Chapter 4: Practical Concepts of Seamless Learning
Maria José Sousa; Frelét de Villiers; and Willem Ellis
According to Camilleri and Camilleri (2017), digital learning environments have the potential to change the nature of learning and provoke reflection upon the traditional role of learning. The digital learning platforms have allowed the diffusion of learning methodologies that have facilitated teaching and learning processes (Sousa et al., 2017), enabling students to: a) learn anytime, anywhere: since materials are available twenty-four hours and can be accessed from any location; b) benefit from time savings: there is no need to make trips to training, which cause so much inconvenience and become barriers to training/learning; c) learn at their own pace: the student becomes autonomous, responsible for his learning, can choose the content and marks his rhythm; d) to reuse of contents and experiences: the contents of the course can be reused in other courses partially or totally; e) have access to updated information. eLearning also presents a series of disadvantages such as: a) lower student/teacher interaction: student/teacher interaction becomes reduced since communication is made via the Internet, originating as such a physical and/or temporal remoteness; b) compromised motivation and rhythm: it implies a strong motivation and a proper rhythm on the part of the student, being denominated of solitary and little social learning; c) the need for more time and effort in the content development and modification: the teacher has to dedicate more time to produce content and involve specialists in several domains of knowledge; d) the costs of reliable Internet access: online learning systems depend upon the Internet as a crucial tool for communication and efficient transmission of content, which can be costly for some populations.
4.1 Mobile Data
Mobile data (also referred to as cellular data) enables a person to connect to the internet when they lack access to WiFi as long as they are connected to a cellular network (Ottoni, 2019). Measured in megabytes (MB) and gigabytes (GB), it is used whenever information is downloaded or uploaded. The Ethernet Project at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center was the beginning of wired networks in the early 1970s in the United States. These networks provided digital networking to computers through Local Area Networks (LANs) by using affordable hardware that functioned at a relatively high speed (Metcalfe & Boggs, 1976). We have come a long way since those early days; nowadays we cannot imagine a world without data and wireless access to data.
When considering online ways of presenting and transferring knowledge, necessary for seamless learning, one of the first issues that comes to mind is connectivity (access to data and/or WiFi) and hardware (devices). The affordability of data is a problem in many countries. For example, in South Africa, 33% of participants who took part in Research ICT Africa’s 2018 After Access ICT Access and Use Survey stated that the unaffordability of services is the main reason they do not use or have access to the internet (Gillwald & Mothobi, 2018, p. 20). The digital divide also remains a barrier, particularly where access to and the use of the internet is more prevalent in higher-income groups or countries with a more developed economy (Gillwald & Mothobi, 2018). Lack of access is also related to “historical [and] social inequalities”, where the gap between the different classes becomes more evident. This is known as “digital inequality” or, as Gillwald and Mothobi (2018, p. 2) have labeled it, “digital exclusion.”
One possible solution to digital exclusion may be to adjust the pricing structure. In South Africa, a “poverty premium” was suggested. Gillwald and Mothobi (2018) explain:
Pre-paid data per megabyte is more expensive than bundles and the price of low-volume, small-value bundles, typically purchased by poor people, are (sic.) more expensive than the discount prices of high-volume packages purchased by wealthier users. (p. 4)
By offering a “poverty premium”, the lower socio-economic group of people could receive free data daily. Unfortunately, this is only a partial solution since it would help only those cellphone users who already have online access, perhaps even further marginalizing the poorest people. On the other hand, providing free public WiFi might benefit those who cannot afford big data bundles. Zero-rating public internet services is another potential option. In zero-rating services, no charges are applicable when specific applications or websites are used. This was a service provided to students at several tertiary institutions in South Africa during the COVID pandemic. Zero-rating services enabled the students to access the university websites and applications necessary for completing their modules free of charge.
The lack of coverage in certain areas is another factor contributing to the low connectivity. This is likely to result in low internet usage or in households being deprived of online connectivity. Lennet, Morris, and Byrum (2012) suggest a solution to this problem: they propose that universities should provide networks to the communities they serve by “extending their infrastructure and expertise and work with the local community” in the form of “a fibre optic network, utilizing open-source mesh wireless technologies and community data-gathering and storage services” (p. 15). This may well be a solution for some, but it would apply only to those students residing near a university that provides such a network. In reality, though, there are many suburbs (and, in South Africa, townships, for example) that are situated some distance from university campuses. As a result, those students residing remotely from campuses would still be unable to benefit from such an arrangement.
Without smartphones, data coverage is unnecessary because students will be unable to complete their assignments or engage in online activity regardless of how earnest their instructors try to take a seamless learning approach. Smartphones have “revolutionized the telecommunications industry by becoming the principal means of internet connectivity” (Gillwald & Mothobi, 2018, p. 1). Indeed, seven out of ten internet users in South Africa access the internet on their cellphones (Gillwald & Mothobi, 2018). But we must be cognizant of the fact that the cost of these devices is a barrier to many, and that only 83% of South Africans, for example, own cellphones of any kind—let alone smartphones (Gillwald & Mothobi, 2018, p. 2). In a survey by “Research ICT Africa After Access 2018” in ten African countries, it emerged that the cost of smartphones was the primary reason people are not connected to the internet. Furthermore, a lack of skills to surrounding use of the internet and related applications (digital illiteracy) may also be a problem (Gillwald & Mothobi, 2018). Therefore, training is essential – not only in using a device but also in accessing online information and the use of the appropriate cellphone applications.
Analyzing the data access from this research revealed that institutions implemented measures for specific data access except the Portuguese institution. Moreover, Malaysia only began to implement new measures during the pandemic (Figure 4.1).
4.2 Hardware for Digital Education
For online teaching and learning, instructors and students require adequate hardware such as, but not limited to the following:
- Computer/laptop/tablet: Online teaching requires suitable computer hardware, and schools should ensure that all teachers have access to a personal computer/laptop for preparing and presenting online classes.
