With one foot in implementation and one foot in the future, a technology strategy was critical in bringing the Vaal University of Technology into the 21st century.

According to Professor Dzvimbo, vice chancellor: academic and research at VUT, being one of the largest residential universities in South Africa with 22 000 students, five campuses, 300 programmes and 6000 full- and part-time staff, technology was essential to ensure access for students and academics.

“At the top of our agenda was development and innovation; our institution was built for 5000 students, but 22 000 students were relying on VUT for their futures,” says Prof Dzvimbo.

“Learning is no longer dependent on bricks and mortar, Blackboard our LMS, became a vehicle of change, transforming teaching and learning.

Prof Dzvimbo outlines five lessons learned in bringing the institution into the 21st Century.

Create a vision

“I launched Project Vutela in 2013, where I cast a vision of what was possible in our institution, five years later, all 22 000 students and 6000 staff have access to learning 24/7, and via project Expresso, by 2020, 1 400 academic modules will be available online. Within three years, 18 000 students are using technology with 50% of their academic curriculum being accessed via blended learning.

“It is vital to create a conducive environment for academics and students to engage and important that the vision is driven institutionally and not departmentally. Even more critical is that the LMS meets the institution’s needs,” he says.

We need champions

“I learned that people are afraid of change, so in small groups, championed by early adopters, we helped lecturers make meaning of blended learning, instructional design and using the LMS as a foundation in an institution-wide deployment.

“Through a change management process, partnered by Eiffel Corp, we reduced the fear and provided training for senior management and changed the perception of blended learning and the essential need for an effective LMS.

“We required strong project management to drive the process and Dr Pauline Machika and Mr Moegammat Dolley was appointed to ensure adoption by staff and students and ensure all academic curriculum was translated to blended learning,” Prof Dzvimbo explains.

“In the first year, 400 academics were trained to facilitate learning via the LMS, the adoption rate was only 15%, now staff realise that learning is exportable and portable and over 50% utilize the LMS,” says Dr Machika.

Students and academic staff have different needs

Students want experiences with technology while often academics are not aware of the power of what’s available.

“Email was the most dominant means of communications between lecturers & students and notes were printed,” says Prof Dzvimbo.

“We also learned in error that students wanted laptops, and we provided sponsored tablets.”

Lecturers don’t need to be instructional designers – they need to deliver content to the content development team, headed by Dr Machika, who in turn produced blended learning.

Break the project into bite-size chunks – time and budget

“At the outset, we spent 70% of our grant on building a strong IT infrastructure, with an allocation for off-site maintenance,” says Prof Dzvimbo. “External hosting was critical to free academics up to develop blended content.

“Thereafter, adoption was planned in sections of the institution.”

Instructional design for blended learning was a separate project.

“When asked about the expense vs benefit, the LMS is completely self-run, and managed by Eiffel Corp. This freedom comes at a price, but it’s affordable,” concludes Dzvimbo.