Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The role of Research Assistants in Research and Development Activities

Following a recent discussion among university academics one person emitted the view that academics should do the research themselves and should refrain from hiring research assistants. Research assistants are believed to eat up to 80% of the costs for research projects and instead the view that was emitted was to rather use funds earmarked for research to purchase equipment and to revamp the university labs.

Let us now open the debate and the discussion around the key questions here:
  • Should academics refrain from taking research assistants and instead should do the ''research'' themselves
  • Do academics have a well-balanced workload model that allow them enough them to plunge themselves in real research and development activities?
  • Is the mass purchase of equipment a more productive and efficient approach than a good supervision and guidance of a research assistant towards the pursuit of new knowledge?
  • Are research assistants only suitable to be hired to do surveys and data collection activities only?
  • How will a small country like Mauritius build capacity if we get rid of research assistants taking into account that most post-secondary institutions in Mauritius are teaching-intensive institutions?

We keep talking of the human capital and its importance for the progress of the country. Is it not a paradox if we stop having recourse to research assistants on research and development projects?

Some facts from personal experience:
  1. I, myself joined the University as a research assistant in 2001 at the VCILT. Ten years later I am a senior lecturer in education technology and heading the unit since 2009. A few strategic achievements include the center being a finalist in the WISE 2009 awards, the recipient of the COL award of Excellence in 2010. We have actively published in peer-reviewed journals, presented in conferences and invited as guest speakers on a few occasions.
  2. 2009-2011 we were working on a EU-ACP funded project SIDECAP and we recruited a part-time research assistant on the project. The outcomes: a YouTube Channel disseminating video lectures on a number of educational topics, repurposing of open-educational resources that are used in our online diploma and BSc programmes, conduct of capacity-building workshops with educators on the innovative use of ICT in education.
  3. In 2009-2010 a research assistant worked on the research project on the integration of text-to-speech systems in the development of self-learning video lectures. A small project where the funding 2000 USD out of the 2500USD earmarked for the project was used to pay a research assistant led to the formalisation of a rapid e-learning development methodology that brought us so far about 40000USD worth of consultancy projects.
From my own experience, the only lesson I can retain here is that although we need the right tools to do the work, the best investment you can make is in the human capital. The equipment have a very short lifespan and get obsolete in no time, while the human capital and knowledge generated remain for a much longer time. Not investing in human resources and only investing in technology and equipment is a wrong approach and recruiting people without giving them the appropriate tools is also not a wise idea. This brings us back to the old golden rule of thumb: Keep a balance of both.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

A vision for the University in 2022



While talking to a delegate in the WISE 2012 event, I was asked the question of what would be my vision for my University over a 10-year period. This question left me in a reflective process for a few days. It is indeed very difficult to come up with a vision. But I will try.

I would like to see the University become the leading institution for research and development in national key priority areas –
  1. Renaissance of the Education System
  2. Renewable Energy
  3. Land Transportation Efficiency
  4. Healthcare improvement – diabetes, cardio-vascular diseases, hypertension, life hygiene
  5. Innovative Models for Poverty Reduction
  6. Water Treatment and Retention to solve drought problems and to diminish dependency on rainfall.
  7. Innovative ICT applications to improve the public services
  8. Innovative Economic Policies Development 
  9. Other elements related to national priorities.
2. Replace the current promotion system which makes academics become individualists, egoists and research paper production machines with no or little real world applications and bulk education dispensers.

3. Improve the regional presence of the University through establishment of a dual-mode university system. This focuses on distance education through e-learning to increase access to foreign students and to enable them to learn without the need to be physically present on the university campus.

4. Encourage academics and students to become entrepreneurs and to make money out of their joint research and development activities and to set up their own enterprises.

5. Encourage mobility of academics through reduction of bureaucracy and increased academic freedom within an approved framework.

6. A fully decentralized system of education administration and management.This will allow the university to evolve at a much faster pace.


Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Matching workplace needs with educational provisions


WISE Session on matching education with workplace needs
The World Innovation Summit for Education 2012 was held in Doha and organized by the Qatar Foundation from the 13th-15th November. This is according to international experts and observers, one of the major landmark event related to global education and this year about 1200 persons were present.

I decided to attend the debate on ‘’Matching Education with Workplace Needs” which is one of the long standing issues with respect to our local education system in Mauritius.

Major points raised from the panel

 

1. Vocational training has a secondary value in most countries but it is amazing how many jobs vacancies do actually exist in the TVET areas.

2. There is a need to change the perceived quality of jobs in TVET sector and to provide decent pay for people in these areas..

3. We have a system (global) designed to fail. Education providers, employers and youth live in parallel universe.

4. Classroom training results in high youth employment rate. Countries that have departed from this and merged education with work have reduced youth unemployment rate (e.g Germany)

5. The need for Meta skills: Skills about knowing how to acquire new skills as the modern workforce means on average one employee will have eight to ten jobs in their career compared to two or three jobs a decade ago.

Some personal reflections
What if we have free online tertiary education coupled with conventional vocational programmes. . .? 
 
I mean here that many youngsters want to go to university and to have kinds of white-collar job and later on find that their aspirations are not being met, they are not getting jobs they want and on top of that in most of these cases the pay is not decent.