- Webcam: Webcams enable professors to deliver the classes and for students to participate in videoconferences, to collaborate with colleagues in presentations and during group work.
- Internet access: Online education is only possible with sufficient internet access.
- Headphones (with microphone): Headphones with an inbuilt microphone facilitate class communication through audio.
- Second monitor/display: To make online interaction easier, professors and learners can consider configurations in which one monitor is used for video conferencing and one for demonstrations, taking notes, and looking for information online.
- Smartphone: Smarphones can provide a second camera, especially for demonstrations. They can be supported on a tripod. Tripods with a flexible neck allow for easy repositioning and for access to apps and programmes.
- HDMI switchers: A USB hub can facilitate connecting and switching between numerous cameras, screens, and/or audio inputs.
- External hard drive: Storing and frequently backing up all files on the cloud takes time, costs bandwidth, and perhaps compromises data security; therefore, local storage on hard drives can be less costly in the long run and allow the users to balance costs between cloud and local storage.
- A whiteboard (with magnets): Whiteboards can be used in online education for quick and easy sketching and displaying photographs.
Higher education institutions require IT infrastructure to support professors in designing courses (Lau, 2014) and developing resources, analyzing the eLearning platform, constructing websites, developing FAQs, and setting guidelines for the use of the IT resources. Cloud services are important to store resources and to deliver services based on software packages. Institutions need to ensure that staff and students have access to software that may also be used off-campus. Additionally, institutions should provide centralized, comprehensive information about available open access/license-free software and online resources that staff and students may turn to for their purposes.
In this global research project, only the institutions from South Africa (institution #2) and Portugal lacked access to specific hardware before and during the pandemic. It is important to highlight that the institutions from Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Turkey, and Egypt had access to a large set of hardware specifically dedicated to digital education before and during the COVID-19 pandemic (Figure 4.2).
Hardware for digital education
4.3 Funding and Cost
Developing the financial capacity to implement seamless learning initiatives—improving students and staff access to technology, implementing new models, and training staff and students—can be a daunting prospect. Implementers of seamless learning initiatives, no matter where their institutions are based, will have to be extremely innovative to make a success of their efforts. In a report on boosting student outcomes with digital learning, Public Impact (2013) gives some advice for funding issues (in the US context):
- Obtain fungible lump funding from provincial or regional (state) sources to enable optimum combinations of educators, support staff, digital instruction, and other needed material—always driven by pedagogical needs.
- Institutions should maintain the flexibility to spend funding that addresses their context best.
- Draw up new funding models. Funding of blended learning cannot be based on the old one-teacher, one-classroom staffing pattern, average educator salaries, and average costs per students. Seamless learning represents a whole new paradigm, which requires additional research in order to develop appropriate models.
- Streamline onerous procurement policies making them more flexible so that institutions can benefit from changes hardware and software.
Bailey et al. (2013) clearly emphasizes the importance of multi-year financial planning with a long-term view. When initial seed-funding or grants from start-up funders run out, such programmes often run the risk of being underfunded, which can negatively impact acquisition and distribution of electronic devices, faculties, and/or human capital. Any programme aimed at promoting seamless learning will have to carefully calculate costs and decide where and how much funding is to be spent. Bailey et al. (2013) highlights the following primary cost drivers, each with its own intricacies and challenges:
- Infrastructure – broadband access; wired and wireless networking;
- Timing of implementation – phased or all at once;
- Devices – type and quantities of devices to be acquired;
- Learning management systems (LMS) and systems integration – the creation of new systems and mergers into current systems;
- Digital content – decisions to balance “open” source and purchased/licensed sources;
- Human capital – remuneration models;
- Professional development – training for educators and support staff;
- Project management – internally management or outside consultants;
- Communication and evaluation – cost of such processes amount to? (pp. 26–27)
Often the crux of the problem depends upon the students accessing all the new digital offerings of the seamless learning environment rather than institutions initiating a move to seamless learning. This is especially true of developing countries where access to networks is fraught, and the cost of data is prohibitive. Nowhere has it been more accurate than in South Africa during the ongoing DOVID 19 pandemic, where it took substantial government intervention to make data more accessible to students studying from home. Ho (2020) reports on how network operators and internet service providers in South Africa had to be forced to drop prices to allow students to access the network for study purposes. Radio and television channels had also been incentivized to increase the educational content of their offerings. The limits to the bandwidth spectrum also became an issue, sparking efforts to broaden the access to bandwidth. Even though this was part of an emergency response during a worldwide pandemic, institutions and governments must heed these lessons to ensure strategic partnerships between the private, public, and civil society sectors when entering a “post-COVID 19” world.
While commenting on the pressures of HEIs to adapt, De Villiers (2020) stated that online education might sometimes be more a more expensive alternative to classroom teaching because technology costs are often relative to current market costs; however, online education does offer scalability which can enable HEIs to serve more students. Larger numbers of students, for example, will eventually bring down the unit cost, making education more efficient and affordable. The long-term cost-benefit offers the strongest case for HEIs in developing countries to expand their e-learning offering (including fully online, blended and hybrid modes) so that they can dramatically increase developmental impact.
Regarding funding, namely, all the institutions from all the countries participating in this research had subsidies for digital education at some point except for India and Portugal who indicated that they lacked access to subsidies both before and during the pandemic. It is important to highlight that the participants from the US and Turkey indicated that their institutions had access to subsidies to implement digital education before COVID-19 and during the pandemic (Figure 4.3).
Funding and cost (“Yes” indicates that institutions had access to funding to address the costs associated with digital education)
To maximize the implementation of seamless learning, two types of infrastructure are necessary: 1) a good ICT infrastructure, and 2) a solid university governance and administrative structure. According to Framework IT (2022), mobile-learning opportunities (one aspect of seamless learning) are “widely influenced by the degree of development of the local technological infrastructure and the quality of the available communication channels” (p. 1) Good ICT infrastructure is the core of the network and consists of ‘the technology elements needed to manage your business, such as computers, servers, software, data, network switches” (Framework IT, 2021, p. 1).
