Below are the findings that emerged from a study geared towards enhancing the reading culture among the language education graduate students at Makerere University through the use of emerging technologies:
Student engagement in the teaching–learning process
Data from observation revealed greater student engagement and involvement in the teaching–learning process. Introduction of pre-reading tasks prior to meeting in class provided students with ‘talking points’ during the teaching–learning process; as they discussed and analysed the read article/s. Commenting on each other’s voki was an interesting interactive activity that stimulated curiosity and interest. Prior to the introduction of the Sandpit methodology, late coming was a norm to some of the students, but after the intervention, they started arriving earlier or on time since they had gadgets, such as the projector, to instal. One student who was a habitual late comer and sometimes missed his lectures commented ‘I can no longer afford to miss this fun. I hope all (our) lectures had (utilized) a voki’. As a result, student involvement was translated into regular attendance; and regular attendance meant learning through fun. Consequently, the increased student engagement in the teaching–learning process; where evidence of reading was provided through presentations and discussions, resulted in better understanding of language concepts.
Besides, data indicated that group activities (reading a text and discussing among peers) outside the lecture room improved students’ pre-lecture engagement tremendously. The pre-lecture activities enhanced students’ analytical skills and stimulated their scholarly capabilities. These are key virtues not only in students’ educational enterprises. The skills are equally in learners’ world of work as creativity and innovativeness are some of the much sought attributes in schools and institutions. The researcher attended four student focus group discussions. In one of the discussions, students disagreed on the interpretation of a particular concept. The 26 min spent discussing the two articles revealed significant observations. The unstructured (informal) environment where students engage in academic discussions improved their analytical skills tremendously. They were free to speak, interject, disagree with one another, or support other’s ideas, in the midst of pursuing their thesis—line of argument. Interviews with students revealed significant improvement in student engagement with content, peers and technology.
In line with Bower’s affordance theory, the pre-lecture and lecture tasks such as reading, discussion and presentation were matched with digital tools such as computers/smart phones, google doc and projector; which were essential in obtaining the article, and creating and discussing the voki. However, as pointed out by students during the focus group discussions, several challenges were met during the process of engaging with emerging technologies.
‘The internet is sometimes too slow and you can’t download the article’ lamented one of the students.
‘Yah, sure, sometimes communication among us (students) with the google thing (google doc) could break due to poor internet connection’ I remember one time I had to go an internet café to continue the conversation, but unfortunately my colleagues were off (line)’ another student retorted.
The above observations indicate that employing emerging technologies is not a smooth sail especially in developing countries, and Uganda in particular. Students’ inability to perform as expected is due to several challenges that hinder their accessibility to information such as slow internet connection in computer laboratories (and sometimes is unavailable). The College of Education and External Studies has two computer labs. Failure to have a one-to-one laptop policy for postgraduate students has exacerbated the situation hence some students had to rely on computer labs and internet cafes to do assignments, communicate with their lecturers and peers, and download information for reading.
Increased interest in the learning process
‘Introduction of the voki (digital tool) stimulated students’ interest in the teaching–learning process and presented opportunities for inquiry which resulted in deep learning. The hands-on experience involved in creating a voki stimulated curiosity and eagerness among students. The first time a voki was introduced, students were sceptical on whether they would be able to create one or not. After going through the process, creating own vokis became a measure of success on how well one could employ digital technology in a language education setting. One student commented during a focus group discussion.
‘A voki will indeed create interest among my Literature (in Luganda) students’.
In a lighter mood but quite inquisitive another student retorted:
‘Are you going to use a tadooba (a paraffin lamp) to create that voki?’
The student had prior knowledge on the work station of his peer which neither had electricity nor internet to enable him create a voki.
The student replied:
‘Solar panels are currently being installed. I think by next term (school term) the school will have power’.
The above conversation is significant in the debate of whether Africa and other developing countries will make strides in the digital world despite shortages in basic infrastructures such as electricity. The conversation signifies the digital divide between urban and rural areas. The school which the students were referring to is located seventy kilometres from Kampala—the Capital City of Uganda. The setting is quite rural with no electricity but the mobile internet service providers such as MTN and Orange provide opportunities for internet although such a service is still expensive to an ordinary Ugandan, and necessitates one to possess a smart phone.
Creativity and innovativeness
Student engagement and interest that ensued resulted in manifestations of creativity and innovativeness. Below is a sample of vokis created by students after reading assigned texts and summarizing the text on a voki.
