SUZA were enacting transformational change in a highly condensed time frame. Critical pedagogy can extend to the interrogation of these knowledge structures being increasingly created and mediated through the digital, echoing Freire’s position that “liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferals of information.” This is reflected in SUZA’s approaches to pedagogy and course design. The online platform spaces are places of interaction, not merely repositories of information, a position that reaffirms SUZA’s focus on active, student-led approaches.

The next steps in the face of such uncertainty are several. First, continued work needs to be performed to begin to address the technological divides that impact our student and teaching community. How, in the face of three months of campus closures (March-June 2020), can we ensure continuity of education when little to no-technology exists for some to do so? How do we reconfigure the campus space to provide a safe and accessible space for those without technology to access their education? What role do regional and international partnerships play in this? Secondly, how do we approach these uncertain times as potentially a time of pedagogical transformation and renewal? From the crash course to past work in this space, how do we maintain the momentum to rethink how we teach with technology?

Additionally, the pandemic has reminded educators on how teaching should be student-centered learning, not just how to teach online. The pandemic has definitely steered institutions of higher learning into a new framework for how educators instruct and how students learn. The key question is can educators do better than what they usually do? Thirdly, how do we maintain a critical perspective in all these transformational changes occurring at the university, in the HE sector, and throughout the region? To teach our students to critique their spaces, to critique how Covid-19 can accelerate divides and amplify marginalisation, to teach how technology can both liberate and isolate if a good pedagogy is not enacted. 

Photo by DDP on Unsplash

Maryam Jaffar Ismail, former Dean (2014-2020) of the School of Education at the State University of Zanzibar (SUZA). She is a senior lecturer and a teacher educator with over 20 years’ experiences in the field of Second/Foreign Language Education(S/FLTE). She has extensive experience in higher education management, consultancy and capacity development. She is now the President of Regional Education Learning Initiative (RELI) Tanzania and a member of Digital Education in Africa.

Said A. S. Yunus is an Education technologist at the School of Education (SoE) of the State University of Zanzibar (SUZA). He teaches various courses at Diploma and Undergraduate levels. His research interests include technology integration in teaching and learning in higher learning, use of technology in teaching and learning, technology use in language teaching, Big Data and Learning analytics in education, emerging technologies in teaching and learning such as Flipped classroom, Open Educational Resources (OER) and MOOCs in Kiswahili teaching.

Michael Gallagher is a Lecturer in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh, and a member of the Centre for Research in Digital Education. His research interests include critical mobilities studies in digital education in development contexts and the implications of such thinking for educational mobility. Previous published work includes critical perspectives on educational technologies; the mobilities of digital education students; and futures educational research.

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