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Online learning a success at N.U.S.

State of emergency restrictions may have driven the National University of Samoa (N.U.S) to move the majority of its courses fuklly online. 

But the results have been so positive the university now sees an increased role for digital learning into its future.

“N.U.S. [has] successfully moved approximately 80 per cent of all courses (100 per cent for the Faculty of Arts and about 10 per cent for the Faculty of Technical Education),” , the N.U.S Vice-Chancellor, Professor Alec Ekeroma told the Samoa Observer. 

The university makes use of Moodle, a free online learning platform for its distance education. 

“[A] huge effort was made by staff, especially by the [Information and Communications Technology] team, to secure the necessary infrastructure, [to] upload courses for online delivery and informing and supporting students [to] learn using the new medium," the Vice-Chancellor said. 

And there has been no negative effects on students’ results,  Professor Ekeroma said. 

The pass rates of students for the first semester this year was no different to those of the same semester the previous year, the Vice-Chancellor said, proving that online courses were not having an adverse impact on students’ ability to retain knowledge. 

“Remote learning [has been] enabled by huge advances in telecommunications and internet technology has empowered learners, who, for one reason or another, cannot physically access university buildings, resources and lecturers,” Professor Ekeroma said. 

“I have worked at the University of Auckland and the University of Otago where the use of technology and e-platforms such as Canvas, Moodle and Blackboard have been increasingly used in the last 10 years, driven mainly by increasing student numbers and constrained teaching resources. 

“Other Universities such as Massey University, where I did a statistics paper, have had, for many years, an active [off-campus] programme.”

Professor Ekeroma said that the university is committed to continue blended learning in response to the current climate of uncertainty hanging over its courses due to state of emergency restrictions on the numbers of people allowed to assemble in groups. 

He said that the online learning undertaken in the first semester has been refined with a view to its continuation into the rest of the year. 

“We have applied for project funding to extend our online educational operations in our Savai’i rooms. A computer lab, internet capability and a campus coordinator with an increase in online courses should improve our service to Savaii,” he said.

“We aim to offer full courses online or in a blended learning approach into the future so we can extend our service to the region such as to Tokelau and all the other islands without universities. Planning for these are in the initial stage.”

A recent Commonwealth study investigated the pros and cons of digital learning in Samoa, taking the N.U.S. as its case study. 

The “Implementing Technology-Enabled Learning in a Technically Challenged Environment: The Case of the National University of Samoa” was based on a study of students and lecturers alike.

The data was collected from research into “technology-enabled learning”  undertaken by N.U.S.’ computing department and was funded by the Commonwealth of Learning in 2018-2019.

The study found generally positive outcomes from the online learning at campus but room for improvements in areas such as access to the computer equipment required to access online courses.

“Lecturers also noted that younger students found technology more relevant than older students did,” the authors found.

“[Lecturers] with weak technology skills found the training a challenge. T

“In terms of student learning, lecturers reported that [online platforms] provided the advantage of catering for different learning styles; that students were more engaged and contributed more; and that students had access to all the course resources.”

Lecturers told the researchers that online learning platforms did not add to their workload and better enabled them to monitor students’ engagement with their courses.

The research was published as a chapter in a newly released book “Technology-Enabled Learning: Policy, Pedagogy and Practice”, which was published by the Commonwealth of Learning.

The Commonwealth of Learning is part of the broader Commonwealth of Nations and is headquartered in Canada; its mission includes promoting the use of open and distance learning through technology. 

One of the authors of the study and a Professor of Computing at N.U.S, Ioana Chan Mow said her personal view was that online learning had great potential for N.U.S.

After its initial installation two years ago, the university had placed all of its courses on the online learning platform ‘Moodle’ during the period of national coronavirus restrictions. 

“Like all other educational institutions the issues have been access [to] devices, need for staff and students training, staff and student engagement online, congestion of national networks impacting on connectivity,” she said.

“Online learning has enabled us the flexibility to offer courses face to face and online. We also use associated tools such as messenger, Skype and zoom to supplement Moodle. With the realisation that not all students can access the internet our planned mode of delivery is multimodal - using radio , T.V., offline and online so no child is left behind.”

The Professor said that before the lockdown, online learning was designed as a hybrid; to complement face-to-face teaching. 

But during lockdown N.U.S had to transition to fully online delivery which came with its own issues such as access devices, need for staff and students training, staff and student engagement online, congestion of national networks impacting on connectivity.

Professor Chan Mow said that N.U.S. is already addressing one of the main recommendations of the study, which is to address a lack of devices owned by students and a broader lack of access to the internet and moodle in university classrooms. 

