Leapfrogging Across Generations of Open and Distance Learning at Al-Quds Open University: A Case Study


Kathleen Matheos, Ph.D.
University of Manitoba
matheos@cc.umanitoba.ca

Christina Rogoza, Ed.D.
University of Manitoba
rogoza@cc.umanitoba.ca

Majid Hamayil, Ph.D.
Al-Quds Open University
mhamayil@gou.edu

Abstract

Al-Quds Open University (QOU) serves just over 40% of the undergraduate students within Palestine, who for multiple reasons are studying within the open system.  Established nearly 20 years ago, the institution is built on the Open University United Kingdom model of regional centers and print based correspondence.  In 2007, a Comprehensive Evaluation of QOU, funded by the World Bank and the European Union, resulted in recommendations that emphasized the development of teaching excellence in distance, open, and online environments (Matheos, MacDonald, McLean, Luterbach, Baidoun, & Nakashhian, 2007).  QOU administration responded with the development of a course redesign project, aimed at moving from a correspondence model to a blended learning environment that integrated technology into curricular design.  This paper shares the experiences of QOU, in its efforts to meet the conflicting demands of this situation as it leapfrogged into new forms of distance learning. This analysis of our experience may provide insight for administrators in other institutions that are at similar stages of distance delivery programming.

Introduction

The administration and delivery of higher education in Palestine is mired with challenges, foremost the associated issues of mobility, security, and difficult socio-economic conditions. Despite this harsh environment, universities and colleges have continued to operate, for the most part, delivering a range of undergraduate and graduate programs, across Palestine.  Unique to the Palestinian system is the large number of learners studying within an open university.  Currently, over 40% of the undergraduate students within the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem are served by Al-Quds Open University (QOU).  QOU is the only institution within Palestinian Higher Education Statutes that provides distance education courses and programs in Palestine. It currently serves 53,000 students and for the majority of these constituents provides their sole opportunity for higher education.

QOU programming is based on a traditional correspondence model augmented with face-to-face tutorials.  Although this appeared to be functional and continued to attract students, a comprehensive evaluation of QOU, funded by the World Bank and the European Union, resulted in a series of recommendations, paramount being the development of the scholarship of teaching within distance, open, and online environments.

QOU was positioned to respond to the recommendations.  The use of technology and an available infrastructure in QOU made it possible to consider the reconstruction of distance learning offerings to integrate online learning into curriculum design.  In 2008, QOU initiated a course redesign project, aimed at moving from a correspondence model to a blended learning environment. This move posed both challenges and opportunities. This paper shares the experiences of QOU and may provide useful guidelines for other institutions that are at a similar stage in transforming their distance delivery programs.

Background

Founded in 1991, QOU is the only institution within Palestinian Higher Education Statutes that provides distance education courses and programs in Palestine.  It is a solely undergraduate institution offering five programs: Technology and Applied Sciences, Agriculture, Social and Family Development, Administrative and Economic Sciences, and Education.  Similar to distance and open education institutions throughout the world, QOU has undergone exponential growth.  In 2000, QOU had just under 25,000 students, whereas in 2007 it served 50,000 learners. As an open university, its central goal was accessibility, providing an opportunity to mature learners to achieve a higher education credential.  Although QOU does serve mature students who could access a traditional system, the challenges of mobility, security, and a deteriorating economy resulted in an increasing number of students graduating from high school opting for open education.  Study was flexible allowing learning while earning, fees were slightly lower than the traditional system, and it was possible to study close to home reducing both the cost and difficulty of travel.

QOU was built on the Open University United Kingdom (OUUK) model structurally comprised of Regional Centers that served as the face of the university in the community.  As the only Palestinian University using solely Arabic as a medium of instruction, the university developed its own teaching materials consisting of self-directed learning textbooks for each subject area.  As technology became more available, the text materials were augmented by CDs and other multi-media resources.  Tutorial sessions were also provided on a bi-weekly basis at the Regional Centers, as were weekly practica for courses requiring a laboratory or practicum component.  Tutorial sessions were recommended but not compulsory; although there was a minimal attendance requirement in order to sit for the examination.  However, this requirement could be satisfied through attendance at the midterm, final, and at registration time, hence participation in tutorials varied greatly.  Some students revealed that they did not attend the tutorials because they did not see the value in doing so, that is, no marks were attached to their participation.  Moreover all course material on which assessment was done, was found in the self-study textbooks.  Students were neither required to explore secondary resources, nor did faculty use resources beyond the textbook in the tutorials.  Thus, it was possible for the students to complete the courses studying the textbook at home, with no interaction with the instructor or any other students.

