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Help at a distance

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Three Cal State East Bay faculty members are lending their hospitality and e-learning expertise to colleagues at Utalii College in Kenya to help improve tourism workers’ skills.


Professors help Kenyan tourism college set up e-learning program


As Professor Melany Spielman drove across Kenya in summer 2009, she experienced how grueling it can be to get around. Rough driving conditions — and sometimes a lack of roads — mean it can take 12 hours to travel 200 miles into a remote wildlife reserve, says Spielman, chair of the Department of Leadership in Hospitality and Leisure Services for California State University, East Bay. 

 “Tourism jobs are in places that have been created for Europeans and Westerners — in Mombasa, the ocean, and the national parks — and they are very remote,” she says.

 Spielman’s eye-opening trip, which she took with CSUEB Assistant Professor Richard Makopondo, gave her a front-seat look at what a crucial role the University could play in the future of training for the tourism industry in Kenya.  

 Leading CSUEB’s effort is Makopondo, who was hired by Nairobi-based Utalii College to come up with a plan to set up a distance learning program at Utalii. Makopondo is well versed in the challenges Kenya faces, after spending 11 years teaching hotel management at Utalii, a prominent government-run travel and tourism institution.

 His plan, backed by $45,000 Utalii committed to fund the project after Makopondo sent in a proposal, will give the college the tools it needs to connect Kenya’s tourism workers to the training they require for everything from managing a wildlife resort to running the kitchen of a major hotel. The program would allow students to enroll at Utalii from far-flung locations across Kenya. Instructors at Utalii will use video and Internet-based tools — such as the Web-based e-learning software, Blackboard, that Cal State East Bay faculty members use — to teach workers a range of duties from desk hotel management to chef skills. The program also targets former students already working at resorts and parks throughout Kenya, giving them the chance to receive further training.

“The idea was to help Utalii take what they’re really good at and be more efficient at delivering it,” Spielman says. “(Today) either the employee has to come to Nairobi and pay the expense of staying there, or Utalii instructors have to stay at hotels at the sites.” 

But Utalii, with 85 full-time staffers, lacks the resources to send instructors away from the school. “Our job was to teach them how to teach online,” Spielman says.

To handle the technical side of the project Makopondo enlisted Bijan Gillani, a professor of educational technology at CSUEB, one of the few universities to offer a degree in e-learning and that trains students who will go on to build e-learning systems for others. 

Gillani traveled to Kenya with Makopondo for three weeks in 2008, the first of two trips Cal State East Bay faculty members have made to Utalii to help the college’s administrators assess what software, servers, and training they’d need to build an e-learning infrastructure. 

“What I found was there was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, but the infrastructure was from the 1980s,” Gillani says. 

The college, for instance, still relied on dial-up connections instead of broadband, and access to computers remains limited. 

Still, Gillani saw signs across Kenya that the country was starting to install fiber optic cable for broadband service. “I saw them digging while I was traveling,” he says.  

Once Utalii has broadband, the   school will only need to invest in online tools and train Utalii’s instructors to use them. Utalii could, say, broadcast a class to multiple big resorts, where managers could train online instead of traveling hundreds of miles to Nairobi.

Makopondo is now waiting to hear from Utalii, which recently changed top leadership, about whether the CSUEB team’s recommendations for online learning will be approved and funded by the tourism college.

Meanwhile, Gillani continues to offer an accelerated online master’s program he started last year with two Utalii students. The students relay their assignments over e-mail to earn a degree in technology and tourism, but they cannot yet participate in Web-based classes. The 10-hour time difference is a struggle on both ends, and the students often have trouble logging on. “Our (online) pipe is a foot wide,” Gillani says. “Their’s is half an inch.”

To relay Utalii’s programs to remote areas of Kenya will also require more computers and broadband service. Right now, just one in seven hotels in Kenya has computers set up for employees. The answer, Makopondo says, is to build regional centers in remote areas where workers can take classes when they can’t afford to leave their jobs or travel. 

Since the collaborative program’s inception, three Utalii instructors have visited CSUEB, studying Gillani’s design of e-learning programs. “They were shocked,” Gillani says, when they saw the online learning and video system he uses at Cal State East Bay. “They said: ‘This is the future.’”

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