EPICA ePortfolio Pilot Launch at the Open University of Tanzania as one of the Partner Universities

By Dr Edephonce Nfuka, EPICA Project Coordinator at OUT

Since 2018, Open University of Tanzania (OUT) together with other partners have been working on a 3-year EPICA ePortfolio project (2018 - 2020) with a goal to co-design an innovative and scalable ePortfolio ecosystem to improve the quality and visibility of skills under co-funding of the European Commission's Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme.

In order to achieve this goal of developing an innovative and scalable ePortfolio that fits in sub-Saharan Africa’s higher education and industry engagement context while aligning to the global development, the project brings together eight (8) partners from relevant businesses, organisations and universities in both Europe and Africa. These partners, apart from OUT in Tanzania are the African Virtual University (AVU) in Kenya, Integrated Communications Worldwide Events (ICWE) in Germany, Makerere University (MAK) in Uganda, Maseno University (MU) in Kenya, MyDocumenta in Spain, Open University of Catalonia (UOC) in Spain, and the overall coordinator of the project - International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) in Norway.

For the past two years we have collaboratively gathered necessary requirements and iteratively co-designed an innovative and scalable ePortfolio which is already in place for  undertaking a 6 months pilot before it is made available for the public use. This pilot study, led by UOC (pictured below) and locally implemented by MAK, MU and OUT, aims at making employability skills visible by engaging students, teachers, and employers in a collaborative endeavour whereby students are assembling an ePortfolio (a collection of evidences that reflect student’s accomplishments, skills, experiences, and attributes) against required  competencies under the overall guidance of their teachers and employers appraisal towards the end thus student keenness to contribute positively in any professional environment.

The participating universities in piloting the developed ePortfolio through five chosen programs at each University are involving both generic and specific employability skills, at least including competencies on Communication and Interpersonal skills, Problem-solving and Creative thinking. This also applies to a number of steps from teachers’ preparation to handle pilot to the actual pilot where each University is supposed to include adopted competencies in ePortfolio. Thereafter teachers are supposed to create activities in their respective classes for students to perform them and send corresponding evidences to be evaluated by teachers which means to and for communication between them. Finally, employers are to be able to access the students' ePortfolio and validate submitted evidences against chosen competencies, and thereafter students showcasing their ePortfolio to employers as also shown below and in the provided employer/student guides.

This briefing specifically expands further on the ePortfolio pilot launch and orientation at Open University of Tanzania (OUT) which is one of the four (4) partner Universities implementing it.

The OUT is the first university in the East Africa region to offer Open and Distance Learning (ODL) based Higher learning through Blended learning using a combination of online learning and limited face to face. It started the pilot this January by preparing its 5 involved teachers (one per faculty/chosen program – Law, Education, ICT, Social work, Accountancy) undertaking EPICA self training course prepared by OUC with inputs from partner Universities. The aim of this one month part time self-training course was to introduce the teachers facilitating the pilot to competence-based design and assessment, the development and assessment of employability skills in higher education, and the strategy to make them visible through the EPICA ePortfolio system. It consisted 6 modules i.e. Initial Module, Competence-based design and assessment, Competence based-design, Employability skills, EPICA ePortfolio and Implementation Plan. Though this was self training but towards the end of the training the five instructors together with the main project team at OUT met (pictured below) to share lessons learnt from the self training course especially aspects that touch directly on how to handle the pilot and what to share with various roles during the implementation i.e. what should a University administrator, teacher, student and employer exactly get access to and do for a successful pilot. This one day meeting also involved preparing pilot launch and orientation to the students that for our case involved travelling to 8 zones/centres in the country given the fact that our students are scattered  countrywide in more than 30 regional centres in Tanzania Main land & Zanzibar island.

The eight zones in the country were: Eastern zone using OUT Dar es Salaam/Kinondoni Regional centre; Northern zone using OUT Arusha Regional centre; Central zone using OUT Dodoma Regional centre; North west/Lake zone using OUT Mwanza Regional centre; Western zone using OUT Kigoma Regional centre; Sourthen East zone using OUT Mtwara Regional centre, Sourthen West/Sourthen highlands zone using OUT Mbeya Regional centre; and Zanzibar zone using OUT Pemba Regional centre. All these zones and respective centres were involved so that the agreed 100 students i.e. 20 students per each program were distributed across the country thus representing OUT students population real distribution countrywide. About two staff comprising project team members/teachers went to each of these zones/centres except the one in Dar es Salaam/Kinondoni Regional centre at which we were all present and it was the 1st one so that each team can get experience to handle their respect centres few days later.  The typical schedule for this half day pilot launch and orientation workshop for students was welcome remarks and a presentation on introduction to the EPICA project, ePortfolio and the pilot. This was followed by students filling Google form based EPICA pilot user agreement (pictured below a student filling the form) that needed students to get access of which we created WhatsApp group and sent the link there and each one filled it from there as almost all students had smartphones in all centres involved.

This was followed by technical and pedagogical training on ePortfolio and Competencies to the students and thereafter associated practices and logistics in relation to the Activity created for each program and areas that will be required for a student  to create and submit evidences corresponding to his/her activity for teachers evaluation (pictured below is a session going-on in one of the zones/centres). This also applied for employers validation & finally showcasing to potential employers & public at large as per provided employer/student guides. At the end there was  a session for questions and comments before the workshop was closed officially by a project team/instructor.  One of the general comments from students individually & students representative on behalf of others, was that they appreciate this ePortfolio as it was easy to use though needs internet access that in some remote areas might not be available and in terms of benefits indicated that it will nurture and increase their skills/competencies visibility to potential employers and the public at large.

After the pilot launch and orientation that was attended by a total of 108 students who also signed the user agreement, we continue with efforts to remind them to submit evidences against created activity in each program. WhatsApp group for each program was also created by the respective teacher to facilitate close follow-ups, sharing, motivating each other and responding quickly and sometimes instantly to questions, an approach that turns to be useful in this sense so far. This exercise is going on though it is being slowed down by Corona virus pandemic in which we have seen all learning institutions in the country closing and emphasizing on social distancing. If all goes well after they have all submitted those evidences will be evaluated by respective teachers and feedback provided for improvement and resubmission done for evaluation by teacher. If this is done successfully a student will receive the assessment outcome badge and thereafter create and upload a testimony so that his/her ePortfolio get validated by the respective employer, one (1) in each program. Once validation is done successfully the student ePortfolio will be shared with potential employers and the public at large which will be the end of the pilot hopefully by end of June 2020 as planned. This will allow the project to assess viability & determine the scalability of this new ePortfolio in the partner Universities and others before the end of the project in Dec. 2020.