Assessment was based on two assignments, a mid-term, and a final examination.  Students were required to submit the assignments in order to sit for the examination.  An overall grade of 50% constituted a pass in the subject area.  Teaching and learning could be considered as most akin to First Generation Distance Education (Garrison, 1985; Garrison & Archer, 2000; Archer, 2001), print-based correspondence.  Although there were bi-weekly tutorials, these were not compulsory and in the majority of subject areas with the exception of Applied Sciences and Accounting, students did not attend.

In 2006-2007, the World Bank and European Union funded a Comprehensive Evaluation of QOU as a component of a larger tertiary education initiative in Palestine.  QOU responded to the proposed recommendations with the establishment of the Open and Distance Learning Centre (ODLC) with a mission to develop and enhance excellence in distance teaching and learning across the institution.  A Director, who held a PhD in education with undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering, was appointed with a direct report to the Vice-President Academic Affairs.  The establishment of the ODLC provided the forum to revisit teaching and learning at QOU.  The ODLC Director identified the need to move to a more interactive model of course delivery and spearheaded a course redesign project for 10 QOU courses that integrated technology and online learning.

Central to the redesign project was the development of a course blueprint linking outcomes, activities (face-to-face and online), resources, and assessments (Collins, 2005).  The blueprint was a tool for designing for curricular alignment.  For most instructors, this was a new experience.  As with most large open universities, curriculum was standardized.  Course materials were prepared centrally including assignments and examinations.  Instructors’ roles were confined to teaching the prescribed curriculum and in the case of QOU, this translated into bi-weekly tutorials, office hours, and grading the assignments and examinations.

The redesign required instructors to identify resources, and develop activities and assignments to augment the textbook.  The addition of online course resources challenged the epistemology of QOU traditional distance offerings and the limitation of the use of only one resource, the course textbook.  Furthermore the online activities required students to explicitly interact with content and with each other.  Finally the provision of student marks for online activities allowed for pacing and formative feedback throughout the course.  Marks normally allocated to assignments, the midterm exam, and the final exam, were redistributed to these new activities.

Faculty had reservations about the time commitment to not only develop the courses but the instruction in the new format.  Administrators as well were concerned that students may not be receptive to the redesign.  Many students, they believed, had enrolled in the university in order to receive a credential in the traditional format.  The extra work involved to be successful in the blended learning approach and the technology demands could become an issue.  Students may withdraw from the university, and this would be become for problem for QOU which depended on tuition dollars to a great extent.  However both faculty and administration could see that technology was a major driver in transforming pedagogy in higher education.  QOU needed to move into online and blended learning to be current and credible as an open and distance learning institution.

After lengthy discussion, QOU Academic Council ratified a request to embark on a pilot project to redesign 10 QOU courses to improve student engagement and interaction.  Curriculum delivery via distance education requires focused attention to course design (Moore and Kearsley, 1996) and curricular alignment is essential to ensure quality programming.  Therefore, ODLC provided a course redesign workshop, focusing on both pedagogy and technology, and the coordination of ongoing design and technological support for academic supervisors and students throughout the redesign and delivery process.  Each course redesign included the following elements:

This initiative was a milestone in QOU’s development to build capacity in offering quality programming through the sustained use of technology in teaching. This move positioned them for leadership in demonstrating best practices in distance learning for open and distance higher education institutions.