Several vokis were created and students faced several challenges while making them. Some students had created female vokis but with a male voice; other vokis did not have a voice (message) at all; while others were microphone recorded but one could hardly get the message because the environment under which they were created was noisy. These were encouraged to get a noise-free environment and create their vokis. Since a reflective approach to learning had earlier on been employed where peer consultations were strongly encouraged, some students categorically indicated that they had been guided by fellow students when creating a voki.
Besides, the post-lecture discussions indicated tremendous innovations in the pedagogical process. One of the lecturers (who attended the researcher’s lectures) commented:
I have never seen this before. I had my sabbatical in (name of the university concealed for ethical reasons) University. You know, it’s a first class university, but this kind of engagement and interaction was lacking. I totally enjoy these lectures; every time (I attend) I pick something out of it.
The above observation was not only a word of encouragement but also a reflection of the changes that were gradually but steadily taking place to enhance the reading culture among graduate students. When students are motivated to read, there are several opportunities that could nurture their reading. The Makerere University Research Agenda 2013–2018 emphasize the need to transform Makerere University from a largely teaching University to a Research-led University. To ensure attainment of this objective, ICT infrastructures have been put in place. The ICT Policy and the Directorate of ICT Support (DICTS) was established to provide expert knowledge and skills on ICTs to academic and administrative staff (Makerere University Council 2004). It carries out routine maintenance of all ICT related infrastructures in the university. As a result, there is a relatively stable internet in the computer laboratories that enable students to access and download texts.
Different forms of interaction
Different forms of interaction were witnessed since the introduction of the voki and the ETILAB methodology. Observations from the focus group interactions and the lecture presentations indicated interaction levels similar to Anderson’s levels of interaction. The student–student interaction improved tremendously as peer discussion, interruption, correction and intervention were witnessed not only during group discussions but also during the teaching–learning process in the lecture room. During lecture presentations, different forms of interruptions were witnessed. Despite the fact that presentation rules had been set initially by students, such as ‘maximum’ attention to the presentation, commenting after presentation and others, there were interruptions in form of fillers, uttering words or phrases; which did not interrupt the presentation as had earlier on envisaged, informed the presenter on key issues concerning the topic under presentation. The concept of interaction among students was at its highest during the focus group discussions. The anxiety and eagerness to learn more about peers’ ideas sometimes resulted into unnecessary noise as witnessed by the researcher in two of the two focus group discussions he attended. Without any intervention from the researcher, the students were able to reorganize themselves and the discussions continued.
Similarly, student-content level of interaction progressively gained ground as students read more materials in a week than they used to read before the commencement of the study. Indicators manifesting students’ further reading were witnessed during the teaching–learning process. On several occasions, reference was made to articles that were allocated for reading, and those which were never assigned but has information that collaborates or contradicts ideas being discussed. Suffice to note, is the fact that student–teacher interaction gradually declined as learning became self-directed, and to some extent peer-directed.
But the level of interaction which gained prominence among students concerned digital technology. Six students were able to buy smart phone in the period of a semester—when the study was conducted, evidence of increased utilization of the computer lab by Master of Education language education students as observed by the computer lab attendant:
When you (researcher) requested that your students be given an opportunity to utilize the lab whenever it’s free, I accepted but didn’t think that they (students) would turn up as the case has been. Many times we receive such requests, grant them but students don’t turn up, or they turn up in the first few days and then stop coming’. … your students have been active. One of them has been very consistent and would always turn up at a particular time. … we were forced to reserve a computer for him especially as we approach university examinations (a busy period when many students frequent the lab).
The above observation underscores the extent to which students interacted with technology. It also manifests the interest and enthusiasm that had developed among graduate students towards reading through the use of emerging technologies.
Levels of reading
The findings revealed that graduate students read at different paces. The majority of students were average readers; some were fast readers whereas others were slow readers. This was revealed during the three lecture sessions where students were tasked to read a piece of text at a given time. In the first session, students were given a one page text (two and a half paragraph) to read in 2 min. The outcome indicated that a few students (three) were able to complete the text and answer questions that followed. Majority were average students who managed to read at least two paragraphs (eight), and only one student was unable to complete the second paragraph. However, by the time a third lecture session was held students’ reading speed had improved tremendously, and the slow reader (during the first session) was among the average readers.
In the digital world and knowledge age in particular where learners are overloaded with information, the pace at which one reads a particular text has implications on the amount of information/data absorbed, and the subsequent comprehension of the text. After the introduction of a voki, the reading speed of students improved steadily; one of the factors responsible for defining a reading culture of a particular group.