The future of distance education
A look at the University Council of Jamaica’s (UCJ) website, the local accrediting body, will attest to the growing acceptance of distance learning in Jamaica. There is a total of 16 universities accredited or recognized by the UCJ to provide undergraduate and graduate level programs to Jamaicans (University Council of Jamaica, 2016). Some are in collaboration with established local colleges and universities and yet others, like those offered by Walden, are delivered by the recognized or accredited institution. According to Siemens, increase use and comfort with technology is directly correlated with an acceptance of education at a distance (Laureate Education (Producer), n.d.). With a population of approximately 2.9 million, 2.9 million cell phones and 1.5 million internet users, approximately 50% of Jamaicans are users of information and communication technologies (CIA, 2016). Jamaica is pushing towards the inclusion of technology at the primary and secondary levels (Patterson, 2015), and we already have three local universities offering distance education programs. Also, noteworthy is the fact that the current Prime Minister supports this learning modality (Jamaica Observer, 2011). These factors auger well for a distance learning future in Jamaica. Here I only speak of our local universities and policies; I speak nothing of the hundreds of professionals who have already identified overseas universities offering distance programs. This says to me that our future will include increased use of distance learning programs. This approach is becoming more acceptable to students and employers.
There is a contradictory perspective, however, evidenced by my assignment for this week that demonstrates there are still Jamaicans who thinks the quality and rigor of an online degree is less than its face to face counterpart. Past and successive governments have lauded the importance of ICT in education. These praises are transformed into programs such as the Tablets in Schools projects and other programs planned in primary and secondary schools (Patterson, 2015). The government throwing its support behind ICT and distance learning does not seem to reassure some that there is sufficient rigor to make this option viable. Their lack of confidence in distance learning is perhaps as a result of their inexperience with this option (Simonson, Smaldino, & Zvacek, 2015). Simonson, Smaldino, and Zvacek (2015) suggests guiding inexperience distance learners to make them aware of course expectations. Following this train of thinking, I believe local universities, colleges and any institution (local or overseas) planning to enter or continue in the distance learning market in Jamaica should invite prospective students to an open house designed to share information and assuage their concerns.
Contributing to Jamaica’s Distance Education Future
My role in Jamaica’s distance education future began a year ago when I enrolled at Walden University. Admittedly just a first step, but it will pave the way for future contributions. I expect my future roles in this field to be that of instructional designer, instructor, and subject matter expert. As an instructional designer, Simonson et al. (2015) advises that I should “consider all aspects of the instructional environment, following a well-organized procedure that provides guidance to even the novice distance instructor” (p. 128). Simonson et al. propose the use of a systematic approach to design which allows the designer to factor the learner environment, learners, content, teaching strategies and media in the development and design of the learning environment and assets used in learning. However, perhaps my most important contribution is ensuring quality in the courses I designed for distance learning. Sun, Tsai, Finger, Chen and Yeh (2008, as cited in Simonson et al., 2015) identifies course quality as one of the most important factors that influence learners satisfaction with distance learning. It is then through the maintenance of quality that I will best improve the society’s perception of distance learning.
Simonson et al. (2015) identifies two questions an instructional designer or instructor must ask during formative evaluations: “is this approach going to work” and “what can I do to make it better” (p. 140). The first question suggests that the instructional designer’s role does not end at providing content and setting up the learning environment. By asking this question, the instructional designer critically looks at the expected outcomes of the instruction and determine if the material provided will allow users to achieve this outcome. Once the course is complete, the designer and or instructor should revisit the learning event to identify what worked well and what did not. It is through this evaluation process that we now identify “what can I do better” to make the course more successful in the next iteration. At this time, there is an in-depth look at each element of the course: learning resources, the technology used, learning tasks, and teaching strategies. Each is reviewed in this reflective process to determine how it contributed to any problems in the training and what can be done to address the problem. This reflection is crucial to the success of future endeavors, as Simonson et al. (2015) states “because so many different factors affect the interactive learning environment, reflective teaching practices play a vital role in developing effective teaching practices” (p. 140).
Experience with technology does influence the use of distance learning as these very technologies are employed in the learning environment. It is, however, imperative that steps be taken to inform prospective students of the quality and rigor of distance learning programs. Of course, if we tout the quality of distance learning programs to influence prospective users we must maintain that quality through systematic approaches to design and rigorous evaluations.
CIA. (2016, February 25). The World Factbook. Retrieved from CIA.Org: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/jm.html
Jamaica Observer. (2011, June 15). Holness praises distance learning. Retrieved from http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/Holness-praises-distance-learning_9011651
Patterson, C. (2015, March 4). Gov’t incorporating technology in education. Retrieved from JIS.gov: http://jis.gov.jm/govt-incorporating-technology-education/
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., & Zvacek, S. (2015). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (6th ed.). Information Age Publishing, Inc.
University Council of Jamaica. (2016, February). Accredited Programmes and UCJ-Approved Degrees. Retrieved from UCJ.Org: http://www.ucj.org.jm/sites/default/files/ACCREDITED-PROGRAM-ES-AS-AT-February-2016.pdf