Collaboration in Distance Education in the Caribbean:
Potential and Possibilities
1. Classification of Term
The term „distance education‟ is often used loosely as opposite to „traditional‟ or „conventional‟ forms of education. Greville Rumble? argues that if distance education is
the opposite of something, that something is contiguous education (in the sense of being adjacent to, in close proximity to, or in actual contact ) where the contact or proximity is between teacher and his/her students.
The definition of distance education most widely accepted is that given by Keegan?. He defines distance education as a form of education characterised by:
; Quasi-permanent separation of teacher and learner throughout the length of the
; Influence of an educational organization both in planning and preparation of
learning materials, and in the provision of student support services (NB: The last
which separates distance education from teach-yourself programmes and
; Use of technical media to unite teacher and learner and carry the content of the
; Provision of two-way communication so that students may benefit from, or even
; Quasi-permanent absence of the learning group throughout the length of the
learning process so that peoples are usually taught as individuals and not as
groups (however, note, occasional meetings permitted for both didactic and
More recently, the term „open learning‟, has come to be used with „distance learning‟, on the grounds that distance education can be regarded as an open system because it frees the student from the need to study in a set place at a set time. However we should note that there is a clear distinction between open learning and distance education; the former
emphasizing the objectives and character of the educational process; the latter is the means by which education is achieved.
In a truly open learning system, there is no restriction on who learns, how they learn,
what they learn, where they learn and when they learn. Open learning is not confined to
distance education but distance education finds it full potential when it involves open learning features.
In this talk, when I use the term distance education I am using it to encompass open learning.
2. Potential for Distance Education in the Caribbean
2.1 Increasing access (while promoting equity)
Most people tend instinctively to think of distance education as a means of expanding access, and very often see it as an inexpensive option to achieve this end. But while in the region, increasing access to education is a relatively untapped potential of distance education, we need in examining this potential to set it in a proper framework.
Thus I have qualified „increasing access‟ with the words „while promoting equity‟. It
goes without saying that as we expand enrolment (and this is not peculiar to distance education) the more heterogeneous will be the student body (there will be differences in age, in mental discipline, in educational backgrounds and learning experience, in styles of learning etc). Applying the same approach to learning to this diverse audience I would regard as inequitable treatment. However in theory this should not happen in distance education where by definition it is the individual needs that are being addressed. Distance education systems that are not truly „open‟ however fail to address individual differences and invariably suffer from high student drop-out and failure rates.
In considering access we should also not delude ourselves that distance education is a cheap option. A good student support system is critical for the effective implementation
of distance education, and the cost of putting such systems in place is far from
With these qualifications, let us examine the potential of distance education as it relates
to access to educational opportunities in the region. And there are three levels involved.
(i) Higher education (defined here as anything post-secondary)
Enrolment ratios in higher education in the English-speaking Caribbean
are now on average between 12% and 15%. (only Barbados is
significantly higher). By contrast our Latin American neighbours (and we
must see this in the context of the impending Free Trade Area of the
Americas) is more like 20 – 30%. The aim for the region must be to bring
enrolment ratios to 30% within the next 5 to 10 years. It is practically
impossible to achieve this without recourse to a concerted use of distance
(ii) Secondary education
When we consider increasing access our minds invariably latch on to
higher education. But the achievement of universal secondary education
of quality must be an educational priority in the region. Here again, and
with particular reference to the issue of quality, distance education can be
an invaluable tool. In several parts of the world – India, Indonesia,
Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Southern Africa – „open schools‟ exist
not only to expand secondary access but to ensure equity of opportunity as
far as quality of education is concerned.
Print material is the primary instrument for learning in these open schools,
but radio and TV are also used. Because education systems vary so little
throughout the English-speaking Caribbean, open schooling is an area
where the potential of distance education may be more effectively
exploited through collaborative mechanisms. As an example of what may
be done one may cite the COL/CXC project aimed at producing distance
learning materials in selected subjects for the Caribbean Advance Proficiency Examination (CAPE), and to a less extent the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC)
(iii) Second chance/Upgrading education
Because of the social problems associated with out-of-school youth, there has been a good deal of rhetoric about providing second chance education for them. The rhetoric has not been matched by action, one suspects because how second chance education is to be achieved remains obscure. People are generally agreed nonetheless that distance education is a much more basic and in some instances, less expensive option for second chance education that returning to school In any event persons dropping out of school are unlikely to want to return to the environment which was probably a major reason for their dropping out in the first place.
A few years ago at a meeting of Chief Education Officers of the region where open schooling was the subject of a symposium, a project for addressing the education of out-of-school youth was developed, for piloting in Jamaica I believe. The pilot project approach is one that commends itself, as we have no idea of what will work in the Caribbean, and until then it would be imprudent to rush headlong into a multiplicity of several initiatives around the region.
