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Equity and access to higher education through open and distance/online learning

In this blog post I am focusing on the key theme of the BUKA project, the promotion of equity and access to higher education through open and distance/online learning. In 2010 I began working on open education, online, undergraduate programmes with an open access entry policy and flexible progression routes in Dublin City University (DCU). It did not take long for me to be completely won over to principles of open education and widening participation in higher education as I worked with learners who would not have been able to pursue their educational goals without a flexible, online, open access option. Any number of reasons can cause an individual to not be in a position to take up full-time or even part-time on-campus study, for example: lifeload issues such as those relating to employment or caring responsibilities; geographical location; or disabilities. I firmly believe in removing the barriers that block entry to, and successful participation in, higher education. This open education work aligns with DCU’s institutional strategy of changing lives and societies, specifically in the area of widening participation, as well as (Irish) national and European Union objectives for increasing participation in higher education, especially in adult learners. Although, it has to be said these objectives often do not match up with the resourcing of open education, for example in Ireland my online learners are defined as part-time even if taking a full-time equivalent credit load, and are blocked from receiving the public funding and financial supports they would be entitled to if they studied full-time on-campus.

Image by analogicus on Pixabay

One of the best aspects for me of participating in the BUKA project was to be able to join a community of colleagues in Finland, Malaysia, The Philippines, and Indonesia who are as invested as I am in providing, and improving provision of, equitable access to higher education through high quality distance/online learning. The ambitious projects being pursued by the project partners involve many innovative approaches to: building staff capacity in inclusive learning design approaches; using learning analytics to improve student success; addressing gender gaps in higher education participation; and developing technological infrastructure solutions to the issue of geographically remote, disadvantaged learners’ access to higher education. These are only some examples of project goals and I have learned so much from watching the projects develop and from being able to place my own local practice in a more global context.

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Supporting teachers in Innovative Flexible Learning through BUKA REACH Peer Facilitators Training Program

Despite the new challenges, the Mindanao State University – Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU-IIT) is determined to continue working as a team to pursue quality, equity, and flexibility in education. Teachers are challenged not only to protect their health but also to adapt new teaching methods in the pursuit of quality learning. We know it’s not going to be easy for teachers, but we need to find a reason to be optimistic and to keep moving forward. 

A community of learning has been organized to support teachers in adapting to the “new normal” of teaching and learning. After one semester of the Innovative Flexible Learning (InFleX) modality, teachers are sharing experiences and seeking to improve their teaching practice for another implementation cycle. A peer facilitators training program has been designed to facilitate the discussion of learning experiences and the adoption of essential skills for teaching in the new normal. Facilitators use coaching methods to assist their peers in the implementation of the InFLeX modality. In planning training topics and activities, the REACH (Relevant, Engaged, Active, Connected, and Holistic) design is used.

Relevant topics and skills to be learned 

InFLeX promotes a balance between synchronous and asynchronous sessions in online/remote classrooms. However, implementing this in real online/remote environments is challenging. It is important to model online/remote classrooms with well-planned asynchronous learning activities. Thus, the training program for peer facilitators has a good mix of synchronous and asynchronous sessions. Asynchronous activities include sharing good practices regarding students’ engagement and assessing learners in a remote teaching environment. In the synchronous sessions, the participants discuss with experts important pedagogical issues such as Keeping Students Engaged and Motivated, Maintaining Integrity of Assessment, and Student Support & Community of Learning.

Engaged teachers in a community of practice

One semester of InFleX implementation has shown that student engagement is crucial but difficult to address in a remote learning environment. In the asynchronous discussion, teachers shared their experiences and reflected on how to improve their remote teaching practices. But while the discussion was very rich, we found that some teachers were not contributing to the discussion board. To address this problem, peer facilitators were assigned to each group of teachers to open a conversation about the challenges they encountered in accomplishing the training task. The positive relationship between the peer facilitators and teachers improved teachers’ involvement in the training activities. 

Active participation

Authentic e-learning is used in designing the activities to encourage active participation. For example, teachers review and reflect on the course syllabus using a checklist. They also talk with their colleagues about how to improve it before the second semester implementation. During this process, peer mentoring plays a vital role in the improvement of the course materials, with the mentor supporting the teacher in pedagogy and technology use instead of advising a specific action. We believe that teachers should own their innovation. 

Connected teachers

Since teachers are working from home, technology tools (i.e. Facebook chats and MSU-IIT’s online learning tools) are maximized to support communication and collaboration in order to keep teachers connected. It is evident that peer mentoring promotes a mutual relationship where the focus is on developing the mentee’s growth. Moreover, peer facilitation with small groups of teachers engenders success in accomplishing the assigned tasks. 

Holistic and continuous professional development 

As a community, we need to make some necessary transformations in our teaching methods to build a healthier and more resilient environment. We are one in exploring new pedagogical approaches for remote teaching and learning. There are no right or wrong approaches at this time, and it is essential to listen to each other’s experience and collectively identify what is best for our students. 

Holistic planning, implementation, and evaluation of the BUKA peer facilitators training program is an ongoing process. Teachers will continue to learn and develop their teaching skills as we strive to maintain excellence in teaching and learning using the new modes of delivery. 

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BUKA promoting equity and access in open and distance learning – more important than ever!

BUKA Project Kickoff Meeting at Penang, Malaysia
BUKA Project Kickoff Meeting at Penang, Malaysia

When the BUKA project was launched in February 2020, the team had no idea what was lurking behind the corner. The kick-off meeting was held in Penang, Malaysia, and the partners from Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Ireland, and Finland were able to meet face to face, get to know each other, make plans, and spend time together. Just a few weeks after the meeting, the nature of the project changed unexpectedly as the Covid-19 pandemic started spreading all over the world.

All of a sudden, the focus of the project – equity and access in open and distance learning – became even more important than it was before. Although online learning was seen as an important area of development in all partner countries already before the pandemic, now the core questions of the project have become a high priority in universities worldwide. How can we provide engaging learning opportunities for students with diverse backgrounds in an online learning environment? How do we ensure that the learning design of our distance learning courses best supports student learning? How can we create online learning resources and materials that are accessible and pedagogically meaningful? How do we help staff members to develop the skills they need for designing and teaching online courses? 

The project team has not been discouraged by the unusual times. Although travel has been impossible, the team has developed effective ways of connecting and working online. At the moment, the partners are busy designing local pilot projects that help tackle the open and distance learning challenges. The BUKA project is now even timelier than we could have imagined!