Literature Review

The first challenge for the QOU redesign project was to define and develop a model for blended learning appropriate for an open and distance institution that had utilized print-based study with optional face-to-face tutorials for over ten years.  For the purpose of this discussion, blended learning is conceptualized as a learning environment where multimodal approaches to instruction utilize face-to-face and online technologies.  The benefit of a using a variety of modalities is that it appeals to different learning styles with the online components allowing for ease of access. Building on the definition presented by (Garrison, 2003; Garrison and Vaughan, 2007), blended learning at QOU was defined as the thoughtful fusion of oral and written communication, as well as interaction and engagement with multiple resources, such as audio, video, graphics, simulations, and immersive environments.  Critical to this model is the concept that academic program and course goals and objectives drive the pedagogical approaches and technologies used.

Blended learning addresses the challenges as presented in transactional distance theory. According to this theory, the concept of distance transcends the geographical and spatial distance that separates learners from instructors.  Distance is transactional and can be mitigated through pedagogical approaches.  Moore (1993) defined transactional distance as, "a psychological and communications space to be crossed, a space of potential misunderstanding between the inputs of instructor and those of the learner" (p. 23).  Interactivity and communication have been proposed as key components to reduce transactional distance.  

Moore (1993) described three types of interaction in distance education; learner to instructor, leaner-to-learner, and learner to content interaction. In all three of these ‘spaces’, transactional distance exists. Garrison and Archer (2000) remind us that the theory of distance education is situated within the context of emerging communications technology that present enormous possibilities for addressing the issues in transactional distance. The diffusion of technologies such as learning management systems, virtual classrooms, online discussion forums, immersive environments such as Second Life, podcasting, and collaborative production platforms, such as wikis, in educational institutions has changed the paradigm of distance education from the industrial model to a postmodern approach. This era has seen the shift from independent study and correspondence delivery to a collaborative modality that connects learners to learners, learners to instructors, and learners to content. In addition, learners can now access content in a variety of ways using mobile devices, wireless technology, and Web 2.0 technologies.

For QOU, the move to blended learning involved a fundamental redesign that transformed the structure of, and approach to, teaching and learning.  Although QOU also had a well developed Information Technology and Communications Technology (ITCT) unit and a university portal, the primary use of this was for administrative purposes and email capability.  The availability of new technologies and their affordances compelled a reassessment of the design of instructional approaches.  Clearly developing and delivering such learning activities within this new environment called for administration, faculty, and students to leapfrog across a generation of distance learning modalities. 

A number of scholars studying distance education have applied a generational analogy to describe its evolution.  Perhaps the most clearly formulated of these analogies is the one first stated by Garrison in 1985, then modified and developed by Garrison and Archer (Garrison, 1985; Archer, 1999; Garrison & Archer, 2000).  This formulation describes the generations differently from most other descriptions, and builds from a base in pedagogical theory.  Rather than trying to link generational change to the appearance or disappearance of particular delivery technologies, it defines the transition point between generations as the moment of change in the primary mode of two-way communication between (among) student(s) and instructor (Matheos & Archer, 2004).  The following provides a summary of the generational evolution model.

Generation 1: Slow asynchronous

Generation 2: Synchronous

Generation 3: Fast asynchronous

New technologies have allowed for a fourth generation that enables fast synchronous communication via Internet. The students may now be geographically separated but can be connected in the same time and the same virtual space. For QOU, the move to the new blended learning approach constituted a leap from the current context of Generation 1 and 2 to Generation 4.

The shift from correspondence based delivery to a more interactive approach to learning required support from senior administration and faculty.  Why change?  The current model seemed to work well. Student numbers were growing steadily, and it was very cost effective. QOU had, despite the difficult socio-economic situation remained financially secure. Many of the administrators stated that existing policies and procedures appeared to work well, and faculty understood and met institutional expectations. The institution was in a state of comfortable equilibrium or inertia.  Weick & Quinn (1999) cite Miller (1993, 1994) stating that “inertia is often the unintended consequence of successful performance” (p. 369).  However, change would be required in response to internal and external forces and what was successful in the past may not be defined as successful in the present or the future.