(iv) Expanding geographical access
Expanding geographical access is a sub-theme of increasing access, but it is singled out for special mention in the Caribbean because of (a) the topography of most countries which makes certain parts of them remote and not easily accessible (b) the rural-urban dichotomy. The potential of distance education for expanding geographical access requires no defence, and the case has grown stronger with the technological developments that
have taken place, and are anticipated, that would facilitate the delivery of
quality education to any desired location.
2.2 Quick and efficient training of key target groups
The use of distance education for training large numbers of teachers quickly is without question the most notable example of distance education‟s use in addressing the training
needs of key target groups. But from a regional standpoint while the response has been generally quick, it can hardly qualify as being efficient. At all levels – early childhood,
primary, secondary despite the evident similarities in curricula, co-operation among countries in teacher training has been marginal. Taken overall this has meant expenditure on the development of learning materials that could only be described as profligate. [ I am told that the University of Belize has offered its teachers training material on line for other countries to use, a gesture that is encouraging even if the impact at this stage might not be significant because of the timing.] But if the full potential of distance education for training teachers in the region is to be realized, then a more systematic approach to co-operation and collaboration is called for.
A few years ago, with support from the Commonwealth of Learning, an inventory of teacher training materials in use in the region was undertaken. It remains a useful basis for rationalizing teacher training in the region. If my memory serves me well there was not a lot in the area of early childhood education. But now that this is beginning to take centre stage in all countries of the region, the training of teachers for early childhood education has to be considered a priority, and distance education the preferred mode of delivery, for reasons not only of cost but quality as well.
There are of course a number other key target groups whose training needs lend themselves to a distance education approach. These are the nurses, public health officials, school administrations, extension officers, adult educators, to cite the most obvious.
2.3 Continuing Professional Education
Continuing Professional Education has assumed prominence worldwide, ever since the relevant decision-makers in education and at the workplace have accepted the fact that the rate of knowledge change has outstripped the capacity of any educational programme, of a fixed duration, to provide learners with information and knowledge that is current in all dimensions. Continuing Professional Education is yet to have its roots so firmly entrenched in the Caribbean that it is seen as an activity to be planned and implemented in a systematic manner. But public pressure is going to change this from two perspectives. As has happened elsewhere, Caribbean society is going to demand some kind of assurance about the ability of professionals to use professional knowledge in ways that accomplish desirable ends and have a positive impact on society. Secondly, intelligent lay persons can now through the world wide web access the most up-to-date information in any given subject area. Thus they can exercise a form of quality control on professional practice. Thirdly, under pressure from stakeholders and consumer groups, the licensing of professionals with periodic review stands a good chance of coming into being.
The potential of Distance Education for Continuing Professional Education in the Caribbean is enormous, especially employing on-line teaching. What is more, at this level there is likely to be less of a problem over linguistic barriers, so that shared responsibilities among countries leading to greater efficiencies is a feasible modus operandi.
3. Collaboration in Distance Education in the Caribbean: Possibilities
The first part of this lecture was more or less an attempt to set the agenda for collaboration in distance education in the region, and this was done by singling out those areas where the potential of distance education to make an impact seemed most promising. Now it is time to see what possibilities for collaboration exist.
3.1 Materials Acquisition and Development
At first sight this would seem to be a fairly obvious candidate for collaboration. Materials development is expensive, and if there is an activity of common interest with
common features e.g. teacher education, why not spread the cost around? Logical as this may seem, collaboration in the development of materials is not as simple as it seems. Co-operation in materials acquisition and development was one of the foremost mandates in the terms of reference of the Commonwealth of Learning, but it also proved to be one of the most intractable to implement. In a variation of the adage “too many cooks spoil the
broth”, one could argue that there were too many cooks to rely on for the ingredients of the soup. Thus one cook could hold the chef to ransom, or more frequently become lukewarm about his task and drag it out interminably. However, one should note that the Commonwealth of Learning was operating in a Commonwealth context, and
commonwealth co-operation in practice is considerably more complicated than regional co-operation.
It is interesting to note that in 1993 a report by McFarlane entitled “Teaching and
Learning in an Expanding Higher Education System” advocated for the United Kingdom the collaborative development and sharing of resources and materials, using the new technology in particular. McFarlane argued the case for a national strategy. In the first place a national network of discipline-based centres would be developed for the production of high quality shareable learning resources. Staff in the centres would receive training in materials development. Consortia and teams would be the main mode for production. Is a variation on this theme a possible mode of collaboration in distance education in the Caribbean? It is at least worth a try.
