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Jennifer Evans

Hard digital realities: Teaching with technology in the Pacific Islands

Jennifer Evans
Distance and Flexible Learning Support Centre, University of the South Pacific

Valentine Hazelman

In the South Pacific, where small island populations are scattered over vast areas of the world’s largest ocean, communications of all kinds remain problematic even in the 21st century. The University of the South Pacific operates and owns its own satellite network, USPNet, which attempts to provide Internet, phone and data links, video and audio conferencing, and video broadcasting to students and staff in its 12 member countries. Even with this capacity, teaching with technology is no easy fix to the many challenges of delivering quality distance education in such a context.

This paper focuses on the particular challenge of teaching Computer Science at a distance. Teaching technology with technology appears to be an obvious answer to dealing with a rapidly changing subject area requiring hands-on student experience. When the Internet became available in USP’s many small campuses its interactive potential looked set to solve many previous difficulties. The hard reality is that getting the technology to work effectively is only one part of the puzzle, and that many other factors, including pedagogy, communication, management, and administration, need to be addressed and coordinated to achieve success.

Author names - Title of article

Where in the world is USP?

The University of the South Pacific (USP) has a unique and complex composition as a university owned by 12 different countries (Cook Is., Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Is., Nauru, Niue, Solomon Is., Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Samoa). Its member countries are small island states, the smallest being Tokelau with a population of about 1000 and the largest Fiji with a population of approximately 800,000. Socio-economic bases and resources vary from country to country but all are challenged by development issues such as poverty, good governance, environmental degradation, gender equality and unsatisfactory health status. Cultures are diverse and encompass 180 languages. Populations are widely dispersed over millions of kilometres of ocean. Telecommunications development and provision is inconsistent and often expensive. The migration brain drain effects regional capacity building. Providing quality, cost-effective open and distance learning in this context is indeed a huge challenge, but is the only possible answer for broad educational provision.


Distance Education and USPNet

USP began in 1969. Two years later it began to offer distance courses in addition to its on campus program delivery. From an original 6 courses and 150 students in 1971, USP's distance and flexible learning (DFL) operations have grown steadily over the years. In 2006, 340 of USP's total 763 courses are available by DFL. Total enrolments for DFL students at USP in 2005 were around 9,000 representing nearly half of all USP students. T here is an institutional goal to provide all of USP's main programs by DFL by 2010. Fiji houses USP's main campus in Suva and an additional two campuses in the west and north. There are another 11 campuses, one in each of the member countries and a number of smaller centres where there is student demand.

Distance education courses at USP in the 1970s were offered through print materials and supported by audio teleconferencing (via an old satellite donated by NASA). At the time this was a pioneering educational application of technology (Evans, 2002, p.454). Current DFL courses use a range of media including print materials, online learning management systems, video broadcasting, audio/audiographic and video teleconferencing, audio/video tapes, CDROMs and DVDs. Print materials are still important and used widely as the most robust form of delivery in a region where technology access remains limited and unreliable, especially outside major urban centres.

The provision of DFL is supported by educational technology and communications through USPNet, a telecommunications system owned and operated by the University. It has grown and developed over the years, largely with aid assistance from Australia, New Zealand and Japan. The system was enhanced substantially in 2000 and again this year (2006), moving to a new satellite providing a greater bandwidth and an IP base for all communications. Each campus has teleconferencing facilities, computer and Internet access and telephony.


Information imperatives and regional needs

In an information age where we talk of knowledge economies, digital divide and information poverty, for USP to offer education and training in ICT to meet the needs of all its member countries is an imperative in terms of the University's mission to the region. The teaching of Computer Science is an important part of this response to development needs and enabling participation in the modern globalizing world. Strong regional student demand for Computer Science courses led the USP Computer Science Department to start offering some of their courses by distance. The first of these was an introductory course, CS121: Information Systems I in 1993, “…the course was adapted from an externally purchased programme comprising videos, textbook, study plan and floppy discs” (Ravaga et al., 2001). It was quickly discovered that despite USP's lengthy institutional experience in delivering distance education and relatively substantial technological resources and skills in terms of the regional context, there were enormous hurdles to effectively teaching Computer Science at a distance.