The redesign proposed pedagogical changes that would enable technologically mediated interaction.  However faculty were concerned about the higher workload that would be involved with enhanced student-teacher interaction, such as formative feedback.  Surveys have shown that the most prevalent barriers as perceived by faculty for engaging in any online teaching activity were excessive workload and time requirements (Cavanaugh, 2005; Zuckweiler, Schniederjans & Ball, 2004).  Hence for QOU faculty, the reaction to the new instructional approach was cautious. In the present system, faculty workload was prescriptive; using only the textbook, conducting tutorials if there was attendance, maintaining office hours, and grading assignments and examinations. Prior to the establishment of the ODLC, there was neither a teaching centre with a mandate for promoting excellence in teaching practice, nor did students evaluate the teaching and their learning experience.

While excellent teachers could be found at QOU, as in any institution, it was not the result of any plan to build teaching capacity.  The concept of course redesign was new to the majority of faculty, and many did not see it as necessary. For administrators, it meant higher costs associated with the technology and support, and the potential for reduced student numbers if learners were not willing to move beyond the print-based model.  The hook, however for both administration (to approve the initiative) and faculty (to implement) was the integration of technology into course design.  Both faculty and administration were aware that on a global scale, higher education is currently undergoing what may be its most significant change since the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century.  The impact of the Internet has been transformational.  It has had an irrevocable influence on all aspects of higher education, from teaching and learning to research and administration (Clarke, 2004).  Faculty recognized that educational technology can provide the opportunity to enhance course quality and enable a level of technological literacy for students. Administrators realized that QOU needed to incorporate technology, and were prepared to move the initiative ahead.

Higher education and the external environment were also changing in Palestine.  Student demographics revealed that increasingly younger students were enrolling directly from high school.  Since 2004, registrarial data indicated that 50% of the annual admissions were direct entry students.  The pervasive use of cell phones and Internet use in homes and Internet cafes in Palestine indicated that these students were using technology in their daily lives to a greater degree than the previous generation.  Clearly these were signposts for change and the impetus that drove the initiative.

Methodology

This study constitutes the report of an evaluation which was conducted at QOU. The sample included five academic supervisors who were recommended by their Deans and 67 students who volunteered to be interviewed.  A qualitative approach was taken to investigate faculty and student response to participation in the course redesign project.

Procedure

The project was initiated with the redesign of 10 courses in June 2008, with courses to be offered in September 2008. The courses were selected by the Academic Program Directors from across academic program and geographic areas. Selected faculty were recommended by the Deans.  They were paid a stipend, participated in a course redesign workshop, and were provided with ongoing online instructional technology support.

In November 2008, an evaluation was conducted on five of the pilot courses. Ethics approval was granted through the University of Manitoba research office, and all procedures adhered to. The evaluation was comprised of face-to-face interviews with five academic supervisors, representing different geographical regions and courses.  A translator was involved in the interviews.  The translator was an employee of the ODLC at QOU, and was selected because of her understanding of terminology associated with open and distance learning.  She held a mid-management administrative position, and was responsible for technology support.  She was not in a position of power over either the students or the academic supervisors.  The translator was fully apprised of the need for anonymity and confidentiality and was in agreement with process.  Extensive notes were kept in both languages, which were then translated and reviewed for salient themes.  The following questions were used to guide the academic supervisor interviews:

  1. How has new technology affected your institution in the last five years within these four areas: administration, academic responsibilities, student affairs, and educational support services?
  2. What types of technology do you use and how are these used (learning management systems, email, social networking)?
  3. Are the terms “blended/online learning” and “distributed learning” terms that are widely used in your institution? If so, how are they defined locally? If not, please explain what words are used and how they are defined locally.
  4. Do you have a current plan for technology in teaching and learning?
  5. What are the conditions at the institution that facilitate the adoption of new technologies?
  6. Having spoken to the conditions that facilitate adoption, what barriers, if any, need to be addressed?
  7. How do you compare your experience in the teaching of the redesigned course with the traditional DE courses? Do you believe you “taught better” in this new environment?
  8. How do you envision your institution in the next five years?

An important consideration for the success and improvement of the redesign project was to explore student reception to the changes.  Student attitudes were investigated with respect to the use of technology and the pedagogical move to blended learning.  Five focus groups with students in each of the five courses were conducted.

