Meeting development needs through online learning: the MRP (Telecommunications) experience
Kim Mallalieu, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, The University of the West Indies
The University of the West Indies (UWI)’s Master’s degree programme in telecommunications regulation and policy, the MRP (Telecommunications), (http://mrp.uwi.tt) is a multi-disciplinary Master’s degree programme developed to strengthen the capacity of national telecommunications regulators and policy makers. It has a strong developmental focus, both policy and practice, contextualized by contemporary global concerns. The programme recognizes the many dimensions of societal development, and pays particular attention to the respective impacts of policy and regulatory intervention.
The MRP is the first programme to be delivered over the Internet from UWI’s St. Augustine campus (http://sta.uwi.edu). It is also the first programme on the campus to feature online application and registration.
The MRP represents the triangulation of regional needs relating to the evolving telecommunications sector and UWI institutional priorities. In particular, its formation was motivated by (i) The UWI’s emphasis on programmes of direct regional relevance met by (ii) the regional call for Human Resource Development programmes in telecommunications regulation and policy and at the same time by (iii) The UWI’s focus on expansion of its reach through distance education.
The programme was designed and introduced in 2003 in response to the pressing needs of the telecommunications sector during the transition from monopoly to open markets. Recognizing the evolving nature of the telecommunications sector and of its human resource needs, the MRP has been designed to run for a finite number of cohorts. The first MRP cohort is due to graduate in November 2006. The final cohort, Cohort 3, will graduate in 2008. A self-evaluation and needs assessment, to be conducted by the first quarter of 2007, will inform how best The University can continue to meet the evolving needs of the sector.
The MRP has motivated the re-thinking and re-design of many UWI policies and processes. Its programme planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation along with its policies and practices have been designed and documented on the programme’s Quality Assurance website as a template for the development of similar programmes on modest budgets.
PROGRAMME STRUCTURE AND OPERATIONAL FRAMEWORK
The distance teaching coordinator, who has experience in academic matters and in distance teaching methodologies, provides guidance individually and collectively to course directors and tutors. She delivers online readiness programmes before and during each semester and communicates regularly with individual tutors as they are a key programme resource on account of their direct interaction with students.
A key focal point for academic staff support is the 9-credit MRP project which follows all course work. Project supervisors are guided through a comprehensive orientation programme followed by an ongoing support programme throughout the project execution phase.
Each member of the MRP team is committed to clarity, responsiveness, tracking and follow up actions related to his or her portfolio. The Administrative Assistant, in the frontline, provides personal guidance to new applicants as well as ongoing support for registration and other administrative matters including fees. She interfaces with university services and staff to ensure that the MRP maintains a tight schedule. A number of practices have been introduced to ensure that the programme’s administration runs smoothly with rapid response. The Administrative Assistant’s persistent and comprehensive follow-up are key to the success of these practices.
Fundamental to MRP learner support is the establishment of personal relationships between students and the programme’s various single points of contact. The programme places a great deal of emphasis on communication. Interaction between students and staff, as well as amongst the student body, is key to MRP learner support. The regular form of programme communications is via e-mail and postings to course websites, with a nominal commitment from academic staff to respond within two days and from other programme staff within one day. Staff and students communicate by phone as the need arises. Many students attend the annual three-day face to face seminars, which are very useful in establishing personal relationships and building the MRP community.
General academic and pastoral support for learners are provided by the distance learning coordinator whose academic and professional background are in education and counselling. Before courses start, she introduces herself to students and provides guidance on the Student Manual and Online Orientation Course. During the semester, she monitors student performance weekly, providing individual follow-up, and issues regular reminders on course and programme related matters. She also provides personal counselling. Together with the programme coordinator, editor and librarian, she provides comprehensive scheduled programmes of support for students leading up to and during the execution of their projects. The progress of all project students is closely tracked and regular individual as well as group support and guidance provided.
Course directors and tutors are sensitive to the challenges of distance learners and therefore make a special effort to personalize their communications, such as opening their courses with welcome messages. Tutors provide feedback and guidance on content issues through the semester while the editor provides ongoing support with respect to academic integrity, citations and references. The librarian provides support on issues relating to research, e-resources and document style and the MRP Web engineer / systems administrator provides direct support to learners on all technical matters and passes their assignment submissions through the programme’s electronic plagiarism checker, Turnitin.