This type of infrastructure also consists of all the information and systems needed to support the usability and management of the data. It is to the advantage of any company or institution to ensure performance enhancement. One of the benefits of a good ICT infrastructure is that it optimizes people’s productivity and enhances their experience. Czerniewicz and Brown (2005) believe that “ICTs do not have any meaning in isolation – they have meaning only in relation to an implicit or explicit purpose” (p. 43).
At universities, ICT services are responsible for maintaining and providing business information technology systems in addition to managing the website tools (CUT, 2022). They also enable staff members to access information via their mobile devices, web browsers, and computers. Students and staff access systems through remote desktop access, walk-in support, student computer labs, and classroom technology support (UFS, 2020). ICT must provide “effective network availability and connectivity to ensure optimal functionality and productivity of employees” and “a high level of Information security to ensure system availability and accurate secure electronic information” (UFS, 2020).
The university infrastructure should ensure that opportunities are available to staff members to excel in their work and provide support for their teaching and learning. The infrastructure at a university should be configured to follow a top–bottom approach. In the first place, for instance, staff members need to know that they have the support of their superiors to optimize teaching and learning. In line with this, aspects that need to be in place are, for example, training opportunities, access to the most recent software and academic sources, support in the form of tools to cope emotionally (especially in a stressful circumstance such as the COVID pandemic), and celebrate when staff and students are performing well in the teaching and learning environment. Students are entitled to the same types of consideration in the form of training on any software related to their modules, assistance with academic writing, help with completing their assignments, and knowing that there are procedures, for example, for airing complaints and grievances. At the University of the Free State, for example, there are Teaching and Learning Partners and Teaching and Learning Managers in each faculty to support and help students and staff carry this enormous responsibility.
As illustrated in Figure 4.4, the infrastructure before the pandemic and during the pandemic remained stable. This means that most countries continued with their regular processes, or they came up with alternative solutions to support their students.
The two institutions that stand out are located South Africa (institution #1) and Portugal. In South Africa (#1) the infrastructure was not designed for remote access; Therefore, all courses were on campus before COVID-19. The students had difficulty in accessing their learning material and submitting their assignments during the COVID-19 lockdowns. This may have been similar for most other institutions. Interestingly enough, the course work on the rural campus for South Africa (institution #2) was accessible for students because they had already been using the Internet on campus before Campus-19 and were prepared to sue data on their mobile phones to access the content during COVID -19. Thus, the response in the graph stayed the same for South Africa (#2). It may not have been the best infrastructure, but it was sufficient for the students to continue studying. The Portuguese institution indicated a “No” for both before COVID -19 and during COVID -19, meaning that students were not given access to additional infrastructure; the level of access stayed constant but could have been more efficient. This means that a very important factor for seamless learning to be effective is a well-considered back-up plan in case the current infrastructure fails or in case of emergency. For example, satellite communication could represent a solution to communications breakdowns. In terms of cost, it is recommended to put incorporate emergency funds into the budget.
Access to wireless networks and the (in)stability of these networks is one of the factors that can hinder the application of seamless learning is. Depending on the national/local infrastructure, there are different ways to connect online such as through a WiFi router, a mobile hotspot or a ‘jetpack’, 5G home internet, or 4GLTE home internet—each with its pros and cons (Verizon, 2021). The benefit of a router is that multiple devices can be connected at the same time; however, when many devices are connected at the same time to the same network, it can result in limited bandwidth and reduced upload/download speed. Dedicated or mobile hotspots can be a solution when WiFi is limited or unavailable in a particular space.
The most cost-efficient internet service is fixed-wireless access such as 5G home internet, which enables fast download speeds and low latency. LTE home internet is a good solution when you live in a rural area with limited internet options. LTE can offer reliable, high-speed internet services that are delivered via a cellphone tower. The negative side of this option is that LTE may provide only limited availability and the costs involved may be high. Johnson and Roux (2008) also mention that the lack of reliable power, skilled-labour shortages, and the high cost of providing satellite-based internet connectivity are challenges to high-quality continuous internet connectivity. Johnson and Roux also found in a study that “low-cost commodity wireless devices and the use of mesh networking” (p. 17) may be a solution.
The information in Figure 4.5 regarding WiFi concerns accessibility and stability. It is apparent that the situations in the sample institutions from the USA, Turkey, and Egypt remained stable during COVID. This lack of adaptation is not necessarily a good thing, meaning that there were and still may be problems. It is alarming that the institutions in Portugal (who did not give a reason) and India reported experiencing so many problems with WiFi on a daily basis. According to the participant from India, “The internet signal varies from place to place in strength.” The reason why South Africa (institution #1) answered “no” to this question (during the pandemic) was because the participant were unsure if the students had access to WiFi at their homes. South Africa (institution #2) mentioned that the students could rely on the WiFi structure at the university before COVID, but during COVID they lacked infrastructure at their homes and had “differing exposure to WiFi connectivity.” The Malaysian and Saudi Arabian institutions did not provide reasons for their answers.
Public policy formulation in any governmental sphere is a daunting task, regardless of the reason for, process of, or background to the initiative. The increasing complexity of our modern society, with its concomitant challenges of sophisticated technical knowledge and systems, complex social, economic, and political realities, has dramatically increased the intricacy of policymaking for decision-makers (Fischer et al., 2007). Juma and Onkware (2015) are clear in their opinion that the formulation of public policy is a multi-pronged activity that in no way can be seen or undertaken separately from the environment in which it takes place, the role-players involve in the process, or the reason for undertaking the specific policy-formulation initiative. Usually the need for policy-formulation is generated in the environment and transmitted to the societal decision-making systems (the public sector), while at the same time factors such as political, social, and economic factors within that same environment constrain the decision-making abilities of the policymakers.
Policymaking is, thus, more than simply a process of “ticking boxes”, especially if some of the basic tenets of “good” public-policy—validity, importance, usefulness, originality, and feasibility—are to be satisfied (Eneanya et al., as cited in Juma & Onkware, 2015). Policy-making processes are similar in any the educational environment, especially in an effort to accommodate the rising use of ICT and ICT-related teaching approaches in universities and national HE systems—both in the developed and developing world.