An excerpted summary of the research’s conclusions and recommendations is included below: 

The evaluation of the impact of training and mentoring was based on the following areas: (i) pedagogical training and planning, (ii) technological preparation, support and integration, (iii) collaboration and (iv) teaching impact. 

1. Lecturers found the training and mentoring given by the [Commonwealth of Learning (C.O.L.)] consultant to be useful, adequate and relevant for preparing and developing courses. Those with weak technology skills found the training a challenge [...] Another issue identified by lecturers was the timing and duration of their [Blended Learning (B.L.) training. Training would have been more effective if it had been held at a less busy time and had been longer. 

2. Lecturers found it easy to adapt to online pedagogy, with previous experience being an advantage. Lecturers also noted that younger students found technology more relevant than older students did [...] Another experience shared by lecturers was that Moodle helped shy students interact in online discussions.

3. Most of the lecturers found that B.L. required more planning and was a lot more challenging due to time constraints. This is understandable given the lecturers had to learn new pedagogy and needed time to prepare ...

4. The majority of the lecturers felt they had been given sufficient technical support by the C.O.L. consultant in preparation for BL. The research team also gave sufficient technical support during the teaching of the courses. The most serious issue in technical support was lack of Internet access in classrooms. 

5. Lecturers found it easy to coordinate, integrate and manage face-to-face and online activities...

6. Lecturers reported that “there was a lot of collaboration between us during planning and preparation of our blended courses.” [...] However, findings also showed that not all teachers liked to collaborate; the same emerged in Larsen’s study (2012). Furthermore, the degree of collaboration during the teaching of the courses varied across lecturers.

7. All of the lecturers indicated Moodle had a definite impact on student– teacher interactions in that “students were more active,” had “more time to work on their own,” “contributed more to discussions” and had “more time to discuss problems.” [...] But there were also challenges, as some lecturers indicated there had been no impact — for example: “Students still turned in assignments late and would not ask me about anything.” 

8. In terms of student learning, lecturers reported that Moodle or BL provided the advantage of catering for different learning styles; that students were more engaged and contributed more; and that students had access to all the course resources. [...] However, some lecturers also reported frustration with students not taking full advantage of online resources, turning in assignments late, not engaging in class, and having poor attendance and attitude. 

9. The majority of lecturers used Moodle to monitor students’ participation and engagement in class activities. Lecturers were able to use grading on Moodle, display students’ grades, as well as monitor students’ logins and assignment uploads. 

10. In terms of workload, all of the lecturers agreed that using BL was no extra work at all and meant less paperwork, fewer misplaced assignments or activities and greater effectiveness. 

11. Perhaps the single most pressing issue identified at this stage (and previously) was insufficient access to Moodle, due either to the unavailability of computers or access devices at N.U.S. or to a lack of Internet access... 

12. Recommendations for improving the future use of Moodle focused mostly on the need to improve access to Moodle through better infrastructure and training, but there was also a recommendation to develop policies for accessing and using Moodle. N.U.S. has adopted a [Technology Enhanced Learning] framework that covers the use of B.L. in all its courses. However, to operationalise this, more detailed guidelines for implementing BL and [Open Educational Resources] need to be developed.

Conclusion and Recommendations 

Overall, the results of the study were positive in many ways and provide the necessary evidence to streamline and scale up [technology-enabled learning] at N.U.S. Students’ high levels of satisfaction revealed that the BL environment and teachers’ practices were effective. However, the study also highlighted several challenges, the most critical being an insufficient infrastructure and a lack of Internet access in the classrooms to enable Moodle access. At N.U.S., the Internet and hence Moodle can be accessed only in selected spaces, such as the computer labs, the library and the foyer. In classrooms, there is no Internet access and hence no Moodle, and this was the main barrier to implementing BL. The lack of access devices, insufficient Internet connectivity and bandwidth, and [Learning Management System] access issues are barriers to effectively implementing BL. 

With a  [Technology Enhanced Learning] framework already adopted at the university, it is expected that the following recommendations of this study will receive adequate attention in the context of low-income countries in general and N.U.S. in particular. 

Recommendation 1: The university should address the lack of access devices, and the lack of Internet and Moodle access in N.U.S. classrooms. 

Recommendation 2: The university should develop guidelines on access to, use of and administration of Moodle. 

Recommendation 3: The university should establish a technical support team with dedicated staff to provide timely support for solving and troubleshooting hardware, software and operating system problems, and to address technology limitations as well as access and connectivity issues in the shortest possible time.

Recommendation 4: The university should create an in-house team with adequate staff to motivate teachers and students. 

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