Rev. Jessica holds torch for UCU online learning

By Joseph Lagen
Behind her glasses, the Rev. Jessica Hughes’ eyes carry a glint to escort her warm, inviting smile. She is a missionary serving at Uganda Christian University (UCU), Mukono, under the Society of Anglican Missionaries and Senders (SAMS) – an organisation based in the USA state of Pennsylvania.

The Rev. Hughes was recently appointed the head of the university’s Online Distance Learning (ODL) department – more commonly known to its students as eLearning and via one of its preferred teaching platforms, Moodle. The cleric inherited the role under unfortunate circumstances, after the covid-related death of Dorothy Mukasa, the former head of UCU’s eLearning department.

“It is an honour to serve in this capacity,” Hughes says. “I was a member of the committee that launched ODL in 2020.” She added that it is a pleasure for her to continue implementing and expanding virtual learning in her expanded leadership role.

The expansion and shift were timely. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, education institutions were closed in March 2020. It was only seven months later that the schools were allowed to open for physical learning, but only for final-year students. In March 2021, the rest of the learners were allowed physically back in school. However, three months later, a Covid-19 second wave led to increase in the number of infections and deaths, leading to another shutdown of in-person classes at education institutions.

Thanks to the ODL department, UCU was one of the few Ugandan schools where learning quickly shifted online.

The woman of the cloth is a UCU alum. Being a former student and current lecturer in the University’s Bishop Tucker School of Divinity and Theology gives Rev. Hughes an ideal vantage point for her new task.

“From 2009 to 2011, I studied at Uganda Christian University, where I received my Master of Divinity,” she says.

This was the second graduate degree of the Virginia-USA-born missionary. In 2005, she earned her first Master’s degree in Human Performance Systems at the Marymount University based in Arlington, Virginia.

Hughes’ undergraduate degree in psychology came from the George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia in 1992. She also possesses a 1993 certificate as a legal assistant from the George Washington University in the neighbouring Washington, D.C. area.

Her academic pursuits continue. Hughes is a candidate for a doctorate degree. “I enrolled in a PhD programme at the University of South Africa in 2014.” She is currently awaiting the results of her dissertation.

With all this training, one wonders how Hughes chose the missionary path, let alone being a clergywoman. She, too, had her reservations.

“I never wanted to go to Africa,” Hughes reveals in her eponymous blog.

“In fact, in my high school discipleship group of 12, 11 wanted to go to Africa as missionaries,” Hughes says, noting that she preferred to pray for them as they came to Africa.

“I now think that God was just tapping His watch (and probably chuckling), telling me to wait and see.”

The “about” page on the jessicahughes blog succinctly narrates her journey into study and service within Uganda – particularly UCU.

“My bishop, the Rt. Rev. John Guernsey, had suggested that I study abroad for my M.Div., and then suggested Uganda, since my home church (All Saints Anglican in Woodbridge, Virginia) had come under the Church of Uganda when we left the Episcopal Church.” Hughes says Guernsey then casually suggested that she remain and minister there after graduation.

Hughes has ministered from the pulpit of the Thornycroft Chapel at UCU.  On weekdays, you are sure to find her either lecturing theology students or responding to queries of students or staff members using the online learning platforms.

Learning online comes with its challenges – and those are before the challenges specific to a developing country like Uganda are considered. UCU has a mission to be a centre of excellence in the heart of Africa. Yet, in her online spaces and world over, Africa is faced with a threat to excellence in education – degree mills. 

Degree mills are fraudulent institutions that pedal “accelerated” degrees, some from legitimate schools. They promise certification within absurdly short periods. Because of degree mills, some people walk with both undergraduate and graduate degree transcripts attained within under a week. The growth of the Internet has helped to spread the scourge of degree mills. How does the ODL department plan to nip this in the bud with regard to UCU?

“One of the things I am grateful for is that UCU does take education seriously,” the reverend says, noting that the deans and faculties work hard to ensure that the curricula are up-to-date and that the lecturers follow the curricula.

“Within eLearning, we are working with the faculties to ensure that they are posting their materials well: Posting recorded lectures, current readings and creating opportunities for community engagement.”

She says they do not want the platform to become a content dump, but rather a place full of learning resources and collaboration. 

Hughes’ strategy for the near future is to “solidify UCU networks and hardware,” which she and her team are already working on.

“I want us to overhaul our understanding of pedagogy (teaching methods),” she said. “We need to move from a teacher-based instruction model to a learner-based one. This will change how we approach online and blended education.”

With such a daunting task, it is an asset that Hughes has made Uganda her home. And she has no plans of returning to the U.S. permanently. 

“I am happy serving at UCU, and I will remain, as long as the Lord and the community will have me,” notes Hughes. She says her mission in life is to teach and disciple those who teach and disciple.