Online learning is often held up as the answer to everything from affordability to accessibility. The reality, as a recent ISL study focused on African principals’ experience shows, is more complicated.
The pilot online course was based on an existing ISL program (Module 1) that has been delivered to hundreds of school leaders all over the world, and involved school leaders from both Africa and other countries. Although the group of African respondents was relatively small, given the dearth of research on the subject, the study provides useful findings, particularly that online course content, design, and delivery must take into account these learners’ unique circumstances.
Indeed, internet access problems, technical frustrations, and communication breakdowns delayed the pilot program and dogged participants throughout. Although the instructor provided a higher than usual level of support, half of the African principals did not complete the first few weeks.
African participants saw value in the module’s focus on student-centred learning through collaboration and trust-building, and expressed appreciation for the ISL leadership framework as a tool they could adapt to their situations. The concept of positive contagion—building excitement and morale even in the face of resource constraints—was also seen as useful. Learners identified the idea of the principal as a change agent rather than a manager as something they would apply immediately. As one participant noted, “All the concepts discussed in this module have made a difference in my thinking about how to work as principal.”
Participants judged the length and difficulty of the readings and assignments to be appropriate, and they found the module easy to navigate. They valued the chance to make connections with school leaders outside Africa.
Online learning holds enormous potential to provide professional development to principals in Africa. On the logistical side, if it is to be successful, programming must account for frequent electricity outages and slow, unreliable internet that makes video conferencing—something participants identify as highly important—a challenge. African principals also experienced even more difficulty than school leaders elsewhere in making time for their own learning. Even reasonably priced online offerings may pose a problem in a context where there is rarely money allotted for professional learning.
On the conceptual side, course designers must be aware of their Western perspectives and assumptions, and understand the importance of individuals’ need for resources and strategies that make sense in their specific context. Programs should respect participants’ time constraints by offering weekly units of no more than three hours each, not rely on extensive self-directed learning, allow for a catch-up week with no new work, and provide several opportunities to attend web conferences. The role of a deeply committed instructor who can create a supportive online learning environment is paramount.
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