Clarity on definitional issues greatly assists in drawing up public policy and the current plethora of terms related to ICT enhanced learning creates additional confusion. Terms such as “seamless’, “blended”, “flexible”, and “hybrid” learning in colloquial usage and in their respective operational meanings makes it difficult to create a common understanding necessary for clarity in drawing up educational policies for HEIs. Graham, Woodfield, and Harrison (2013) emphasize the importance of strong and clear institutional direction and policies, as it determines the framework within which teaching staff should operationalize blended learning approaches. Factors influencing the adoption and implementation of policies in this regard includes clear definitions, pedagogical and technological support, advocacy, and incentives. Porter (2014) highlights the importance of good governance, monitoring and quality assurance – again issues that should be readily included in policy documentation.
Policy-writing, in any context, must remain tethered to the bigger institutional aims and objectives as well as the institution’s surrounding environment. Moskal et al. (2013) states that “Innovations play out within the culture and climate of each institution and therefore have to be tuned to the institution’s dynamics. There is no “one size fits all” approach that is guaranteed to succeed, nor does success come quickly, but rather is achieved through continuous effort over a span of several years” (p. 16). The following issues are specifically emphasized:
- institutional goals and objectives;
- alignment with such goals and objectives;
- pro-active policy development;
- organizational capacity;
- a clear vocabulary and definitions for terms;
- faculty development and course development support;
- support for online faculty and students;
- robust and reliable infrastructure; and
- effective funding models.
The adoption of blended learning frameworks can take quite some time and support Moskal et al. (2013) and Graham et al. (2013). Porter (2014, p. 137) recommends that the framework for implementation of new policies should follow three stages:
- Stage 1 – awareness/exploration in which the institutional strategy is lacking, but there is awareness of and support for faculty exploring ways of implementing blended learning in class;
- Stage 2 – adoption/early implementation in which there is institutional adoption of blended learning strategies and experimentation with new policies to support its implementation; and
- Stage 3 – mature implementation/growth in which there are well established blended learning strategies, structures, and support.
Zhao and Song (2020) are clear about the importance of HEIs in setting up policy frameworks, clarifying definitions, and promoting key implementation guides for learning practice. Antwi-Boampong (2020) states that four core elements need to be considered when promoting blended learning techniques among educational staff. Emphasis clearly depends on the readiness of HEIs for strategic change, inclusive of policy frameworks, and implementation strategies. Technical familiarity and acceptance by staff, support systems for staff, and applicable hardware infrastructure is also of great importance in this regard.
Moskal et al. (2013) recommend a proactive approach to developing policy, with the importance of faculty involvement emphasized. The policy areas could include issues pertaining to intellectual property ownership, copyright, and workload, with some of these issues already covered by existing policies that could be adapted or updated. As stated, willing faculty participation is crucial with matters such as quality, control, recognition, reward, and intellectual property ownership. Workload is often the first issue to arise. Faculty who had already used online methods successfully can be invited to act as “champions of change” in supporting the policy writing initiative.
The same challenges face HEIs in the developed and developing world. Where the efforts of Porter (2014) and Graham et al. (2013) are concentrated in the United States (US), Thurab-Nkosi (2018) focuses on the Caribbean and Zhao and Song on HEIs in China. African and South African HEIs face similar challenges in their efforts at adapting to a changing world of education—often in unique and even more challenging environments.
Thurab-Nkhosi (2018) suggests that even though universities had been looking to increase access and decrease costs through the use of blended learning approaches, many institutions had been hamstrung in this effort by a lack of understanding by managers and administrators regarding 1) their role and responsibilities in the process, and 2) the status of such “new” approaches on campus—typical policy-related issues. The importance of administrators in processes of policy-writing, implementation and evaluation cannot be underestimated as these individuals are responsible for advocacy, resource management and implementation. Policy development and implementation cannot be left to teaching staff alone. Thurab-Nkhosi (2018) especially stresses the role to be played by deans and their support personnel in driving and supporting such initiatives.
In their effort at reviewing obstacles in the way of implementing blended learning at a developing university, Tshabalala et al. (2014) clearly identifies the lack of clear policy directives as an obstacle hindering the implementation of e-learning—even going as far as stating that the challenges to implementing such learning centered around the lack of such policy and the lack of a a dedicated institutional vehicle driving such policy creation.
Wallace and Young (2010) states that often the incorporation of new learning technologies takes place at the initiative of individual faculty rather than as part of an institutional drive. Smith et al. (2000) remind us that the development of new technologies and learning practices are very important but can also be divisive in nature. They state that it often about more than mere pedagogy “power, control over education, the culture of the university, the privilege of professors, the rights of students as ‘consumers’—not only ‘how’ something is taught, but what, when, why, by whom, and for what purpose” (p. 2). It is therefore no wonder that policy creation and implementation of seamless, blended, flexible, or hybrid learning approaches are so difficult. In order to facilitate constructive policy formulation, Smith et al. (2000) propose a separation of the issues pertaining to policy review into two areas of concern: 1) concerns regarding how to implement educational technologies (micro, operational issues), and 2) concerns about why and how such technologies are to be implemented (macro, political issues). Wallace and Young (2010) identify the following aspects as typical policy challenges:
Management and organizational challenges:
- determining the fit of blended (seamless) learning within the vision, goals and priorities of the institution, faculty, centres and departments;
- establishing approval processes and criteria regarding introducing new blended (seamless) learning methodologies to a course/programme;
- support for the development and delivery of blended (seamless) learning; and
- establishing appropriate ownership of intellectual property.
- setting criteria to determine faculty workload for blended (seamless) course development and teaching; and
- setting of criteria to assess parity/equivalency of blended (seamless) courses
- identifying and addressing access issues; and
- orienting and supporting students in using technology in blended (seamless) courses.
Lim et al. (2019) proposed a framework with seven strategic dimensions driving the strategic process of institutionalizing blended (seamless) learning at any HEI:
- vision and policy alignment;
- infrastructure, facilities, resources, hardware and support;
- professional development;
- learning support; and
- partnerships; and research and evaluation.
As far as vision and policy alignment is concerned, even though institutional vision statements might not explicitly include references to learning approaches, they do underpin the policies and practices that will eventually drive the implementation of blended (seamless) learning—the ultimate vision of any HEI is to provide quality teaching in the end. Clear and ongoing communication with faculty members is, thus, paramount because misaligned policies could generate tensions between institutional leaders and teaching staff and faculty members that could delay the adoption of blended (seamless) learning in the HEI. A shared vision underpins all policy and procedures (Lim et al., 2019; Bates & Sangra, 2011). Porter et al. (2014) also advises for the creation of a “champion” for blended (seamless) learning who becomes responsible for advocacy and support for any new initiatives in this regard.
What is important is that all institutional change should be driven from all relevant stakeholders rather than just the upper tiers of the institution. Faculty members should be allowed to experiment and innovate; policies should create an enabling, rather than a limiting environment. Those who participate in policy initiatives could be offered a range of incentives some of which could be connected to promotion and tenure among. It is important to remember that such changes sometimes will only take root over a number of years (Lim et al., 2019).
Figure 4.6 indicates that most institutions surveyed in this study either had policies in place for facilitating seamless learning or adopted some policies during the COVID 19 pandemic. The American and Portuguese institutions are the only ones that appear to have remained unchanged. Meanwhile the Canadian and Malaysian participants indicated their institutions were moving towards implementing new policies during the pandemic. The reason given for the “no” answers for South Africa (institution #2) was: “We have not implemented seamless learning at the university yet, so we do not have a policy in place.”
4.7 Software for Digital Education
The use of technologies to enhance teaching and learning (Gordon, 2014) and help instructors and departments to process administrative work within institutions (Casey, 2005) are the nucleus for the success of the educational processes. A variety of technologies can be used to generate content, communicate, share knowledge, such as through blogs, wikis, and social networks. Moreover, ‘digital learning technologies’ can include repositories of learning content (Xu, 2016), tools to read and write and exploit multimedia (audio, video, and image) functionalities, and video classes (McNaughton et al., 2014). When using these technologies, new learning models and pedagogical approaches need to be considered (Sousa et al. 2017). A pedagogy appropriate to learning supported by technologies must take into account three pillars:
- the student;
- the learning context; and
- the technological device that allows to carry out the pedagogical activities.
During the pandemic, different types of tools and platforms were used and integrated way to support online learning and teaching. The main technologies utilized for online education are summarized and classified into different categories based on their functions in Table 4.1.
Technologies utilized for online education
|Suitable Teaching Scenarios||Representative Tools|
|Tools for resources producing|
|PowerPoint (PPT) recording software||Suitable for PPT-assisted video recording||PowerPoint (Microsoft, 2022a) and WPS (Kingston Software, 2022) in Windows, Keynote (Apple, 2022a) in IOS system|
|Screen capture software||Useful for video editing; especially suitable for producing software operation courses||Camtasia Studio (TechSmith, 2022), QuickTime (Apple, 2022b), Adobe Premiere (2022b)|
|The software of video production||Helpful for producing micro-course video quickly||CourseMaker (2022) App|
|The software of original video producing||Suitable for recording handwritten calculation and action skills display||Mobile phones, CamScanner (INTSIG, 2022)|
|The software of Multimedia learning resource-producing||Appropriate for developing multimedia courseware||Mysticraft (Eternity, 2022), Adobe Captivate (2022a)|
|Tools for live teaching|
|Many types of live streaming software, including software on interactive teaching, remote office, online-course||Suitable for live teaching (synchronous) courses; different kinds of software can be chosen to satisfy various demands for interaction, network quality, or convenience||Remote office: Zoom (2022), TED Conversations (n.d.)
Online course platform: edX (2022), Coursera (2022), Udacity (2022)
|Tools for asynchronous teaching|
|Many kinds of online teaching platforms at a national level, regional level, and university community level, as well as those launched by universities and enterprises||Suitable for asynchronous teaching; suitable network teaching platforms can be chosen according to the requirements of the schools and the courses||Course sharing platform edX (2022), Coursera (2022), Udacity (2022)|
|Tools for self-regulated learning|
|Learning apps for all subjects||Suitable for online self-learning; oriented by problems or tasks and based on many kinds of online interactive learning, inspiring students to utilize learning tools to preview, review or explore a specific topic||Youtube (Google,2022b); Facebook (Meta, 2022a); Instagram (Meta, 2022b); Wikipedia (2022); Linkedin (2022); Google (n.d., a); Websites; Twitter (2022)|
|Tools for knowledge construction|
|Cognitive tools, collaborative editing tools, virtual simulation tools, etc.||Suitable for collaborative learning and construction of knowledge; tools selection and learning activities design can be conducted by combining course contents||Cognitive tools: MindMapping (2022), GeoGebra (2022)
Collaborative editing tools: Knowledge Forum (Knowledge Building Concepts, n.d.), Wiki.com (2022), Shimo.im (n.d.), Tencent Document (2022b), Google Docs (n.d., b), Trello (Atlassian, 2022)
VR tools: phET (University of Colorado, 2022), Sandboxie (Softonic, 2022), KRPano (n.d.)
|Tools for learning analytics|
|Apps, websites, and interactive class software supporting data analysis||Suitable for teaching based on learning analytics data, such as self-learning before the face-to-face aspect of a flipped class, and the collaborative learning in computer-supported cooperative learning (CSCL)||Apps: Smart Partner (n.d.)
|Tools for practice and evaluation|
|Many kinds of tools suitable for higher education and basic education||Suitable for offering plenty of practice to facilitate learning and mastering content as well as the evaluation of learning results||
|Tools for resources and class management|
|Apps for learning and class management, mini programs in Wechat, as well as other social software||Suitable for the effective organization of online learning with abundant learning resources, large numbers of students and learning tasks.||Learning management systems: Moodle, Edmodo (n.d.)，Schoology (PowerSchool, n.d.) TalentLMS (Epignosis, n.d.)
Class management apps: EasiCare (Seewo, 2022), Mentimeter (n.d.), Typeform (n.d.).
Social software: QQ Group (Tencent, 2022b), Wechat Group (2022), Facebook (Meta, 2022a) WhatsApp (2022), Skype (Microsoft, 2022c), Line (2022).
While the whole world this was in a state of emergency, and in many cases students did not have computers or laptops to access the online classes, many of these types of software (Table 4.1) were (and continue to be) accessed by students through their smartphones. Therefore, it is important to discuss the importance of mLearning (mobile learning) (Sungkur et al., 2016), an extension of eLearning. In mLearning, the learning process is done through mobile devices such as mobile phones, and tablets, which gives students the possibility to choose when and where they want to learn. For this reason, researchers and teachers have had to rethink pedagogical methodologies. Mobile Learning is often student-centered and can be based on social constructivist practices (network learning). Generally, mobile technologies may be described as a) portable: technology is available whenever the individual needs to learn; b) individual: the technology can be customized according to the competencies of the individual, knowledge, and learning preferences; c) discrete: the student can capture situations and use knowledge without the technology becoming overly visible; d) available: the individual can use technology anywhere to allow communication with other individuals; e) adaptable: technology can be adapted to the context and conditions of learning and the student’s level of skills and knowledge; f) persistent: the individual can use technology to manage lifelong learning, resources and knowledge will be immediately accessible, despite changes in technology; g) useful: the technology can address the daily needs of communication, work, and learning; h) easy to use: the technology is designed to be easily understood and used by people with no prior experience. Well-designed mLearning environments and activities allow learning through the Internet with the intent to maximize portability, mobility, interactivity, and connectivity, and anytime, anywhere learning. MLearning can help learners optimize downtimes by facilitating access to information thereby allowing the user to remain productive when they cannot be present in physical contexts. Temporal and spatial limitations are reduced by ubiquitous access to networks and information that mobile devices enable, making it possible to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of teaching and learning. Mobile-based learning has been seen as particularly conducive to informal learning; however, Web-based content, such as images, audio, and video, must be designed so it is easily transferable to the small screen (Friend & Militello, 2014; Sousa et al., 2017). In addition to their portability, mobility, flexibility, and autonomy, mobile learning devices allow on-demand functionality; that is, learners can get what they want when they want it and when they have the time. Some of possible activities are presented in Figure 4.7.
Activities that enhance learning in mobile learning
Digital learning can offer greater control and autonomy over learning itself and can facilitate learning in context; that is, the student can learn in the place, time, and conditions that they judge most appropriate (i.e., through eLearning platforms or even educational games (Sousa & Rocha, 2017)).
The use of digital learning practices integrated into teaching-learning should take into account the types of activity and corresponding application examples, as shown in Table 4.2.
Activity types and software/application examples
|Activity||Goal||Example of applications|
|Assimilation/Dissemination/ Access||Manage and structure information||Google Docs, Social Bookmarking, Podcasting, eBooks|
|Adaptation / Reinterpretation||Simulations, roleplay||Second Life (Linden Labs Research, 2022), Augmented Reality, Concept Maps, Games Communication|
|Discussion / Reflection||Sharing, dialogue||Blogs, wikis, OneNote Mobile (Microsoft, 2022b), Twitter Production|
|Demonstration / Elaboration||Design/production of resources||Youtube Mobile, Flickr Mobile Experience (n.d.) / Discovery / Exploration Google Maps Mobile (Google, 2022a,), mySKY|
When interpreting the software access presented in Figure 4.8 (below), it is important to keep in mind that access to and use of software could be differently interpreted by those describing their experiences before and during the COVD 19 pandemic. The term ‘software’ lacks a consistent definition. Some of the participants in this study may have understood software to mean a variety of different things, possibly being anything from ultra-specialized software specifically aimed at making seamless learning possible to normal run-of-the-mill software packages used in day-to-day work (such as Microsoft office and web browsers). In terms of the question pertaining to the availability and usage of software, five of the nine participants responding (particularly those from institutions in the USA, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt) indicated that they had access to software making seamless learning possible. Interpreting the data of the remaining four countries brings a challenge. The respondent from the Malaysian institution indicated an absence of software before the pandemic but access to software during the pandemic which could indicate a concerted effort to support students during the pandemic. On the other hand, in a modern university it would be strange to lack access to software even under normal circumstances. The participant from India clearly indicates that students had access to use of software before the pandemic, but then lacked access during the pandemic due to lockdown restrictions. This would make perfect sense in cases where students were restricted to using university-located systems; however, it raises questions for further exploration because the participant from India indicated that students their own devices on which applicable software had been downloaded. The Portuguese participant indicated an absolute absence of availability of software at their institution before and during the pandemic. Again, this needs to be investigated further because it is a modern institution situated within the European Union. Similarly, participants from each institution in South Africa also responded that they lacked adequate software. Therefore, it is possible that the question on the survey may have been misinterpreted by some participants.
4.8.1 Staff /Instructor Support and Training
As stated in 4.6 above, any initiative inculcating a culture of seamless learning should have support from the very top of the institution but should always acknowledge and utilize the creativity and innovativeness of staff and faculty. However, Edmondson (2008) is of the view that a bottoms-up approach involving those implementing policies and middle-management is crucial for developing policies that are fit for purpose. Even though it might take longer to develop systems for implementing seamless learning policies in this way, a collegial approach can ensure lasting results in terms of institutional knowledge, learning, and buy-in at multiple levels. For a bottom-up approach, it is paramount that all staff involved in such processes are fully supported.
