Kathy Gibson is at the E-Learning Summit in East London – E-learning is a very important subject, whose time is now – but it won’t happen if we don’t overcome some very real challenges

Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, vice-chancellor of University of Fort Hare, points out that the need for e-learning is not debated any more.

“It reduces costs and, with limited infrastructure, gives people the ability to teach and learn. Importantly, it can also expand coverage.”

At university, class numbers are limited. But, with e-learning these numbers are actually limitless.

Technology can also help enormously with the marking of scripts, freeing up teachers to teach more, Prof Buhlungu says.

“It also give us flexibility in terms of where the learning takes place. People can learn at school but also at home.”

It offers the potential for a reduction in learning time. If students complete tasks quickly they can move on.

Because the technology that now delivers e-learning are simple to use, they are easily accessible, Prof Buhlungu adds.

“But the real issue is not the benefits: the debate is not about the benefits – we all know them and want them. Given the right deployment of resource and training, e-learning can be a leveller.

“But there are challenges.”

The first challenge, Prof Buhlungu says, is that people see it interchangeably with distance learning. “E-learning still requires an element of contact teaching.”

The second challenge is that the distribution of electronic gadgets does not equal e-learning.

“It’s well and good putting tablets in front of learners. But this does not set you much further down the path.”

The biggest challenge is that teachers often lack the skills in making e-learning effective.

“It is not just about equipment, but about developing their resources. To help teachers to develop and prepare e-learning resources for their classes.”

Prof Buhlungu points out that the higher learning institutions hav a critical role to play. “All teacher training now happens at university but some of them are not ready to manage e-learning – and that is an issue.”

Other challenges include connectivity – this is a big one, says Prof Buhlungu. “It is a huge obstacle for communities in many parts of the country.

“If you live in Gauteng or Western Cape, not a big deal. But if you live in rural Eastern Cape, you are talking about a very uneven playing field.”

The high cost of data is another stumbling block. “This is a huge issue.”

Another issue we need to consider is that the lifespan of devices is limited, Prof Buhlungu adds. “A desktop will limp along for five years. But a laptop really lasts only three years, and tablets likewise. And the technology changes really fast.

“So thank you to sponsors – but in three or four years, that equipment needs to be re[laced,”

Developing e-learning material is not a trivial task, Prof Buhlungu adds. “We all teach from the same syllabus, but every teacher teaches in a different way. So e-learning materials have to be tailored in many respects.”

IT support is another issue: without the ability to repair, backup or restore resources, they will fail and fall away, Prof Buhlungu says.

Security has to be considered as well, he says. Even at the university, laptops on brackets in a secure environment get stolen, so the problem is real.

There is a slippage in the way we talk about e-learning. It is seen as something that will replace contact learning – but they must be mutually reinforcing. It must be a ixed model.”

In 2015, university teaching was interrupted by the Fees Must Fall protests. Blended learning became the only solution, allowing students to learn and write exams.

“We were forced into that, but I believe it is the solution for the future,” Prof Buhlungu says.