A way to encourage youngsters to embrace such professions could be to find a parallel where they can also benefit from university education while following technical and vocational training. And one of those ways include the provision of online tertiary education where youngsters can get an online degree and acquire academic competencies and higher order cognitive skills while at the same time get prepared to face job market where there are real demands through vocational training. This can allow youngsters to join in the work environment earlier and there reduce unemployment rate among youths.

The problem of qualifications – required job skills mismatch 

 
Universities have always been on the culprit side when it comes to the perceived mismatch that exists between the potential jobseekers qualifications and the actual skill that a particular job requires. We could have understood this if someone with a degree in management points in an interview or applies for a job where a degree in computing is needed! But here it is not the fault of the university who trained the student in management but may well be a wrong choice of the student and this is mainly a career guidance related issue.

The second potential issue could be that we badly need 200 aeronautical engineers but there is no such training at universities to form such professionals. That could well be a government policy incoherence with respect to the potential development goals of a country, It can again by no means be the fault of the university,

But then comes in the other issue which is where universities take the burden of guilt. I will write here about the local context the University of Mauritius itself as a case study. Lets take the case of an IT company X. X specializes in the use of one software in particular and lets say its called SAP. Now X tells the University that the computer science course is not adapted to industry needs because none of the students that come out with a degree in IT know SAP. Then comes in company Y, which works with a particular software called lets say Compiere. Now company Y comes to the University and says their programme is not adapted to industry needs as Compiere is the one that is needed and University does not cover this software in their training.

And if a hundred such companies exist where each of them are promoting their businesses want the university to train people to work on their specific business tools, how on earth can a university manage this? Worse of all the pace at which the technology evolves is just phenomenal. Can universities cope with such type of evolution to mass customize syllabuses at very short intervals to suit in the current exigencies of business people? In five years, when the labour in the local Mauritius starts to become ‘’expensive’’ they businesses just pack up for greener horizons. What happens then to the graduates who are nufg but only experts on one software which by the time they are jobless have become obsolete software?

I do not think it is the role of universities to follow the job market at such close levels. There is a need to maintain the safe distance so that accidents can be avoided just in time. Universities prepare individuals and leaders for life, to face challenges and to come with innovative solutions. Universities do not form people to repair the wheels of a bicycle but to find ways to make the future generation wheels much better than the current ones.

The real problem is in fact not mismatch of education providers with the needs of the workforce. The problem is in reality related to the fact that employers want ready-made products for their system to consume but they rarely want to invest in the making of those products with the fear that if there is an excess in productivity, then the consumers will be no other than their own competitors. This has been experienced at the University of Mauritius some years ago when a very big company approached the university to mount a industry specific IT course. Under the operational model, the university was supposed to enrol unemployed IT graduates on a specialised post-graduate diploma. The resource persons would be from the industry to teach a core theory part and then the students would be on paid placement in that particular company for 6 months. After completion of the course and training the company could hire those it feels would be more appropriate to their expectations, while those who did not make it were supposed to have improved their employability for other potential employers. The whole process was funded mainly by Government funds.

The first batch worked well but when it came to the second batch, the company stressed that they would make an interview prior to recruiting the students and they will select those that they feel can get into the course.

Lesson to be retained:


1. They simply wanted to get the government to fund the training of people they have already decided would work for them at the expense of all those who could have a chance to get employed by other employers and thus reducing the gap between academic training and workforce needs.

2. When the University did not agree with them on this principle initially, the third batch of training actually never happened.
3. The private sector, joined hands to develop the ICT academy a few years ago with the aim to show the universities that they can actually train their own human resources, but only recently a press article highlighted the numerous issues they faced and that they had not yet been operational......

These three elements provide us with food for thoughts of the real issue behind skills mismatch and academic training...

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Study Visit of Kenyan Ministry of Education Delegation

The VCILT received the visit of a Kenyan delegation on the 29th October 2012 of officials representing the Ministry of Education. The discussion centered about the VCILT experiences in teacher training and the integration of ICT in education. A very fruitful encounter that lasted 3 hours whereby the issues surrounding ICT in education were discussed with respect to what the Kenyan Government wants to do.


Thursday, 27 September 2012

An Open Education Model v/s An Open University

Open universities were traditionally oriented towards the “massification’’ of higher education (Kanwar 2011). Many open universities do not insist on entry qualifications, allow learners to accumulate credits at their own pace and convenience and are flexible enough to allow learners to choose the courses they wish to study towards their qualification (Kanwar and Daniel 2010). Kanwar (2011) talks of three generations of Open Education Models. The first generation according to her relied on technologies like print, radio and television. This model is still found today in a number of countries and the Mauritius College of the Air is still relying on such technologies. The second generation of open education model originates with the rise of the internet where learners could be supported through enhanced communication patters and interactivity both with peers thereby forming online communities or with their tutors or with the multimedia digital contents. However, the internet has witnessed itself two generations namely Web 1.0 (consumer driven) and Web 2.0 (consumers are co-creators) and many are even talking of Web 3.0 (semantically intelligent web). It is therefore debatable whether open education models might have been in three generations as multimedia based materials, online video streaming, and other Web 2.0 based social networks have given a new dimension to the concept of open education. 