Early difficulties

Some of the problems encountered in the offer of CS121 in the 1990s were highlighted by Ravaga et al. (2001, pp.100-01):

“Computer software/hardware was difficult to obtain and maintain”.

The price of software and hardware in the early 90s was high compared to current prices and could appear quite prohibitive in the light of local resources and economic circumstances. There was no quick fix Internet download because there was no Internet connection in most of USP's member countries. There was a severe lack of technical expertise in such a new area. Even the climate posed problems as floppy discs grew mould and computers deteriorated rapidly in the hot, damp tropical environment, and USP campuses did not have the luxury of air-conditioning. Even paper manuals were constantly disappearing, perhaps because they were expensive and sought after items.

“Enrolments had to be limited due to computer access”.

Due to the expense it was difficult to provide enough computers. Even on USP's main campus students had very limited access to computers and the level of personal ownership was negligible.

“Local tutors for student support were necessary but hard to find”.

Knowledge in this area was so new and so valuable that finding qualified tutors to teach in the campuses in the region was extremely difficult.

“Assessment was an issue in what was essentially a skills-based course”.

Lecturers argued about what should be assessed and how with such limited resources. Testing practical components of the course was difficult given the inadequate number of computers and lack of local tutors. A pragmatic but not very satisfactory solution was to split theory and skills testing so for most continuous assessment students wrote essays about computer basics and were only tested for practical skills in the final exam.

“The development ‘life' of the course was a problem”.

Course development at USP followed a standard five year life cycle. Once a course was developed its materials were expected to be used for four to five offers. With Computer Science the field of knowledge was changing so fast that there was a constant need for revision. Rapid upgrades to computer software and hardware were required for the course to remain relevant. Print course materials were sometimes out-dated before the course had begun to run and there were constant scrambles to try to update materials, software and hardware.


Success against the odds

As outlined, the challenges of teaching Computer Science at a distance were many, making it appear to be more difficult to deliver to USP's regional students than many other subjects. One early CS121 course coordinator made a firm recommendation to withdraw the course on the grounds that “computing studies could not be taught at a distance” (Ravaga et al., 2001, p.101). Other staff were less daunted and determined to find ways to continue. In addition enrolment numbers continued to rise with each offer and continued student demand. In 1996 there were 59 enrolments in CS121. By 1999 there were 201 enrolments and a pass rate above 70%. It seemed like the course was succeeding against all odds.

CS121 continued as a package of print and other media, but the difficulties of supporting and servicing the course escalated as enrollments increased. Some common frustrations continued to be the rapid obsolescence of text books, floppy discs failing to function because of mould and viruses or not arriving at all because they were lost in the mail, and hardcopy of assignments not reaching markers in time because of the distances and the many hands they had to pass through. By 2002 yet another version of the textbook had become obsolete and the accompanying USP produced print materials (Introduction and Assignment Book, Course Book and Lab Manual) were in a poor state as band aid measures like textbook amendments and errata sheets had been added with each offer.

High turnover of staff in the Computer Science department had always been a concern, but the aftermath of the 2000 coup saw an exodus of significant numbers of both expatriate and regional academic staff throughout the University for the next few years (Hunter & Austin, 2004). At the same time USP saw a strong expansion in student numbers and demand for distance learning overall. External Equivalent Full-Time Student Units (EFTSU) rose from 2366 in 1999 to 4092 in 2003 (USP Planning & Development Office, 2004). Staff shortages in Computer Science were severe and those who remained had heavy teaching loads and administrative responsibilities. This resulted in CS121 not being thoroughly revised until 2004.


Changes and developments

Between 2000 and 2004 there were some interesting changes at USP, both in the provision of educational technology and the design and development of other distance Computer Science courses in addition to CS121.

