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Open online course a new frontier

Published:Thursday | July 23, 2015 | 12:00 AMGlenford Howe, Contributor

Patrick Anglin's contribution to education debates in the region, as captured in the review article in The Gleaner of July 13, 2015 and titled 'Use open online courses to increase access to tertiary education', which reviewed Anglin's article to the recently published book, 'Quality in Higher Education in the Caribbean', is a welcome contribution to the ongoing discussions and efforts aimed at transforming tertiary education in the Caribbean.

The article is certainly rich in insights into the important role information communication technologies (ICTs) can play in this transformation. By enabling education institutions and systems to better equip students with the right skill sets, competencies, qualifications and knowledge, ICTs have, in turn, played an important role in boosting labour productivity, as well as growth, competitiveness and innovation within the evolving knowledge-driven regional societies and economies across the Caribbean.

In many respects, the use of massive open online courses (MOOCs) still represent a new frontier for many universities in both the developed and developing world. Anglin is right that MOOCs have the potential to fill unmet needs for fully online degree programmes and for significantly broadening access, including to those persons in the Caribbean diaspora.

Additionally, the Open Campus of The University of the West Indies (UWI) recognises that MOOCs can be a powerful mechanism for poverty reduction by enabling persons from all walks of life to access affordable education, thereby increasing their life chances and creating better opportunities for engaging the labour market. MOOCs are also important in enabling workers to learn new skills and acquire new knowledge. Teachers in many countries are also using MOOCs to actually learn how to use the new education technologies for teaching, by watching how professors at prestigious universities use the technologies in their classrooms.

The UWI has been utilising ICTs and employing open educational resources (OERs) in its course development to broaden access and improve the quality of education for thousands of young people and adults in the Caribbean and beyond. The UWI Open Campus currently offers 16 online postgraduate programmes, 35 undergraduate programmes, and since its formation in 2008 has reached more than 44,000 learners from the certificate to postgraduate levels using a combination of online and face-to-face teaching modalities.

A growing number of these learners are young persons who may have dropped out of school, or who, because of education mismatches with the labour market, now need to acquire new skills and knowledge.

The Open Campus is acutely aware of the tendency of ICTs to worsen or compound socio-cultural and economic disparities since those who utilise the ICTs most, and access MOOCs, are already overwhelmingly drawn from persons already qualified. Consequently, much effort is being made to provide specialised and well-targeted programmes and courses to the most disadvantaged sections of Caribbean societies.

This thrust by the university to be socially inclusive has been aided by the recent launch of The UWI's Single Virtual University Space (SVUS) initiative, which seeks to transcend multiple barriers including time, distance, and geographical isolation, in order to create new opportunities for teaching and learning for many underserved communities and groups across the Caribbean and beyond.

The SVUS environment will enable learners located anywhere in the region to access the best teaching or learning resources from any of the four campuses of the UWI, utilising both videoconferencing and online modalities.

The UWI Open Campus also has lately expanded its efforts towards social inclusion with its first OER to be used throughout the Commonwealth. At the recent 19th Commonwealth Education Ministers Meeting (CCEM) held in The Bahamas on June 23, The UWI Open Campus signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth of Learning's Virtual Universities for Small States of the Commonwealth (VUSSC), to turn The UWI's Bachelor degree programme in youth work development into an OER to ultimately strengthen the youth work sector across the Commonwealth.

However, while The UWI Open Campus is committed to utilising the full range of technologies to broaden access and improve the quality of education in the Caribbean and beyond, it is also cognisant of the multiplicity of factors that constrain its ability to harness and deploy these technologies and teaching modalities. These include, for example, weak communications and computer network infrastructure development in some communities, countries and regions, and high Internet connectivity charges and high cost of ICT equipment and services, as well as low-level, unreliable Internet access and limited bandwidth of access, especially in some rural communities and districts.

Anglin is correct in pointing to the financial difficulties being faced by educational institutions like The UWI, and also often associated with delivering MOOCs and the general use of the ICT education technologies.

Consequently, while the Open Campus is committed to being fully inclusive in its programming and education outreach, it also must seek to provide programmes and courses, based on the needs revealed through its market surveys and its partnerships with the private and public sectors, which can ensure its financial viability and sustainability.

With recent funding from the Canadian Government's Department of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade (DFTAD) strengthening Distance Education in the Caribbean project, The UWI Open Campus will be launching 18 new online programmes within the next 12 months at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Despite the financial constraints, The UWI Open Campus has been making considerable progress in deploying ICTs to broaden education and access and improve the quality of education in the region, and not only at the tertiary level.

In this regard, the Open Campus has already begun to prioritise the development and deployment of MOOCs, and other innovations like OERs to boost its contributions to the social and economic development of the region.

n Dr Glenford Howe is senior research officer, Office of the Principal, Open Campus, UWI. Email feedback to