Finally the third generation as highlighted by Kanwar (2011) “may be seen to commence at the turn of the century with the Open Education Resource movement which is based on the idea that knowledge is our common wealth and that technology can help us share, use and reuse it”. From the perspective of the evolution of technologies, one can reasonably argue whether open education models are in the 3rd or 4th generation. However from a more pedagogically oriented perspective, we would rather pitch open educational models at the second generation. If we look at the Open University of the UK model or the UNISA model in Africa, we would observe that these traditional distance education universities have taken some time to fully adopt e-learning as the main distance teaching-learning modality. Their primary mode of functioning was to have university antennas in the form of learning centres where students could attend tutorials and other face-to-face sessions to a centre located quite close to their places in terms of geographical proximity. With the rise of the internet, the world-wide web coupled with exponential increase in bandwidth and advanced communication tools, one can reasonably argue that modern open universities would be virtual, and follow the concept of schools without walls. This would only mean we are in the second (operational) generation and this will englobe a form of all the technologies that were used in the four (technological) generations described above. Radio and TV will take the form of podcasts and interactive multimedia, or live webcasts, while the learning centres would be virtual classrooms and paper manuals would be released as free e-books or in the form of interactive multimedia. The subject matter experts and content writers will be busy in aggregating open resources to form complete courseware that can be packaged using universal learning standards to ensure portability and interoperability across platforms.

A National Open Education Model



The question of whether Mauritius really needs an Open University or a National Open Education model is not a mutually exclusive one. However, while the concept of a University will in essence denote autonomy, what is more important is for the Open University to have a functional open education model.

The Policy Framework

Entry Requirements, Granularity of, and enrolment on Programmes of Studies

The Open University of Mauritius although governed on the legal side by the act of Parliament, needs to have a clear Open and Distance Education policy. Different types of programmes must be identified, along with the lowest granularity level to which a programme can be broken into. There is a need to define clearly the general entry requirements at the University. The general entry requirements will define the degree and extent of openness of the institution.

The policy should define if the enrolment on its programme of studies will be bottom up or top down. This means whether all students will enrol on specific modules on an stand-alone basis and upon accumulation of enough credits, will be required to enrol on a programme of studies in case they want to pursue with the studies or the students will be able to choose a programme right at the start as in conventional universities and then complete the programme in a highly flexible manner. There is also the issue of minimum and maximum programme duration and whether full-time programmes will be on offer. Open and Distance education programmes are very often caught up in the paradox of full-time or part-time education. In academic management terms, a full-time student will be expected to complete a particular programme of studies in the minimum duration and will enrol on a maximum number of courses. The student is also expected to be ‘attending’ classes in the day. A part-time student will ideally be a working student who studies after hours or during his or her own free time and normally completes a particular programme of studies on a longer time period.

With the emergence of e-learning where course contents and tutor interaction can take place at any time, the classification model for full-time and part-time education is mixed. In reality the concept of full-time and part-time does not even apply as the programme should just be set to be on flexible study mode. For the University of Mauritius for example, offering of part-time courses, means that these are fee-paying courses and they contribute in revenue generation and form part of the underlying business model of the institution.

Accreditation of Prior Learning

The definition of the general entry requirements will be a critical factor in defining the openness of the system as well as the future reputation of the University. This is one of the most difficult tasks as there is a need to decide on potential restrictions on age of applicant, minimum level of education achieved and relevance of work experience (Daniel, 2011). Depending on the University’s admission policy a National Accreditation of Prior Learning mechanism becomes of utmost importance as learners must be able to get some recognised equivalence with respect to admissions criteria. While the University can very well open its doors to occasional learners who are not seeking any formal educational qualifications, learners without the prior qualifications using the classic route might find themselves heavily penalised later on if the overall system does not follow up with the appropriate changes. A concrete example is the recent Government policy to allow students with 3 credits at Ordinary level to proceed to Advanced Level. A student with 3 to 4 credits at Ordinary level may well perform very well at Advanced level but will be automatically disqualified for a place in a public University such as the University of Mauritius simply because the general requirements for admission on the University of Mauritius programmes is to have 5-credits at Ordinary level.

The Educational and Pedagogical Model

Courseware Engineering and Development

An Open University focusing on e-learning and modern distance education technologies need to have an underlying educational and pedagogical model for the design and development of its courses.  While Open Universities existing throughout the globe are basically very large institutions and they operate on mass education models, the one-size-fits-all approach in terms of content and underlying pedagogies are most appropriate. This means that the classic content-based approach is useful given that it is easy to disseminate and to manage the educational process.

Courseware development and authoring is also an important element to take into account. The Open University will need to have a pool of subject matter experts, instructional designers, and educational technologist for the authoring of content. The decision is whether to use a decentralised system for the subject matter experts (SMEs) or whether all SMEs will come from the establishment of the University. It seems inevitable that the University will need to have recourse to external subject matter experts for the development of its content and a pool of tutors to deliver the content.

