Bring on the digital revolution. Meet the experts. Dr Luz M. Longswort, University of the West Indies
The University of the West Indies is a federal University, so it serves seventeen different nations in the Commonwealth Caribbean. The University has always done distance education because of our geographic spread. The traditional form of distance education started out of necessity because we are all separated by water.
When the University was first founded in Jamaica, in 1948, there were already small nodes of the University in different countries of the contributing countries in the English-speaking Caribbean. The University always had the mission of serving all the people in the Caribbean, so we started with the Extra-Mural Department, which taught short courses focused on adult learning, and through that, we have developed physical locations in sixteen of the seventeen countries.
In the late 1970s/early 80s we started to experiment with technologically enhanced distance learning using a teleconferencing system, whereby each island had a teleconference room and lectures were synchronously broadcast through telephone lines.
In the early 90s, we started experimenting with online learning. We began a project called The UWI Distance Teaching Experiment (UWIDITE), which was then transformed into the University of the West Indies Distance Education Centre (UWIDEC) and from these we started with two blended degrees. Those projects merged into what is now known as the Open Campus which started in 2008 but has a legacy since 1948. We now offer 100 degrees online. We have over 8,000 students per semester who study fully online. We have had thousands of graduates who have never been to a physical campus.
Long before COVID-19, we recognised inequities that existed in the region in terms of not all people having access to the Internet. We have a model of sites in place – what I call “the social justice model,” with about forty-four sites across the region that provide internet access, study space, staffing, as well as library space to our students in the region.
How did the Institution manage the transition and deal with any challenges to online learning since the COVID-19 outbreak?
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the degrees offered through the Open Campus were already fully online, requiring very little physical teaching, whereas 90% of the degrees at the other four campuses had a face-to-face presence. The Open Campus has the task of developing online degrees for our colleague campuses.
The physical campuses, which account for about 40,000 students across four campuses had to go into rapid online emergency remote teaching. In the case of our University, the Open Campus was able to support the physical campuses in that move.
As the Open Campus, we also led the way in developing new assessment methodologies. Students were unable to take physical examinations, so we had to develop assessments that could be done online.
We had an amazing response. The Open Campus, being online, had no disruption. The benefit of having those years of experience in teaching remotely was that we were able to pivot our whole University very quickly into this remote teaching modality, which many of the professors in the physical campuses were quite alien to. In three weeks, we helped train over 1,000 faculty members, which meant that we were able to reopen within two to three weeks of the closure, and we did not lose any students, and most of the faculty were quite amazed at how interactive their classes were.
Those staff members who had never really taught in this way before had to learn how to navigate this modality very quickly. Of course, some of the faculty had instant resistance to this way of teaching, and indeed some things were difficult to put online, for example for our clinical medical students.
We are now getting some concerns about staff exhaustion and the challenges of working from home. Questions are arising about what the University should provide in order to make this space conducive to a productive teaching and learning environment.
In the Open Campus we had to do quite a lot of student engagement to hear what their difficulties were, much of which were not with the learning and teaching environment, as their classes were not disrupted, but with what was happening in their own countries, including the loss of jobs be many of our working students, and because of this, we opened an online counselling service.
With all this, our student retention has been higher, we have had a 9% increase in applications for the online programmes.
Students have been forced to adjust to these changes. How has online learning bridged the digital divide?
We have students who don’t have easy access to the internet, or a suitable device and we had to find a way to deal with that.
Most of the student issues were economic. Firstly, access to the Internet at a reasonable rate, and secondly, whether you had a device. We did a region-wide audit to see which students needed devices and which ones needed internet access and we got funding from the Caribbean Development Bank to provide those. We also worked with the telecommunications providers to zero-rate our IP addresses. This was part of the Telecommunications and the Ministries of Education’s contribution to the crisis. We’ve gotten better packages for our students and the governments of the region have also ramped up their public access to Wi-Fi in community centres.
Initially, there were also concerns about not doing the traditional sit-down examinations, but the students have taken quite well to the online assessment process because they find it less stressful.
Another major issue with the students attending the physical campuses and the Open Campus students who were used to meeting at the sites is that lack of community. To respond to this, we did a lot of online engagement with the students. The Student Associations put together study sessions, concerts, and webinars, to keep the students talking to each other online.
COVID-19 pandemic changed the value of online learning compared to face-to-face learning. How has The University of the West Indies maintained the same quality of teaching since the beginning of the pandemic?
Given that we were an official Open Campus, one of the things that we had established was a framework of policies that guide online and distance teaching. The same processes used for quality assurance for our physical Campus programmes are the same that we use for our online programmes. The only thing that’s different is the modality, the lecturers must be trained, they can’t just jump in front of a camera and start teaching. Now we have been moving into phase two of training because most of the faculty now recognise that they must do some amount of asynchronous engagement with the students through different methodologies. All changes had to be centrally approved by our Academic Boards. If changes had to be made, they were piloted, usually by the Open Campus and then rolled out in the other campuses.
We developed a coordinating team that had representations from every campus which was headed by our central office of online learning. They were the ones that did all the surveys to see how students were responding and giving feedback to our various boards and faculties.
There was this perception which the Open Campus had to fight that because you were online, you were inferior. During the summer months, the physical campus students did their courses with the Open Campus. So, there was no summer school at the physical campuses because of COVID-19 and the feedback was that they have found it to be much more rigorous. The myth that doing a programme online was easier and somehow less rigorous than a physical campus has been very quickly dispelled, even among our own faculty, because they now understand the rigour of developing an online programme, you must be so much more rigorous than when you are teaching face-to-face. They are just now understanding the real quality that must go into an online programme that’s done well from the faculty than the face-to-face environment.
A University like The University of the West Indies spared no effort to make sure that we moved forward because it was one way of bridging the economic divide with those students who could travel to a University versus those who couldn’t, hence we developed a strength which was the way of the future, and in fact, our campus tagline formed in 2008 was “A campus for the times, a campus for the future,” because we who are in education and looking at the future could see the importance of this. This is still relevant even more so now, because we still don’t know what’s going to happen. Universities may never go back to being fully physical. We must look at how we use the technology now to make it more engaging and to make it an experience that really delivers the purpose of higher education, for example, through artificial intelligence and augmented reality, all those tools are now very important looking down the road for the new University.