When Ravaga et al. (2001) wrote their reflective paper in 2000 they held out modest hopes that the USPNet upgrade that would finally bring Internet connections to all 12 USP member countries would open “a whole new world of technological potential” (p.105) that would enhance USP distance teaching in general as well as Computer Science. However, the beginning of online learning and other communication technologies was far from the end of constraints and challenges.


Responding to crisis

The USPNet upgrade in 2000 did improve communications between and within campuses and gave USP the opportunity to explore other ways of delivering courses. One result of this was the video broadcast (VBC) mode of course delivery in which lectures conducted on the Suva campus in Fiji were broadcast live via the USPNet to the regional campuses and were supported by a mixture of other communications and media including recorded videotapes, video and audio conferencing, email and print materials. While the self evident goal of using USPNet technologies to reach distance students in the region was admirable and appropriate, the way in which VBCs began left much to be desired as it “was precipitated and accelerated by a political crisis outside of the control of the University, rather than by deliberate planning”, i.e. the political coup in May 2000 (Gold & Tuimaleali'ifano, 2002, p.442). This resulted in eight of the USP member countries withdrawing students to their home countries for security reasons. USP was immediately faced with the problem of how to reach these students and the VBC mode was born. Research into the Semester 2, 2000, delivery of courses concluded that:

pressure to deliver courses, lack of time to plan them, lack of coordination both within the main campus and with the Centres and lack of know-how about the technology had a negative impact on USP's attempt to accommodate its full-time students in their remote locations using multimedia means. (Gold & Tuimaleali'ifano, 2002, p.442).

Despite this shaky start the VBC mode continued as a means to offer a limited number of courses to distance students. Lecturers liked the idea of being able to lecture and to include distance students along with their on campus students without the lengthy and difficult process of producing distance print materials. There was also the added attraction of being able to experiment with online learning when a Learning Management System (WebCT) was introduced and offered as additional support in 2001.

The Computer Science department took advantage of the VBC mode in a bid to quickly make more of their courses available to external students. In 2003 they began offering CS111: Introduction to Computing Science, CS112: Data Structures and Algorithms and CS122: Information Systems II. Unfortunately the VBC mode proved to be no easy fix for the delivery of Computer Science distance education. There were technical difficulties in the broadcast system that led to poor picture quality and transmission, delayed reception, faults in satellite equipment, power failure and environmental factors amongst others.


A new mode: blended eLearning

Another development that affected Computer Science course development was the beginning of the ICT Capacity Building project between USP and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in 2002. CS222 Database Management Systems was chosen and developed as the first of proposed model blended eLearning courses at USP. This eLearning mode was then applied to the 2004 revision of CS121 Information Systems I and CS122 Information Systems II, previously offered in VBC mode.

So what does the eLearning mode consist of? The differences in course components for CS121 are as follows:


Print package mode

eLearning mode

Introduction & Assignments Book (USP)

Course Book (USP)

Course Guide (USP)

Textbook (Commercial Publisher)

Textbook (Commercial Publisher)

Lab Manual (USP)

Lab Manual (Commercial Publisher)

5 Diskettes (USP)

Learning Management System (WebCT ePack – USP/Commercial publisher)

The components marked as being USP publications are produced by a design and development team consisting of both Distance and Flexible Learning Support Centre staff and Computer Science teaching faculty. Components from a commercial publisher are simply purchased and sold to students. The WebCT ePacks are commercial publisher created digital content that is ready to use in WebCT, but which is fully customiseable.


Like CS222 before it, CS121 is more appropriate and flexible in the eLearning mode because:

  • fewer course components require revision by USP staff – just the Course Guide and WebCT course site, which is more manageable given staffing and resources;
  • the course can have a shorter shelf life and be revised for every offer, enhancing quality and keeping it in line with the on campus student experience;
  • the textbook and lab manual package include a WebCT ePack, which can be implemented quickly and revised up until the last moment - so suitable for the rapidly changing content related to new technologies;
  • course assignments can be submitted online – eliminating the trauma and delays of submitting through unreliable snail mail systems;
  • lecturers, tutors and students can communicate with each other with greater ease and speed (through announcements, email, discussion boards, chat rooms, etc) – opening the potential for more interactivity and student-centered participation and collaboration.