Open Educational Resources

As highlighted by Kanwar (2011), the current open education model is based on the concept of the open educational resources movement. She highlights the growth of the OER movement within developing countries highlighting the examples of Sakshaat, the Indian Government’s OER project, the China Open Resources for Education Initiative, Vietnam’s Open courseware and Japan Open Courseware Consortium. However the primary concern of the Open University of Mauritius will not be one that is related to developing open education resources but rather to how can existing OERs and repositories be best used to provide a high quality learning experience to the students.

Learner Support and Tutoring

The Learner support model and tutoring framework will also be critical to the success of such an initiative. It is also important to decide on how tutoring occurs. The questions that are pertinent here are:

  • Will it be mostly or only online tutoring or there will be face-to-face sessions? Face-to-face sessions will impose restrictions over the target market in case the Open University is trying to attract foreign learners.
  • How will the University model the efficacy of online tutoring and the commitment of the online tutor?
  • What is the cohort size that will be allocated to a tutor? What is the minimum and maximum size of a normal cohort?
The cohort size policy will determine the pedagogical model to be used. If the University wants to promote constructive learning and competency building, classic e-book approaches with drill and practice questions will not suffice. On the other hand, supporting an activity-based pedagogy requires more time and effort from the tutor and a higher degree of involvement of the learner. 

The Delivery Model (Technology)

The trap of e-learning technologies misconception

The Open University of Mauritius will definitely look towards modern distance education technologies that can easily be mass-customised. There is a misconception by many IT professionals and education managers, witnessed from more than a decade of field experience that deploying an e-learning platform like MOODLE does not make an institution e-learning ready. E-learning in the context of an Open University cannot just be summarised to “just go on Moodle.org, download and install the learning platform, put some contents, enrol your students and there you go!”. With such a recipe at hand, any new e-learning initiative in the context of Open and Distance Education is bound to be a failure. The delivery model of the Open University needs to be carefully planned especially if the front end will be an e-learning platform.

Integrated Systems and Interconnectivity

There is a need to decide on whether the IT services of the University will be an integrated platform from student application, enrolment to following online courses. This is a model that is already in use in large distance education institutions like the University of South Pacific where students have single sign-on facilities to access the different interconnected information systems throughout their student life. Integration of student information systems with the delivery front-end is an important aspect for the smooth running of an Open University where the emphasis is on e-learning technologies. However from a perspective of openness, while this is an important and desirable feature of the technological model, it might not be necessary if there is a good synchronisation of the administrative department with the department responsible for e-learning. Interconnection of the two systems will depend on the business strategy of the University. If the University wants to promote global openness like the OpenLearn initiative of the Open University of the UK, or IGNOU’s portal FlexiLearn (Kanwar, 2011), then keeping the flexibility of having both interconnectivity and openness of the learning platform is a wise solution.

The e-learning Platform

The management of an e-learning platform with a few courses, lecturers and students is not of the same complexity when there are hundreds of modules for different programmes of studies with thousands of users and a few hundred tutors and academics using the system. The complexity of tasks related to the technical and administrative management of the e-learning platform grows exponentially. The management of the e-learning platform in this case should not be confined only to information technology professionals or to one e-learning administrator. The University should set up the e-learning management committee to oversee the day-to-day operations and to work on the procedures for the use of the e-learning platform. The e-learning Management Committee should have an IT manager, the e-learning Platform Administrator, the e-learning Manager, and a Quality Assurance officer. There should be an e-learning implementation team led comprised of a system administrator, the e-learning platform administrator, an education technologist and a system analyst.

Backup strategies and disaster recovery plans should be worked out and at least two servers (live and backup) should exist. There should also be a production server for the development of materials and the implementation testing for new functionalities.

Proprietary or Open-Source?

While proprietary platforms can cost a lot of money to the institution, there are guarantees on platform uptime. On the other hand most service providers in this area use the cloud concept where the client has to migrate all its content to a third-party.  On the other hand, with the surge in the Open-Source movement, and the success of the MOODLE e-learning platform, it seems that a large number of educational institutions world-wide are using this platform. However usage of MOODLE can be done in a variety of ways and in different educational settings and scenarios. Among issues with respect to MOODLE is that development is done by a distributed community of developers and very often the embedded educational concepts in some of its functionalities might not correlate with an institution’s actual procedures and processes. Another issue is that when MOODLE is implemented for large e-learning initiatives, it becomes a very sensitive issue to migrate between different versions and releases of the platform. This might imply re-training of the whole technical and academic staff for an institution and this might prove to be costly and a technically complex activity.

Course Structure on e-Learning Platform

MOODLE e-learning platform offer high flexibility in the way courses and units are arranged in terms of taxonomy and menu structure. The MOODLE front-end is basically the e-learning portal entry point, and aspects of usability and navigation are important. Simple decisions like whether a list of modules will be available, or students will see their programmes of studies on which they are enrolled first, or the highest point of entry will be Faculty/School wise and so on can have a big implications if ever we find later that things have to be changed. It is important to know how each logical online cohort will be managed in the online environment. Course versioning and cohort management are important aspects that need to be well planned in advance so that the e-learning platform front-end structure can be customised accordingly.

Compliance to Learning Standards (SCORM)

MOODLE, just as most other e-learning platforms are SCORM compliant. SCORM-compliance means that learning objects following this standard can easily be backed up and restored to any other SCORM-compliant e-learning platform. This ensures inter-operability of resources between platforms and by extension between universities and institutions. SCORM compliance also provides the additional facilities to track learner progress and completion thereby automating to some extent the monitoring process online. This allows the institution to decide on decentralised assessment systems where continuous assessment is the key towards successful learning.

Standard Course Formats

Academic freedom is a very important concept in universities where academics enjoy the freedom to conduct free inquiry and to teach according to their preferred styles using an unrestricted variety of pedagogical methods and teaching strategies. This means that academics can structure their courses and their lecture notes in the way that they perceive as the best way to deliver. However, in a virtual learning environment in an Open University setting, experience has shown that having courses structured in different formats can maximise the learning curve of the learner to familiarise with the environment and can also cause confusion throughout the semester. For instance, MOODLE allows a course to be authored in a number of formats such as weekly format, chapter-wise format, or social format (unstructured). A lecturer teaching a course online can put a number of MOODLE blocks on his course space and can organise the content in different ways. This can be acceptable in mixed-mode institutions where academics use the platform to complement their face-to-face teaching. It is advisable that the e-learning platform be customised in one particular layout and all courses that are authored on the platform use the same layout or a set of possible layout/forms that have been approved beforehand. Academics should be given limited rights so as they do not breach the agreed and approved formats for course layouts as they will be mainly tutoring the courses online and not ‘teach’ them online. It is recommended that the learner’s visual perception is not overloaded with all sorts of unimportant MOODLE blocks that are of little pedagogical value to the learning process.

Bandwidth

Bandwidth is a very important consideration in any attempt to upscale any type of online activity where unexpected rise in traffic or peak access hours can cause a system to crash. From past experience such scenarios can greatly undermine the initiative and the reliability of an institution and cause general frustration among students. There are a few creative ways to handle bandwidth issue as it is not pragmatic to keep increasing bandwidth with increasing number of students. From the experience of the e-learning initiative at the University of Mauritius, bandwidth issues occur mainly under the following conditions:
  • The start of the semester when all students are accessing the platform practically at the same time. The recommendation is that start dates of courses can be made to vary to spread the consumption of bandwidth.
  • The submission deadlines for assignments. It has been observed that students will always rush in at the last hour before closing date of assignment submission to upload their work. Coordination among programmes and a pre-defined timetable for assignment submission can ease the issue.
  • Avoid overloading the platform with built-in content as there is a processing overhead with each page that the platform retrieves. Videos should not be hosted on the e-learning platform. Instead the University can have recourse to streaming services or use alternative offline media to disseminate such resources.
  • At the end of the semester during revision and exam period where students practically ‘sleep’ online. Any loss of service or drop in service quality during that particular period will spark reaction and complaints from students. The recommendation is that students should have access to downloadable versions of course contents for revision and exam preparation purposes.
The simplest technical solution is to have distributed load balancing servers and with bandwidth of very high capacity. But this is a very costly solution unless there are guarantees about the real scale of operation of the University.

The Business Model

Unless the Open University of Mauritius will be fully financed by Government which is quite unlikely, it will have to rely on a sustainable business model. Being a public university it would definitely benefit from Government grants. On the other hand, it seems that its courses will be fee-paying. Developing high quality distance education materials is a costly process and it requires subject matter experts, educational technologists, instructional designers and IT professionals. To operate efficiently, the Open University will need to have recourse to different such teams working in parallel.

On the other hand, the Open University needs to find the means to keep the cost of courses relatively low to ensure it has the critical student mass to operate effectively. With the global competition in the Education sector, and in the midst of the prolonged economic crisis Mauritius cannot afford to keep pouring public funds to sustain initiatives that are not viable in the medium to long term. One contemporary model that is gaining momentum at least theoretically for the time being is the OER business model for open education (Downes, 2006; Dholakia et al. 2006; OECD 2007).

However, there is a need to distinguish clearly between what is perceived to be OER business models and business models for Open Universities. Some authors equate OERs and Open Education to giving away knowledge for free. When we talk of Open Universities, we cannot simply equate free knowledge to free qualification. OER business models are also very much applicable to Universities mainly in developed countries such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who have over decennia or even centuries produced knowledge in the form of content. Giving the content away for free can be seen as a strategic move to better market the Universities and their qualifications in the rise of globalisation. The Open University of Mauritius is definitely not in the position to adopt such a business model in its current form. If OERs can be contributory to a business model then the model should rely on cost-effective ways to ‘consume’ foreign OERs that can be locally rebranded without much additional cost and embedded in qualification pathways to the students of the Open University of Mauritius.

Such a prototype model has been used at the University of Mauritius with quite positive results although at larger scales, it would be difficult to predict how the model will fare.  One should not forget the sad reality of Open Educational Resources – they are not produced freely, but they are rather distributed freely. This implies massive investment and funding is needed before repositories like OpenLearn of the Open University of UK or MIT Open Courseware Repository and others such as Connexions and Curriki are developed. Even the innovative idea behind the OER University concept (WikiEducator.org, 2011) has to rely on funding in terms of time and money from ‘donor’ institutions to address the sustainability of the OERu movement.

