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Potential of e-learning in higher education

OVER the past few years, adoption of technology in the education system has increased significantly. Most of the universities around the world are beginning to invest in modern forms of learning, thus making the growth of e-learning to expand tremendously. This new form of education through technology is attracting entrepreneurs around the world to invest and develop new forms of e-learning products as tools for providing education to the learners and also meet the increased demand for education.
E-learning refers to the use of information and communications technology (ICT) to enhance and/or support learning in education. However, the concept of e-learning had existed long before the internet was launched.
Previously, learning institutions offered distance courses to students with education on particular subjects or skills. But with the introduction of the computer and internet technology in the late 20th century, e-learning tools and delivery methods began to expand.
The first computers in the 1980’s enabled individuals to have computers in their homes and offices while making it easier for them to learn about particular subjects and develop certain skills regardless of the geographical location.
Later, virtual learning environments (a web based platform for the digital aspects of courses of study) began to thrive, with learners gaining access to a wealth of online information and e-learning opportunities. Further, technological advancements have thus continued to enable learning institutions to reduce the costs of distance learning and help bring education to a wider audience.
Higher learning institutions in Zambia such as the University of Zambia (UNZA), the Copperbelt University (CBU) and the Zambia Open University (ZAOU) are some examples of how the open learning initiative (OLI) is revolutionising the tertiary education provision through e-learning by changing the way universities enable students to register for courses, the way lecturers teach and how students access their learning materials.
For instance, The University of Zambia (UNZA) Institute of Distance Education IDE is a practical example of how learners can now access lessons or modules from both the computer and mobile devices to study on the e- learning platform.
This is because e-learning offers an alternative form of education that is faster, cheaper and potentially better than the traditional classroom mode of education.
Therefore, many universities today are now thinking through and negotiating the potential contribution of e-learning to their organisations.
However, for some institutions, key challenges to e-learning exist such as infrastructure and funding. For developing countries like Zambia, the low application of ICTs, low internet access, inadequate skills (for both learners and instructors) and poor technological infrastructure, particularly in the rural areas remain huge challenges in the provision of e-learning for many institutions.
Nonetheless, given all the benefits of e-learning, one cannot deny there are also some disadvantages to the learner. For instance, practical skills such as mechanical engineering or chemistry practice are examples of skills that a learner may require hands-on experience apart from access to the e-learning platform.
This is because even though information on such subjects can be obtained online or through audio visual and other ICT materials, the practical experience is essential for learners.
However, with the fast changing trends in technology in education, it is evident that e-learning will remain a critical tool for educational provision for both now and the future.
Therefore, in order for e-learning to maximize its full potential for both learners and the universities offering the programs, both governments and learning institutions need to have a clearer understanding of the costs and benefits of e-learning. While e-learning can be used both to reduce the costs and to improve the quality of education on offer, it should be clearly noted that the two have very different policy agendas.
E-learning can be used to improve distance learning and at the same time increase access to and participation in tertiary education, as part of a life-long learning. It can also be used to enhance the student experience on campus for learners.
Therefore, with the increase in the public and private learning education providers in the country, government should take into account the importance of academic autonomy and needs of different learning institutions in designing policies on e-learning.
This is because the active participation of learning institutions in designing policies on e-learning is critical for further growth of e-learning in the country. E-learning has the potential to transform tertiary education for the better in the long run as it cuts across geographical boundaries regardless of the learner’s age, social status, sex etc.
Further, the orientation to ICTs for learners should be taken seriously in our early childhood education curriculum in order to reduce the e-learning skills gap among many learners.
The author is a social and political commentator and blogger. Email: