VUSSC Capacity Building Workshops
It was quickly found that countries were not keen to have a new institution created that would compete with their existing institutions. The new organisation would need to help to build capacity of existing institutions, to support the creation of accreditation mechanisms and to facilitate the offering of educational programmes by small states for themselves and others. For the first time, more than 30 countries would work together to build a capacity-building network to increase their own capacity collaboratively.
COL began the task at the end of 2004 by canvassing the ministers of education of each of the small states to ask them whether they still wanted to participate in the VUSSC and, if so, what educational and training objectives they hoped to achieve through it. Two-thirds of the countries replied affirmatively and gave a list of topics for the VUSSC to develop. Most were not degree programmes but shorter, skills-related postsecondary courses in areas like tourism and hospitality management, small business development and entrepreneurship, professional development for the education and health sectors, life skills, construction, fisheries, and disaster management.
Knowing that the internet technology infrastructure is underdeveloped in many of the small states, especially outside the principal towns, COL suggested to ministers of education that, despite the use of the term ‘virtual’ in the VUSSC title, it might be appropriate to develop courses in multimedia or flexible formats, rather than as pure eLearning material. Ministers replied that although they understood the concern, they considered it a priority for the VUSSC to create capacity and capability for eLearning and the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in education, in addition to increasing the range of educational offerings in their countries.
CREATING OER BY INTERNATIONAL ONLINE COLLABORATION
Against this background the representatives of the small states asked COL to facilitate the joint development of eLearning materials in the form of OER as the first VUSSC activity. COL decided for several reasons that the creation of course materials in each topic area should begin with a three-week face-to-face workshop. First, it was necessary to spread the sense of ownership of the VUSSC from ministries of education out to the tertiary institutions and make this virtual initiative seem real to them. Second, many of the subject experts charged with creating open and distance learning materials had little experience of eLearning and online collaboration, skills that could most readily be acquired in a workshop setting. Third, an important objective was to create an academic community across the small states for each subject that would remain active after the workshop participants returned home and continued their collaborative work on course development.
An initiative of this kind needs to be planned to accommodate change and extensive consultations. Policy level meetings were held for government interlocutors and their decisions on topic areas were used to form the series of workshops. They also supported the Ministers’ request to strengthen qualification systems and to find ways to transfer courses, qualifications and learners between countries. The Interlocutors decided in 2008 to form a VUSSC Management Committee that would work in close collaboration with COL in the ongoing management of the VUSSC activities.
Four team leaders and a coordinator (who is also a team leader, but from the host country) are brought to Vancouver about a month before the workshop. They undergo four days of orientation on the task of facilitating the workshop. During this time, they gain an understanding of the VUSSC concept, the relevance of the topic area in which they are an expert to VUSSC, and they plan a learning module to be created during the workshop. There is some interaction with all the participants before the workshop (after the team leader orientation), but experience shows that most real interaction starts after people have met face-to-face and spent time getting to know each other. Even after spending time together in the workshops, it can be very challenging to keep busy people involved in online communities of practice. It is usual for people in developing countries to be involved on many simultaneous activities as they try to work against significant odds such as limited bandwidth, large class loads and limited teaching resources.
Participants of the workshops learn in a very practical way. Workshops take place in a computer laboratory and buddy-teaching is the most used manner of learning. Lectures and presentations are kept to a minimum and practical, hands-on experience is maximised. The practical methodology that has emerged involves searching for available Open Educational Resources on the Internet, copying, pasting and editing the materials into the COL Instructional Design Template , sharing the drafts with other teams (there are usually five teams), re-editing the content and then restarting the cycle (Figure 2). Each small unit is completed, shared and stored until the end of the workshop when they are all merged into one learning module. The module is edited by an external course developer who consults with the group online to finalise the material for posting on COL’s website.
Online technologies are used in the workshop so that participants receive ample practice. They are able to maintain contact long afterwards, still using the IT infrastructure provided by COL. The Instructional Design Template is currently only available in MS Word format due to the use of macros that facilitate the replication of information throughout the materials. The online workshop space is currently a service called “BaseCamp” which is available on a subscription basis. These two technologies have shown themselves to be most suitable: all participants use MS Word in their daily work, while the closed, or private online workshop space gives them the freedom to communicate with each other in a group away from the public glare. All materials to date have been developed in the English language, following the fairly standard practice across Commonwealth countries. With materials carrying one of the Creative Commons open licenses, it would be easy for a person, group or institution to choose to translate the materials into any other language and post a new version for others to use.
Thanks to the support of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation it has been possible to hold such events for the launch of each new topic. This approach has been essential to create momentum for the VUSSC. However, holding course development workshops is expensive. As the eLearning community grows in each country it should be possible in a few years’ time to begin collaborative course development in a new area without the necessity of holding a face-to-face workshop – or at least to organise such workshops regionally.
To date, some 200 people have participated either in policy-level meetings or immersion training workshops. The participants of international workshops have trained others in their home countries and gone on to have notable impacts on their own educational systems (Dunlop, 2008). An important by-product of the workshops is that each participant passes on the ICT skills they have acquired to other colleagues once they get home, thus increasing substantially the pool of ICT-capable people in the ministries and institutions of each country.