The business model of the Open University of Mauritius will also depend on its strategic objectives. If the university wishes to operate as competitors to regional distance education universities, then it will have to choose one business model which will provide the university the competitive edge needed. On the other hand, if its mandate is to look mainly at the development of manpower in specific areas related to national priorities then it might well develop a different business model as the operation of the University can be seen as a strategic investment in itself for the country to benefit in the longer term.

Friday, 14 September 2012

4 Scenarios for the Mauritian Education Sector in 2022

Growth 

This scenario looks at the Mauritian Education system as a graduate production machine achieving the vision of Government of one graduate per family. In this scenario, intellectuals will be formed at a constantly increasing rate irrespective of their primary and secondary schooling foundations. Skilled labor will be on shortage on the market and more and more graduates will be forced to do blue-collar jobs and manual jobs to earn a living thereby creating a sense of frustration and inequality of chances. People with MBAs will be driving taxis and others with a degree in Food Science will become hawkers. The entrepreneurial culture will be strengthened but with a mitigated sentiment that Government has fooled around with the future of the graduates. On the other hand Mauritian intellectuals will form the core of the so-called knowledge hub where human resources will be exported to Africa from Mauritius where a number of economies are prospering. Growth of the education sector to serve the region and the African continent can make education services as one of the emergent pillars of the new Mauritian economy.



Constraint 

In this scenario, the status-quo is being maintained. In essence the education system will look like the same it was as today except with some cosmetic improvements. Schools will be flooded with computer hardware and software but most of them would be obsolete and require update. Teachers will still be asking for new types of training to be able to master the technology, because the technology that they were used to during their teacher training periods is no longer in place. In 2022, in the constraint scenario, ICT will still be at experimental level in schools and Government promises will have moved from offering a laptop per child policy to a tablet per child policy to now a mobile phone per child policy. In reality the curriculum will not have changed in its essence except that new subjects would be added to overload the learner and therefore maintain the same problem of pass rates and output rates from successive education levels. 



Collapse (contributed by Rubina Rampersad)

In order to please the different lobbies in the Mauritian context, educational reforms are piecemeal and “too little and too late”. The Certificate in Primary Education (CPE) has not been revamped: cosmetic changes were made. Wherever overhauling was proposed, voices were raised by X or Y Community making the government go back on archaic methodologies. The result is that in 2020, we still have a nation of followers instead of innovators and creators. We depend on others to find solutions to our local problems. Moreover, in a globalised world, instead of using our promised world-class education to produce citizens who can ‘export’ their skills, and knowhow to others, and/or solve our local problems, the government has to depend on exogenous expertise and technology in developing the following: growing staple foods that require low irrigation, finding ways and means to have a manufacturing industry that was not water –greedy, development of renewable sources of energy as there was urgency to save funds for high priority projects such as food and water. Even in the ICT /BPO sector, local people work on the lower rungs of the organization whereas the highest paid positions where the “knowledge workers”, the creators and innovators are, come from overseas. The CPE exams have doomed generations by making them rote learners who accumulate information but do not know how to transform and deconstruct that knowledge. Foreign labour are fast gnawing the job market by taking up the best positions and this is leading to a new form of colonialism. The food and water crises further exacerbate the ‘rigid’ nature of schools as schools become more militaristic and authoritarian to justify their status quo. Since the economic conditions are bad, there are pressures to do more with less, with schools trying to maintain the status quo rather than experimenting in new teaching and learning methodology where the centre would become the learner. This becomes the ‘less risky” and safest approach in highly febrile context, both social and economic.Our own “brains”, given fierce global and regional trends, have migrated in search for better opportunities. 



Transformation 

The ideal scenario for 2022 is the transformation of the education system into the schools without walls concept where much of the knowledge acquisition phase will take place at home through interactive curriculum that is tailor made and distributed over interactive digital broadcast networks such as IPTV and the internet. Schools would become places where important life skills will be taught such as moral values, community living and other socially related activities will be taught. The Mauritian school will be temple of Life Arts which makes individuals better and smarter citizens. Our learners have found the Holy Grail for surviving in a globalised village: lifelong learning skills to find ever- innovative and creative solutions, but never losing their uniqueness as Mauritians, which in fact gives them an additional edge. 




Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Act of the Open University from an Academic standpoint


The Open University of Mauritius Act[1] of 2010 (OUM, 2010) describes in eight substantive parts, the legal framework within which the Open University of Mauritius will operate. In this section we shall concentrate on those parts that are relevant to teaching, learning and research. The first element of attention is the objects of the University. The first object of the university as per the act is that it seeks to advance and disseminate learning and knowledge through a diversity of means, with emphasis on information and communication technologies. This clearly means that the University will focus on ICT as its main driver for operation and that distance e-learning will be the preferred form for knowledge dissemination. The second object of the Open University is to widen access and promote lifelong learning. While the third one is related to the use of open and distance learning methodologies, the fourth object talks about research at the University. The fourth object makes the University a specialised research institution in educational technology and related matters. It is clear from the above paragraph and in the context of this reflection, that the objects of the University are nothing more than those of the e-learning initiative of the University but supposedly on a larger scale.