While these all appear to be obvious pluses in moving to this kind of design and delivery option, they present some challenges in terms of changing mindsets both in terms of pedagogy and the use of new technology. There is a need to realize the potential of online environments to close the distances in distance education, but this requires effort and reorientation for both teacher and student. Moving to a dominantly digital learning environment is not an easy move to make, and requires extensive support, planning and coordination.


Continuing challenges

In the use of technology and the teaching of Computer Science at a distance, some of the early challenges still exist but with new twists.

Hardware is relatively cheaper now than in the 1990s so campuses do not have so much difficulty acquiring computers, although there are still issues with upgrading and updating equipment. However, more computers have led to the issue of space shortages in regional campuses. While software is easier to obtain it continues to be an issue. As USP has expanded, institutional licenses for software can be expensive. Student computer labs, even on the main Suva campus, are still running MS Office 2000. This means Computer Science courses at USP have to use and teach MS Office 2000 rather than more recent versions because of high licensing costs. This has led to the introduction of open source solutions such as Open Office into the curriculum, but there are still issues of appropriateness and real world relevance especially for students who are not Computer Science majors.

There are still issues in relation to enrolments and access Computer science courses are necessarily limited to students who have access to a USP campus or a computer with an Internet connection. Personal ownership of computers remains very low so reaching more remote and isolated students is difficult, which continues to raise concerns about equity.

Local tutors for the larger campuses have been relatively easy to find, but for the smaller campuses there are still difficulties. Maintaining the services of tutors can be problematic because of the temporary and part-time nature of the employment offered to them and other USP sections competing for their services. An added complication is that due to cost issues, campuses need to have five or more students enrolled in order to ensure a tutor for the course. A local tutor is a requirement for the course to run as hands-on experience (lab work) is not something picked up and learnt by just reading. If the five student enrolment target is not reached at a campus, students are advised to take other courses, or occasionally allowed to study without a tutor.

With larger student numbers issues of management and administration have become harder to deal with in terms of technology and student support. Some of the newer challenges include:

  • Internet access and speed is still relatively slow in some of the campuses which requires students to be very patient when accessing WebCT and engaging in online activities such as using discussion boards, attempting online quizzes and downloading files.
  • While there are more computers than before in all campuses there are now issues with access in terms of the total number of students wishing to use computer labs as more courses from other subjects start making use of the online environment. In some campuses there are difficulties in keeping computer labs open and supervised for students who can only attend outside of normal working hours.
  • Communication between the main campus and other campuses is not always sufficiently coordinated. Campuses hire their tutors based on criteria set by the Computer Science department. The main campus coordinator has to approve the tutor for the respective campuses. Very often the coordinator is not informed of the tutor until late into the semester which delays the processing of assignments and lab work.
  • The central student management system (Banner) can take some time to update on the main campus when enrolments are processed from other campuses. In turn this slows down the process of uploading students to the WebCT database.
  • Maintenance of equipment, technical support staff and even electricity supply can be hard to provide consistently and adequately, and so constrains efficient operations.



Although the word “challenge” appears very frequently in this paper, and the barriers to using technology to effectively offer quality distance education in Computer Science and other subject areas appear quite formidable, USP is making steady progress. While acknowledging that the complexities and constraints involved in enabling effective e-learning are being grappled with globally in both developed and developing countries, the general development of ICT in the Pacific provides a context in which “the diverse characteristics of the islands themselves compound the challenges” (Williams, 2005).

