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Restructuring tertiary education: Online delivery 'to di worl'!

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

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With the move from an agrarian to an industrial economy the small, rural schoolhouse was supplanted by the big brick schoolhouse. Four decades ago we began to move to another economy, but we have yet to develop a new educational paradigm, let alone create the 'schoolhouse' of the future, which may be neither school nor house. — Stan Davis and Jim Botkin

Higher education has been going through a major paradigm shift for some time now, but we have been for the most part stuck. Tuition is increasing steadily, while government subventions are drastically cut. This has forced faculty members to teach more courses, with more students, and less help from teaching assistants. This trend is eroding the overall student experience and the degree of interaction with lecturers, who end up with less time to do research and service within the community as more time is taken up teaching and grading hundreds of papers.

However, I have taken note of Minister of Education, Youth, and Information Senator Ruel Reid's pronouncement at the University Council of Jamaica's retreat in St James that the tertiary education system is being restructured. I hope this is not just another announcement. I must confess that I had a great difficulty understanding the philosophy, strategy, and essence of the restructuring based on what was published in the Sunday Observer. I comforted myself with the fact that the devil is in the details, and that one article could not do justice in communicating all that I was looking for.

Batting for online delivery

The development of the modern world economy demands an educated workforce. Places like the three I's (India, Indonesia, and Ireland), and more recently China, are finding that the need for an educated workforce is overwhelming the capabilities of their traditional educational systems. Some universities have moved away from uni-directional, instructor-focused teaching to a more distributed student experience. This shift towards more interactive, problem-based courses is crucial when combined with the possibilities that the Internet has begun to make available internationally.

The recent and quite explosive trend towards online courses stems from a variety of factors within society. These include technological shifts such as significant improvements in global access to the Internet and development of more sophisticated online tools, but also societal shifts such as globalisation and an increased competition between universities.

Full or partially online courses are becoming routine, especially at the master's level. Some universities are even providing entire degrees online, many of which are also at the master's and PhD level. In 2009 over 5.6 million students were taking at least one online course in the United States — an increase of over one million students from the previous year. With the world at our feet, we are still stuck in the traditional brick schoolhouse, asking the world to come and meet us in classroom. We have had some small online successes but, in my view, I don't believe we have taken online delivery 'to di world'. Therefore, any restructuring of tertiary education should include mandatory upgrades of the technological infrastructure of universities to ensure online offerings that are at world-class standards with all the support systems in place.

Online access to topical information can also provide a convenient mechanism for sustained learning throughout an individual's careers. This can be a crucial factor in maintaining the adaptability and flexibility needed in a modern workforce.

Three levels of online offerings should be considered:

1. Independent learning (Level I): This level will be available to everyone who would like to obtain the knowledge within the course, but does not need university credits, faculty interaction, or a certificate of completion. It will allow individuals to complete the course asynchronously and for free, with all of the content available online. This level will not provide any faculty interaction but will facilitate interaction with others taking the course. One of the most significant benefits of this level will be the availability of the content to people in developing countries. It will provide them peer-reviewed information to teach with and utilise free of charge.

2. Certificate of completion (Level II): This level will be for professionals, or anyone in the public, who would like to receive a certificate of completion but do not require university credits. The certificate of completion would be granted with the backing of the universities within the collaboration for a small fee. Such professional certifications are in high demand as employers are requiring additional knowledge and skills from their employees as markets and situations shift. Unlike Level I, this level will provide some faculty interaction and can be taken asynchronously or on a semester schedule.

3. University credit (Level III): The third level would be for those students who would like to receive university credits for a course. Course credits would be required for anyone who wishes to receive an accredited university degree. These degrees would come directly from the university at which the student is enrolled. The courses they would be required to take would also be determined through the requirements set by the university they attend. This level would provide full faculty interaction and give students an experience that would match or exceed that of a traditional face-to-face course.

Advanced information technologies make it possible to accomplish goals in education that could never have been possible before. As Internet technology has matured it has become feasible to address issues that have perplexed educators for generations in innovative and newly effective ways. The idea that universities can reach anyone, anywhere, at any time, means that tertiary institutions in Jamaica have no excuse.

Everyone can compete for students, faculty, and resources across regional boundaries, and internationally. Online technology is beginning to drive a necessary shift in the scope and aspirations of educational institutions around the world. The Internet will become bigger, faster, smarter, and relatively cheaper as the future unfolds. Each successive generation of this technology has the potential to revolutionise higher education continually for the foreseeable future.

Do the cost-benefit analysis and, without being a mathematician, it is clear that adding 10,000 more students to the enrolment virtually means less building space, electricity, air conditioning, student furniture, parking space, and I can go on and on.

While I await the details of Minister Reid's restructuring plan, permit me please to ask some questions for clarity:

• What body is responsible for the restructuring?

• Has this body been commissioned, and what are the terms of reference?

• Who in the tertiary educational landscape is the restructuring for?

• Since The University of the West Indies (UWI) is a regional body, does the Jamaican Government have policy jurisdiction?

• How will the restructuring affect tertiary institutions like Northern Caribbean University, University of the Caribbean Commonwealth, and other privately operated institutions?

• Is the University of Technology, Jamaica the national university? If yes, why is the subvention so low, and why has the Government paid such scant regard in resolving the long-vexed issue of restructuring the salaries of the academic staff in alignment with their counterparts at The UWI, Mona? Are they lesser academics?

• Will the tertiary institutions that will be so affected participate in the process?

Our tertiary education system needs to adjust to a quickly changing world. The traditional role of universities as storehouses of knowledge and the source of delivery of that content is being overshadowed by the massive availability of information on the Internet. So, Minister, let's talk!

Henry J Lewis is a lecturer at the University of Technology, Jamaica, School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Send comments to the Observer or hjlewis@utech.edu.jm.

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