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

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

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 communiqu├ęs 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?