One could perhaps argue that we have already experimented in effect with the sharing of learning resources in the European Union supported project in which seven (7) graduate programmes have been offered at a distance using internet technology by UWI and three Universities in the Spanish speaking Dominican Republic. The programmes were designed to produce a new set of regional professionals in International business; Agricultural Diversification; Natural Resources Management; Economic Development; Public Sector Management; and Architecture. I cannot say where the project is at now, whether it has been evaluated or not and with what outcome. But the idea is to be
commended and could be pursued as a point of departure for collaboration in distance education in the region.
However, you will note that I did not confine myself to materials development, but included the oft neglected materials acquisition. There are various ways of acquiring materials and collaboration is possible in each case. The copyright may be purchased; or the materials may be leased; or , even more common, the materials may be part of a package of programme delivery to a country by a foreign institution. However if the institution is delivering a programme to one country, there is no difficulty in extending delivery to other countries. Thus the Masters in Distance Education offered by Indira Ghandi National Open University was delivered by distance to students in several Caribbean countries during 1996-98, and the programme is currently being repeated. Also in the Canada Caribbean Distance Education Scholarship Programme, a pilot project which was successfully implemented between 1998 and 2001, Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines benefited from a secondary teachers‟ postgraduate diploma offered by distance by Memorial University of Newfoundland; and students from both St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines completed a degree in Tourism and Hospitality Management delivered by distance by Mount Saint Vincent University.
Despite these examples one still hears of countries contracting on their own overseas institutions to deliver particular programmes, when a little consultation with neighbours might have resulted in the programmes being delivered to several countries with the concomitant reduction in cost to an individual country.
If we could only rid ourselves of the „not-made-here‟ syndrome, and from my experience
at the Commonwealth of Learning I should tell you that this is not an affliction that is peculiar to the Caribbean, then materials acquisition offers not only a wonderful opportunity for collaboration but also for accelerating the pace of development of distance education in the region.
3.2 Staff Development
Staff development is also another area where collaboration could be an effective instrument. But there has to be a systematic approach to it in terms of needs and priorities, and a skills register should be an attendant activity. In the early years of the Commonwealth of Learning between 1989-94, several persons in the region were trained in different aspects of distance education, including serving as tutors, writing materials, and using teleconferencing as an instruction media. Between 1996 and 1998 as I have already mentioned, several persons gained their Masters in Distance Education from Indira Ghandi National Open University. Recently Mico in association with one of the University‟s in Florida graduated eight (8) persons with a Doctorate in educational technology. Several individuals on their own have pursued or are pursuing programmes of study in distance education.
We are woefully ignorant of our human resource capacity in distance education in the region, and a skills inventory in this area is urgently needed, not only to inform staff development but also to serve as the knowledge base for different aspects of collaboration in distance education.
3.3 Documentation and Sharing of Experiences
Documentation and sharing of experiences is also another fruitful area for collaboration. This inevitably suggests collaboration in research, publications and conferences. There is a critical need for empirical research in distance education in the Caribbean. The case is ably put by Badri Koul who against the background of the enormous growth of distance education worldwide has observed that: „the overall scene points to what may be called a
utilization explosion of distance education courses and distance education methodology all over the developing world, involving millions of people in various capacities; and yet the concept of distance education remains alien and its methodology primitive and static - alien in the sense that distance education in developing countries continues to depend on models developed and tested elsewhere without indigenizing them, and static in the sense that innovations are hardly ever attempted, and so the potential of distance education in difficult and diverse settings remains unexploited”
There is no better starting point for collaborative research in distance education in the Caribbean that UWIDEC: Strategic Plan which identifies five (5) main areas where work is needed:
; Needs assessment; demand and feasibility studies
; Student and staff responses to the organization of distance education, student
support systems, curriculum content and delivery.
; Comparative analyses of the impact of different methods and technologies
; Assessment and accreditation of programmes with a view to articulating
programmes across the region, and modifying programmes to suit Caribbean
; Instructional and staff development
The research agenda is a challenge to higher education institutions of the region, and
in particular their Distance Education Units and Faculties of Education. But the latter
will have to begin to see distance education as occupying the mainstream in education
and not residing at the margins.
3.4 Regional Association for Distance Education (Educators)
Regional Associations for Distance Education are both a form of and a means to collaboration in distance education. Several of the possibilities for collaboration to which I have alluded can appropriately serve as mandates for a Regional Distance Education Association. And when one looks at the purposes of such associations in different parts of the world there is an uncanny similarity of objectives. Thus in three cases most, if not all, of the following appeared:
; Promoting the practice of distance education
; Promoting the awareness of the potential of distance education to contribute to
; Fostering research in the theory and practice of distance education.
; Facilitating communication and co-operation between distance educators in the
; Encouraging the sharing of expertise
; Promotion and enhancing quality assurance