During the focus group with students, the instructor was requested to leave the room in order to ensure confidentiality.  As student participation in the focus group was voluntary, numbers varied between sessions with a total of 67 participants for all sessions. The same translator was used as was for the academic supervisor interviews. Questions were asked in English and translated as required, with responses provided again in English or Arabic depending on the English capacity of the respondents. Extensive notes were kept in both languages, which were then translated and reviewed for salient themes. The following questions were used to guide the student interviews:

  1. How has new technology affected you in the last two years?
  2. What types of technology do you use for learning and for personal use? (Probe: do you think your personal use is surpassing your use in learning?)
  3. Where do you usually access technology?
  4. Do your professors use technology? What types? Is their choice and use effective?
  5. Does your institution facilitate the use of technology for learning? Explain your answer.
  6. What could be improved at your institution regarding the integration of technology?
  7. How do the blended learning courses compare with the traditional DE models at your institution? (Probe: learning, access, assessment).  Was blended learning a positive experience for you?
  8. What recommendation would you make for your institution for the next two years around the use of technology?
  9. Do you have any questions?
Limitations

There were two limitations inherent in the methodology, (1) faculty involved in the redesign were selected by their respective Deans, but had the right of refusal, and (2) students registered in the redesigned courses by choice.  As a result the group of faculty and students may not have been representative of the institution, but rather were the early adopters and innovators.

Summary of Findings

Academic Supervisor Responses

Responses were themed in the following categories, (1) personal use of technology (2) institutional use of technology, (3) use of technology in teaching practice, (4) barriers to use of technology, (5) experience in teaching in the new format, (6) future recommendations.

Personal use of technology
Institutional use of technology and future use
Use of technology in teaching practice
Barriers to use of technology
Experience in teaching in the new format 
Future Recommendations
Student Responses

Responses were themed in the following categories, (1) personal use of technology, (2) educational use of technology, (3) barriers to use of technology, (4) learning experience in the new format, (5) future recommendations.

Personal use of technology
Educational use of technology
Barriers to use of technology
Learning experience in the new format
Future Recommendations

Discussion and Conclusion

Clearly academic supervisors and students found blended learning a positive teaching and learning experience, and believed that it was both a timely and necessary agenda for QOU.  Both teachers and students recognized that the new mode of delivery was more work, but that formative assessment, interaction among students, and online discussions were valuable learning tools.  Both teachers and students used technology for personal use to a greater extent than for educational purposes, although students clearly used new technologies more than the instructors.  Teachers and students both identified the need for more computers, and better connectivity, although only students commented on the need to expand hours of operation of computer labs, and the need to ensure access to all websites for search purposes.  Although teachers and students both raised concerns about costs of home computers and Internet connections for those in lower economic classes, only faculty members raised the concerns about access issues for female students.  Many students also commented on the importance of the transferability of technological skills from the classroom to the workplace.

All students supported the redistribution of marks and the formative assessment.  They confirmed that many of them submitted copied assignments in traditional courses, rarely attended tutorials, and often only opened the self-study textbook before the mid-term or final.  The blended learning redesign required them to engage weekly with the content, instructor, and other students, promoting a better learning environment.  All students stated that the final examinations should be reviewed for both content and structure.

The redistribution of marks remained a controversial issue within QOU with underlying concerns that students in the redesigned courses may not be as well prepared for the final examinations. Data was collected for both traditional and blended learning courses and final grade results reflected no difference.  

This study chronicles the experience of one open and distance university as it leapfrogged into new forms of distance education.  For QOU, the study confirmed the need for change, and the institution will now face new challenges along with opportunities, as it operationalizes a blended learning agenda.  This study will inform QOU as it moves in this new direction, and we hope this record and analysis of our experience will be useful to other institutions and administrators in similar situations.

Acknowledgements

The authors wish to acknowledge the support of the World Bank, the European Union, Education Management Europe, and Al-Quds Open University, specifically the Office of the President and Vice-President Academic Affairs and the Open and Distance Learning Centre.  Without their support this study would not have been possible.  The authors wish to thank Ms. Hanan Naser for her translation support which was essential to the study.


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Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume XII, Number IV, Winter 2009
University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center
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