Particularly in the case of mobile-based seamless learning, a crucial aspect for successful implementation is the instructors’ motivation whether they are personally ready for it. Often educators lack motivation to use ICT technology and therefore computer literacy of teachers is an important issue to be dealt with (Uosaki et al., 2013). Without their willingness, enthusiasm, and a strong sense of self-efficacy, it will hardly be doable. Concluding a study undertaken in the Philippines, Alvarez (2020) recommends the preparation of and building of capacity among facilitators of blended learning training by observing the following strategies:
- Proper orientation of facilitators in order to assess and prepare their readiness for training of others;
- Grouping of facilitators based on their readiness and a thorough training needs assessment;
- Differentiation of training to add value;
- Careful policies focusing on blended learning processes, requirements, and grading systems;
- Involvment of facilitatorsin setting up standards because they are exposed in the classroom to the effectiveness of the measures;
- Collaborative planning with students to ensure collaborative and active learning; and
- Putting technical support structures in place for facilitators in order to address technical and ICT related challenges.
Carbonell et al. (2013) emphasized the need for activities related to professional development of staff. Faculty members needed to have the necessary knowledge base to develop instructional methods, to understand the benefits and limits of specific tools, and to implement specific instructional methods. While staff members had the necessary content knowledge needed, they lacked the training in designing and teaching seamless (blended) courses. Even though some standing training sessions in HEIs could assist in this regard, it is imperative that there is a centralized approach regarding design and presentation of seamless courses. Lack of necessary expertise is not always limited to teaching staff but could also be found among the members of the ICT support department.
A very important trend highlighted by Kukulska-Hulme et al. (2021) relates to equity-oriented pedagogy; that is, giving all students an equal opportunity to benefit from seamless learning opportunities and to achieve fair and comparable outcomes, regardless of the background. Teachers tend to mirror their own backgrounds and experiences when teaching, with a danger that the teachers’ prior experiences might not be a good match for those of their students. It thus becomes paramount for educators to listen very carefully to students and be ultra-aware of the expectations before embarking on the creation of learning experiences. Intensive and ongoing consultation with students will be non-negotiable in this regard. Establishing “fair and equitable” approaches to teaching takes extra effort from educators due to the number of barriers that will have to be overcome in the teaching process which may include personal, cultural, financial, geographic, and societal barriers. equity-oriented pedagogy can create extra workload for instructors. For example, the co-creation of assessments with students rather than setting it up before the start of a course takes time. Such approaches do not always come naturally to faculty members and capacity in this regard will have to be created in any training of and support for educators in the seamless learning environment (Kukulska-Hulme et al., 2021)
4.8.2 Student Training/Support
In a study conducted by Taylor and Newton (2013) most students responding to questions regarding their use of ICT in blended learning answered that they were comfortable with software, technical equipment, and skills required of such courses. There were, however, a significant number of students that answered that “they were ‘alienated’, and ‘overwhelmed’, and that they ‘struggled’ and ‘felt lost’ by the technology” (p.56). Some of the suggestions by students to overcome these barriers included:
- orientation information for students with low computer literacy skills;
- information sessions to prepare students to study using different new technologies;
- information to support technical skills required in the subject area;
- familiarizing students with technologies required for their classes;
- accessing online resources;
- information on downloading files; and
- having practice sessions using technologies in a ‘test run’ (including accessing recordings) and troubleshooting advice during study, if required.
Hiew and Chew (2016) emphasize digital gaps between educators and students that remain problematic in modern classrooms and especially as far as seamless learning is concerned. A difference in “cultures” prompts educators to frown on mobile devices in class, thus frustrating the growth of a seamless environment—even before official policy has been implemented. Further “seams remaining in seamless learning” according to Hiew and Chew (2016) were:
- the differences in technological experience between educators and students, with students often having more and better exposure to the world of ICT than an earlier generation of educators;
- the absence of training programmes for educators in need of professional development in the ICT area; and
- students lacking experience in using academic software for research necessitating structured and in-context guidance in the use of these systems.
Research conducted by Wu et al. (2012) indicates that mobile technology is applied more in professional subjects and applied sciences such as computer programming and language courses. In contrast with this finding, Walker, Voce, and Ahmed (2012), consistently prove that medicine, nursing, health, and business subjects have the highest integration of technology in the learning environment (based on UK studies). There is thus a definite lack of information in the utilization of mobile technology in various disciplines. One can presume, then that more research on how students in other subjects can be supported through seamless learning is needed.
Taylor and Newton (2013) argued for an institution-wide, accurate, consistent and effective approach to the provision of student information, with a particular focus on learning design and learning support rather than technology. McEwen, Krause, and Blinco (2009) stated that a student support framework should include the following categories:
- recruitment and advising;
- learning and the learner;
- assessment and communication of expectations;
- functional technology;
- technology literacy and support;
- non-technical online student support; and
- institutional management. (p. 10)
The provision of support to any person (instructor or student) using seamless learning is of the utmost importance as it could encompass a variety of functions, from hardware and software support to the training of users of seamless learning systems. The information requested in this regard, as illustrated in Figure 4.9, related to (i) staff support, (ii) instructor support, (iii) training for students and (iv) training of instructors. The responses should thus be seen against the background of a possible variety of answers pertaining to the above four areas of support. Five responding institutions (USA, South Africa (institution #1 and institution #2), Turkey, and Egypt) indicated a broad availability of all support functions, with five institutions indicating either a complete lack of support or varying degrees of support—possibly differing among the four areas of support identified above in (i) to (iv).
The participant from Portugal indicated a complete absence of any form of support given in any of the four identified areas. Again, this response problematic; it is unexpected that in a modern university in the European Union there would be so little support. The participant from the Canadian institution stated that staff and instructor support were available before the pandemic, and that during the pandemic, training of students and instructors were added to the support functions, which led to a full complement of support functions. The participant from Malaysia posited that three of four support functions were available before the pandemic, but that no support functions were available during the pandemic when, in essence, it could have made a big difference for the implementation of seamless learning. The Saudi Arabian participant indicated a high level of support for staff and instructors before the pandemic (with none for students), with the position remaining the same during the pandemic. The Indian participant confirmed the availability of a full set of supportive functions in their institution before the pandemic; however, the availability of support diminished during the pandemic with only instructor support being maintained.
