University of Pretoria: UP symposium explores future of fully online distance education

The University of Pretoria (UP) and UPOnline, the University’s online teaching model, recently hosted the first annual Fully Online Distance Education Symposium (FODES), a virtual event that brought together academics, learning designers, instructional designers, e-learning specialists and other experts that design and develop fully online distance education modules or short courses.

The symposium was held over two days, on 14 and 15 October 2021, and attracted more than 200 designers, online facilitators and higher education decision-makers who shared their experiences.

Symposium founder and director Dr Kimera Moodley, Senior Learning Designer of Comprehensive Online Education Services at UPOnline, explained the symposium’s theme in her welcoming address.

“The idea of the symposium was born from discussions among learning designers and e-learning specialists late in 2020 as many universities were venturing into the fully online distance education market and not emergency remote teaching [that was necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic],” she said. “FODES aims to address challenges and new directions presented by fully online distance education practitioners related to technological innovations and in an online educational setting.”

Keynote speaker Professor Norman Duncan, UP Vice-Principal: Academic, explored innovation in the teaching and learning space in his address titled ‘The future of online education: perspectives of an academic administrator’.

“While UP had distance education for quite a while, like many mainstream universities, at the beginning of 2014/2015, many universities did not imagine going online with any of their programmes,” he said. “We were very proud of the methods and the manner in which we offered instruction. However, in 2014/15, at the level of the executive, we had to have focused discussions around what the modalities of instruction at UP would be. We came to the realisation that contact and distance education were not going to be enough to ensure that the University meets all the aspects of its mandate.”

He added that they also realised that the institution would suffer financially in 20 to 30 years from now if it did not evolve sufficiently.

Other themes explored during the symposium included learning design, the students’ “voice”, interactive learning tools, postgraduate online assessments, quality online education and digital learning to name a few.

Dr Moodley shared that one of the main insights that arose from the symposium was a demand to move education online in a way that doesn’t compromise on quality.

“There is definitely a demand from all educational institutions, training providers, private and public industry to move education, training and development online, and for creative and innovative ways to design and develop content. There is a demand for online technical skills and digital competencies. Much more discussion around online distance education needs to take place to fully understand the needs of students, lecturers/training facilitators and institutions. We are only at the beginning.”

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