While some countries have support and leadership from their governments others face the limitations of telecommunication monopolies, a severe lack of infrastructure and resources, and real resistance to “the rapid development and use of ICT” as being elitist, divisive and undesirable (Williams, 2005). This is quite apart from the very practical challenge of how to provide cost effective services for small countries and populations, widely dispersed over vast oceanic spaces. Saying that ICT is a bridge too far and that other kinds of development must come first is neither a solution nor a constructive answer. The Deputy Vice Chancellor of USP has justifiably pointed out:

The Pacific Islands simply cannot sit back and wait but must find ways to catch up. Or they will risk being left even further behind, perhaps by a minimum of 50 years, with their people perpetually ICT-illiterate and their economy restrained by a Third Word straitjacket. (Williams, 2005)

The education being provided through USP to the communities of its member countries, particularly in the area of Computer Science, is part of a solution that addresses this problem. In 2006 four Computer Science courses are being offered through distance and flexible learning. These courses are:

CS121: Information Systems I

CS122: Information Systems II

CS222: Database Management Systems

CS224: Advanced Database Systems

CS111: Introduction to Computing Science and CS112: Data Structures and Algorithms are under revision and an additional six other new courses are in development for offer in 2007. Enrolments in Computer Science courses in distance and blended elearning mode in 2006 were more than two and a half thousand. This is a substantial achievement.

Over the past few years USP has seen a proliferation of other open and flexible learning options in Computer Science and ITC education develop, including pre-degree level courses, CSF12 Foundation Computer Science and CSF21 Computer Literacy. USP's Continuing and Community Education section offer popular basic computing short courses in most USP campuses throughout the region. USP central IT Services also offers short technical training courses to the University community and the general public.

As technology advances and more affordable and accessible options become possible we can expect both USPNet provision to improve and the ability to take education to more remote students to increase. USP's collaboration with People First's Distance Learning Centres Project in the Solomon Islands will help deliver USP's educational services, utilizing solar power and a VSAT network bringing broadband Internet to rural communities. This type of initiative is an example of possibilities and innovations to come (Leeming, 2006; )

The provision of all these educational opportunities is helping to enable the peoples of the USP region to share in the benefits of new information and communication technologies. It is building a skilled workforce who will be able to engage in this significant economic sector, and an informed body of people who will have the capacity to participate in “developing the global partnership for development” envisaged in the Millennium Development Goals (COL, 2006) in which technology and education have such a vital part to play.



COL (2006) “Learning and Living with Technology: The Commonwealth of Learning and the Millennium Development Goals”

Evans, J. (2002) “Learning from our experiences? Audio and audiographic tutorials at the University of the South Pacific” in Rust, C. (ed.) Improving Student Learning 9: Improving Student Learning Using Learning Technology , OCSLD, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, pp.453-462.

Gold, M., & Tuimaleali'ifano, E. (2002) “Jumping right in: a report on the University of the South Pacific Semester 2, 2000 video broadcast experience” in Rust, C. (ed.) Improving Student Learning 9: Improving Student Learning Using Learning Technology , OCSLD, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, pp.433-452.

Hunter, C. & Austin, L. (2004), “Supporting Lecturers in their move towards a new learning environment”, Third Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning , Dunedin, New Zealand, July,

Leeming, D. (2006) “Delivering USP services including teacher training via Distance Learning Centres based in rural community schools, Solomon Islands”, Briefing Paper, DLCP, Education Sector Investment and Reform Programme, Ministry of Education and Human Resource, Honiara, July.

Ravaga, V., Evans, J., Faasalaina, T., & Osborne, J. (2001), “From Mouldy Discs to Online Fix” in Murphy, D., Walker, R. & Webb, G. (eds.) (2001) Online Learning And Teaching With Technology: Case Studies, Experience And Practice , Kogan Page, London, pp.99-106.

USP Planning & Development Office (2004) USP Statistics 2004 , USP, Suva.

Williams, E. B. (2005), “Pacific Island States” in Digital Review of Asia Pacific 2005-2006 ,

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