The Open University, as per its act of 2010, will have the following structure:
  • Academic Affairs Division
  • Multimedia and ICT services section
  • Quality Assurance and Capacity-Building division
  • An Open School Division
  • An Administration Division
  • A Finance Division
  • A Confucius Institute
  • A Language Institute and
  • Such other divisions and institutions as may be specified in the Statutes.
From the act, the Council of the University which is the supreme governing body will have powers to create Schools and other centres if there is the need to. Looking at the above super-structure of the University, any school will have to fit in the Academic Affairs Division. Will it make sense in this institution to have schools in a similar way as Faculties in the classic Universities? This might be an option but what is unclear is how will the concept of open and distance education be articulated with the concept of having Faculties and Schools which will be composed of academics? Let us assume that such a University will have a unit named the School of Law and Management. In reality, any University with a School of Law and Management will comprise of academics in the area and who will be research-active persons in the field of Legal Affairs, Business Management and other related areas. The paradox of this is that among the five core objects of the Open University of Mauritius, the clause related to research reads “encourage and promote scholarship and conduct research and development in educational technology and related matters’’. Amongst the functions of the Open University, there are two distinct clauses that capture attention, namely the clause stating that the Open University will “provide services and consultancy especially in open and distance learning” and “make provision for research and development in educational technology, instructional design, learner support and related matters”.

Although these may be amended in the future to reflect more the field realities of Universities whether open or not, it cannot be theoretically conceived that all academics in the different schools in a University will be doing research in one field namely education technology. In the same logic of things, we cannot expect a University to be offering services and consultancy in one field only. There are two possible explanations for such paradox to occur in the Open University of Mauritius act. The first one is that there has been clearly a misconception that above all an Open University is a University and the mission of any University is basically to create and disseminate knowledge. The second possibility is that policy makers and legislators did not want to be under the criticism that this is yet another University in such a small country where three or four public Universities doing the same thing would be seen as a wrong strategy. The second reason is therefore mainly political in nature. If we take the Open University of UK as a point of reference, we can find that the University consists of seven faculties and two institutes. There is the Institute of Educational Technology and the Knowledge Media Institute. On top of that the University consists of five interdisciplinary research centres among which there is one on computing, and one on education research and educational technology.

While the main vehicle for knowledge dissemination in the Open University concept is considered to be distance education and e-learning modalities, it should by no means overshadow the real philosophical concept of a University. If the same logic is followed, then why it is that research on face-to-face teaching is not the main area of investigation for all traditional universities?

[1] Open University of Mauritius Act http://www.gov.mu/portal/goc/assemblysite/file/act0210.pdf

Monday, 16 July 2012

The Educational Technology Seminar

The VCILT organised a one-day seminar on Educational Technology on the Saturday 14th July 2012. About 40 educators of the primary schools and a few secondary school educators were present to discuss on related issues with respect to the state of affairs in their schools, and also to hear from academia about the latest emerging trends and technologies. 

Presentations related to Open Educational Resources, Educational Cartoons or the use of Creole Language in the development of Interactive Educational Resources were at the heart of very constructive debates. The seminar was supported by Microsoft Indian Ocean and the Microsoft Partners in Learning Initiatives were presented to participants. 

The participants acknowledged the ability of the team from the VCILT to motivate teachers for a full Saturday was something to be praised.  On top of that 50 educators were trained to developed their own interactive learning materials back in March/April 2012, and which were conducted on Saturdays and Sundays. The whole idea behind this capacity-building programme was to decentralize the development of content to the educator's community to enable a sharing culture among peers. Technology is moving at such a pace that the modern technology of today is considered obsolete by tomorrow and we just cannot keep relying on a few persons to develop a whole curriculum. Teachers and students should become co-creators and co-consumers of content. 

We hope to keep the ball rolling and to start forming together a kind of communities of practice who come together once a while to share the latest progress, good practices and know about the latest trends in the educational technology sector. Mr Santally in his opening speech highlighted that in the present age we cannot ignore how technology is affecting us and our environments on a daily basis, and in the wait for the schools without walls reality, we have to keep on our efforts to continuously adapt and modernise our education systems.  

Mr Auckbur from the Ministry of Education highlighted the efforts that are being made at policy level and the management level to equip classes in Mauritius with the technologies of the future. He also highlighted the changes that will soon be brought along this line. The seminar also gave the opportunity to four educators to showcase field realities and their initiatives in terms of the use of technologies in the schools. On the other hand, the interactive whiteboard was at the centre of another interesting debate where educators discussed about the constraints and issues related to its usage/under-use and content related problems that they are facing in the schools. The presentation titled "Interactive whiteboard in schools - a good tool or just another trend?" sparked interest among those present.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

The Open University of Mauritius: Operational

http://www.lemauricien.com/article/tertiaire-mauritius-college-air-devient-l%E2%80%99open-university-mauritius


The Open University of Mauritius is finally ''operational''. Yes indeed with the appointment of a chairman of the board and of the Director General. Will things really change? 

Here is a brief recap (from the author's perspective and deemed correct by the author as far as his humble knowledge permits) of the history of the ''OUM'' and some very pertinent questions for the future.