“Mobile technologies are the global context, and education should reflect that context. Learning processes will need to reflect that shift, and so will teaching” (Traxler, 2013, p. 247). This was stated by Traxler as early as 2013, and it has been reiterated by authors such as Bere and Rambe (2019), who state: “The potential for effective teaching and learning using mobile technologies is growing” (p.132). Karimi (2016) echoes this view, noting “in recent years, increase in the use of mobile technologies has affected various service sectors such as banking, tourism, and library research” (p.769). During the COVID pandemic, people the world over became increasingly aware that teaching would never be the same because of the necessity to use technology in everyday presentations of classes and that this could well become the “new normal” Rapanta et al. (2021, p. 715) or even a hybrid form of classroom and online teaching. Although it was found in a study that the main use of mobile technology is to enhance learning with task-based activities and access to information and “innovative media production” (Lucie, 2016, p. 883), we now know that mobile technology not only enhances teaching but that it has also become a necessity in the current teaching situation. There are expectations or concerns that instructors will, from now on, always have to pursue a blended or hybrid approach to teaching and that they will never revert to the way things were before COVID. Anecdotal evidence from conversations with professors and instructors recently suggest that students are interested in various blended models of learning. Furthermore, the policies of universities have been stating that only vaccinated students and staff might return to campus, a fact that renders a blended approach to teaching and learning not only indispensable but unavoidable.
What differentiates seamless learning from other mobile learning approaches is the use of handheld devices rather than laptops in the learning situation. This means that advancements in the development of smartphones may benefit of the seamless learning approach. Not only do smartphones possess powerful computing capabilities relative to their small size (Brown, 2009), but internet connectivity and the array of mobile software applications (apps) are positive contributors to seamless learning too (Johnson et al., 2010). Lai and Wu (2006) have noted that the strength of computer power enables users to complete tasks on small devices as effectively as on larger and less portable devices; Johnson, Smith, Willis, Levine, and Haywood (2011) add to this, considering it invaluable that ‘always-on’ internet connectivity allows for real-time communication regardless of the location.
Unfortunately, despite all its considerable advantages for teaching and learning, there is also a downside to technology. Pimmer et al. (2019) draw attention to the small screen size, the short battery life, and the relatively low processing power of cellphones and smartphones. Another factor that must be considered is that many students have only outdated, simple smartphones with minimal functionality (Zhampeissova et al., 2021). Qureshi et al. (2020) highlight a human downside: a lack of policies to guide the implementation of mLearning, insufficient learning security, a lack of skills among lecturers, and poor attitudes among students and lecturers. Also, at a human level, we must consider access to assistive technology for visually impaired students. These students must “remain engaged not only with educational activities but also with the digital world” (Kisanga & Kisanga, 2020, p. 138). Stumbling blocks include a lack of knowledge about the application of these and related assistive technologies, a lack of appropriate infrastructure, and limited ICT services. Ensuring sustainable financial assistance and training are two possible solutions to these challenges (Kisanga & Kisanga, 2020).
Of course, not all students (or even staff members) have access to laptops and smartphones. A survey conducted at one university in South Africa showed that 82% of students have access to smartphones, and only 18% have access to a tablet (Meintjies, 2018). A possible way to address the situation may be to make university-sponsored laptops available. The benefits of such a program may include the flexibility to work anywhere (which is a characteristic of seamless learning), that the laptop can be used as a storage space for students’ study histories, and that it gives them ready access to communication tools and information. Provision of a laptop can also have an impact on study habits which may foster skills such as self-regulating their study environments (Eriksson et al., 2009, pp. 323-330).
As far as the availability and usage of technology is concerned, five institutions from the nine countries identified in Figure 4.10 shows a high level of availability of technology before the onset of the pandemic. This enabled those countries to continue almost “as normal” during the pandemic. For the purposes of the topic technology, the researchers questioned respondents regarding (i) access to technology, (ii) affordability, and (iii) technical support.
The participant from the Canadian institution clearly indicated that access to and support of technology was available before and during the pandemic, not responding to the issue of affordability before the pandemic. Portugal is the only institution showing a complete absence of the technology necessary for seamless learning before the pandemic—with no indication of progress made towards general availability of such technology during the pandemic. The participant from India indicates a complete absence of technology availability during the pandemic which is a response that is difficult to comprehend in the light of the broad availability of smartphones and other instruments of communication available to students. The responses from the Portuguese and Indian participants might suggest some kind of misinterpretation; for example, they may have understood the question as restricting technology to only university campus-based technology usage. Furthermore, the interpretation followed by the two South African university sites showed differentiation between the usage of university-based technology and the utilization of private devices. During the pandemic there was no access to the technological systems based on the South African campuses, but students had access to their own devices. The researchers of this study will need to re-examine the question to ascertain if it can be reshaped and clarified for future participants.
The focus of this section was on the application of software and hardware to facilitate digital learning and make it as comprehensive as possible. The chapter integrated an analysis of the literature along with the data collection from individual universities in different and unique contexts from around the world. This analysis has shown that both hardware and software play a significant role in digital learning as they mediate communication among students and professors, increase the student’s participation, and enable interaction and collaboration. Digital learning occurs across a broad spectrum of contexts and activities, requiring a stronger preparation of students to think critically, solve complex problems, work collaboratively (Gonzales, 2015), communicate effectively, and exercise autonomy and independence in the learning process (Chen et al., 2015). Collaboration and cooperation, according to Sousa, Cruz, and Martins (2017), creates an environment conducive to learning. To summarize, the technological infrastructure offers several advantages regarding digital learning: a) learning can happen anywhere and at any time; b) learning becomes more contextual, dynamic, and motivational; c) learning can benefit from increased opportunities for professional development through new technologies; and d) learning becomes a matter of continual development of digital skills of professors and students.
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