Course websites provide a variety of facilities and resources for content, interaction and academic guidance. Materials have been designed to encourage students to build and access these resources through independent research as well as through networking within and external to the programme community. Course expectations are comprehensively articulated in the introduction to courses, and rubrics for each type of assignment as well as samples of assessed student work reinforce expectations.
The preparation of online MRP course materials follows a structured, iterative process led by the programme’s multi-disciplinary/gender/racial/national course development teams. The steps, key staff and staff competencies are illustrated in Table 1.
Table 1: Course Development Process and Team Competencies
All online courses are delivered through the course management system, WebCT, and all course websites feature access to the programme’s electronic reserves (“e-reserves”). The MRP e-reserves comprise a collection of electronic books, journals, databases and a rich selection of other documents which provide primary as well as secondary support for MRP courses and the final project. Printable pdf documents are also used in all courses to accommodate MRP students who are primarily mature professionals with busy work and travel schedules. Offline, asynchronous access to course materials suits these students well.
Various online engagement methods have been used to cater to the diversity in course content and objectives as well as of skills, experience levels, learning styles and technology wherewithal of MRP students. For example the course materials for RPTL6801, Contemporary Telecommunications Networks and Technologies, include a rich portfolio of animations and interactive Web resources which facilitate individual visualization and hands-on exploration of technical concepts. RPTL6812, Online Seminar, on the other hand, emphasizes the building of an online community and therefore incorporates communication tools and strategies that encourage interactivity and personal expression. These tools have included discussion boards, wikis, blogs, and audio recorded lectures, as well as assessed discussion contributions, e-folios and e-presentations.
Table 2 summarizes the technologies and tools common to all courses and those used for two example courses, RPTL6801 and RPTL6812. The table identifies the purpose for which each technology is used and provides the considerations for each choice. It also provides a sense of how effective each particular technology or tool has proven for its purpose on the St. Augustine campus. The MRP Web engineer manages the primary and backup websites with the assistance of the programme’s network engineer. This technical team has developed the Web utilities to support online application and registration along with other electronic productivity tools including an e-resources database application and a Web-based system for tracking the progress of project students. They have also developed electronic claim forms, electronic grade slips, data security and backup systems as well as emergency cross-over systems which are activated in response to infrastructure failure.
The MRP Technical Handbook documents all electronic policies and practices
as well as the roles and responsibilities of the programme’s technical
Table 2: Technologies Used in Course Delivery and their Rationale
The MRP QA site provides a snapshot of the entire programme that could serve as a very valuable resource for new programmes.
SUCCESSES AND SHORTCOMINGS
These diversities have led to the establishment of a formidable international community of practice in which informal learning reinforces formal learning.
In its short life, the MRP has had some significant successes. It enjoys an 89% retention rate over two cohorts, with its learner support highly rated by students. MRP final projects relate directly to practical sector needs and therefore feed into the development process in the represented jurisdictions. The programme has received positive multi-stakeholder feedback and is recognised by leading sector agencies (International Telecommunication Union, Caribbean Telecommunications Union, Caricom Secretariat and Caribbean Association of National Telecommunications Organizations) which feature it on their websites.
The programme’s key shortcomings relate to its limited ability to sustain student participation in online discussions and to its variations in the richness of feedback from tutors and course directors. Work continues in exploring and developing ways of overcoming these difficulties.
Although originally developed for Caribbean professionals, the MRP has attracted a global audience. It has been able to reach its student body, which comprises professionals of influence in national and global developmental agendas, because of its asynchronous, online mode of delivery. Online delivery has enabled the participation of these working professionals in a way that would otherwise be impossible.
The programme uses a mix of traditional and contemporary media to accommodate
the realities of developing country professionals who are committed to lifelong
learning. It targets these societal change agents and offers a model for the
design and delivery of suitable distance education programmes that can be delivered
within institutions which lack the requisite institutional framework.