In between the year 2000 to 2005, the concepts of open learning and technology-enhanced learning were on the political agenda of the government. The first such initiative in terms of technology-enhanced learning was the very successful initiative called the Mass Computer Proficiency Project (CPP) that was targeted at making mass training in basic information technology in a bid to sustain the strategic objective of making Mauritius a cyber-island. The initiative was later enhanced, but within the same goal through the Universal IC3 (Internet and Computing Core Certification) in 2005. The pedagogical philosophy behind the CPP and IC3 courses was based on the “learning-by-doing” approach and “learning IT through IT” which meant that contents were made available in digitized form comprising of multimedia and hypermedia elements. 


At the same time during the 2000-2005 periods, the government came up with the idea of an open-learning institute which would be fundamentally absorbing the Mauritius College of the Air. The idea later evolved into that of an Open University in 2005 but it never came into operation, until a revamped bill was presented in 2010 in Parliament. A recent press article in November 2011 (Le Mauricien 2011)[1] reported that the Open University of Mauritius would be operational before the end of the year. We are currently in 2012, yet no sight of any operationalisation of this University. A similar press article dating back in 2010 (L’Express 2010)[2] highlighted that the said University would be operational before the end of that particular year also. A related press article (Defimedia 2011)[3] in October 2011 revealed that Open University of Mauritius would be ‘one of the best institutions which will offer distance learning courses’ and that once it is operational, it will achieve the ‘Government’s vision of having one graduate per family’. 


These were reported to be the statements of the Minister of Tertiary Education and Scientific Research. The press article in 2011 (Le Mauricien 2011) talks of the collaborations with the Commonwealth of Learning and that in a first instance courses of the Open University of UK would be offered by the Open University of Mauritius. This is a first contradiction as the Open University of Mauritius has as objective to offer courses at affordable costs while the Open University of the UK cannot really be counted as an ‘affordable’ institution in terms of cost for many Mauritians. Other similar press articles reporting either the Minister’s statements or extracts of interviews from technical officers of the Ministry highlighted that all the plans were ready and that at least the first instance, the Open University of Mauritius will offer courses from other institutions like the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) of India. 

The very first definition of a University is that it is empowered by law as an awarding institution. It has the power to confer its own qualifications in its own name to its students. While the Mauritius College of the Air (MCA) exist since 1971 and its mission was precisely mass education through mainly radio and television programmes, it had over the years moved into running of more formal courses through affiliation to either local institutions like the University of Mauritius or external institutions like IGNOU. The reason for this was precisely the fact that the MCA was not an award institution. Now that the Open University has been (logically) created, the move of keeping the same operational model of the Mauritius College of the Air to run a University is not well articulated. In most of the press communiqués and other public speeches, there seem to be a confusion of the concept of open education and the distance e-learning modality. There is an amalgamation of these two concepts which to those driving the initiative, seem to be one and the same thing. This is obviously one of the main misconceptions of confused minds that have to some extent contributed towards the inability to operate the university after so long. 


Perraton (2000) has pointed out that the term ‘distance education’ captures the economic imperative of gaining benefits of scale, low cost and consistent quality, whereas ‘open learning’ evokes the political imperative of widening access. It is important to note that Kanwar and Daniel (2010) argued that establishing new brick and mortar institutions is not a viable option for most countries, especially developing ones. Back in 1988, there was only one Open University in Africa and there are currently four in all in Africa namely the University of South Africa, the Open University of Tanzania, the Namibian College of Open Learning, and the National Open University of Nigeria. One can easily understand the need of open learning institutions in those countries given their geographical sizes and the dispersion of their inhabitants. The rationale of an open university in Mauritius is not so clear in terms of the size of the island. Therefore the vision and mission of such an organization should be clearly linked to the national priorities and in line with the needs of our society. 

It is worth mentioning that the Open University of Mauritius is the third public University in Mauritius, although technically it is not yet operational. The business model so far is not clear for the University. A quick scan of the literature available on open universities also reveals University failures in distance education initiatives due to either the inability to attract students or to expand the courses catalogue. One such case is the Malaysian Virtual University. Malaysian Virtual University (MVU) was conceived in 1996 as a degree-granting institution aimed at increasing the participation in commerce and industry of the indigenous Malay ethnic group. One of the country’s largest commercial co-operatives was behind it and an American company was brought in to design it, but not as a web-based distance teaching institution. The MVU did not come into being, however, for lack of agreement regarding where, when or how the courses would be developed. Nor did it obtain the necessary licence to operate from the government (Ress and Sonberg 1998). Open University of the United States (OUUS), after three years of financial losses and low student enrolment, was closed in 2002 by the UKOU, its parent institution. It had not yet obtained full US regional accreditation (Hawkridge, 2003). 

In the context of the Open University of Mauritius, the following questions are pertinent:
  • Is it important to have a new university if opening access and flexible learning are the main objectives to be achieved? 
  • What would be the operational and the business model of the Open University? Will it be funded from public funds or will it aim to achieve significant financial independence? 
  • What will be the pedagogical and diffusion model for the Open University and how these will be linked in an integrated framework throughout the educational process and the student life history? 
  • What will be the target audience and the strategy to attract local and foreign students to the University? How will it compete with the UNISA, IGNOU and other Distance Education Universities operating in Mauritius? How will international recognition of the University be achieved? 
  • Will the Open University of Mauritius be a real university or will it just be the MCA ‘operating’ as a University?