William L. Mitchell
This article describes the problems of capacity building in e-learning with a focus on the Palestinian Territories. It uses as a case study a joint project between British Council, Middlesex University and the Islamic University in Gaza (IUG) to provide work-based professional development in e-learning for university academics in the Palestinian Territories.
The issue of capacity building is one faced by countries the world over and one which is often raised with the British Council. British Council is the main UK organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations and is represented in 109 countries with over 7,000 employees. One way in which British Council provides help to countries in support of an education reform agenda is by linking countries with relevant expertise from the UK education sector.
Capacity building needs to be addressed at the national, institutional and individual levels. At each of these stages it is possible to identify drivers for change, obstacles to adopting e-learning, and actions that can be taken.
At a national level, the major driver for the Palestinian Territories is the restriction on travel. Travel restrictions make it extremely difficult to move between and within the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The unpredictable curfews, checkpoint closures, and incursions make travel within the West Bank or within the Gaza Strip difficult. This has a significant impact on both staff and student mobility and leads to the disruption of courses. This results in the catchment areas of institutions shrinking. Distance education is thus a vital alternative to campus-based study.
This is also the driver for IUG at an institutional level. During closures, the Gaza Strip can be divided in 3 with movement between them very difficult. Islamic University of Gaza (based in Gaza City) has set up a branch further South in Khan Younis. E-learning is seen as a must and not a luxury.
Particular obstacles to introducing e-learning include the lack of time available to academics. There is a limit on extra time that academics can spend on new innovations in contrast to other countries as travel restrictions make working late and travelling after dark impossible. Other obstacles include: availability of funding; access to e-learning design expertise; and limited co-ordinated approaches between institutions.
In some cases institutions have developed their own systems (e.g. Birzeit University developed the Ritaj portal which allows on-line access to course materials and some administrative services). Capacity building is also taking place through projects that are part of the EUMEDIS (European-Mediterranean Information Society) initiative, which was launched by the European Community in mid-1999.
IUG have set up an E-Learning Centre to promote e-learning and enhance the computer skills of their teachers and students. It manages development of e-content as an enhancement to classroom based teaching. The University is using WebCT to support e-learning, e-testing and communication between teachers and students. In order to develop a local team capable of training other staff to develop and use e-content in WebCT, Dr. Mohammed Hussein requested help from British Council in identifying a trainer from the UK in September 2003.
However, the travel restrictions also prove an obstacle to providing face-to-face training for academics in the use of e-learning techniques.
British Council worked with the National Centre for Work Based Learning Partnerships (NCWBLP) at Middlesex University to provide work-based professional development in e-learning for 35 academics at the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG). As face-to-face training was not possible, a fully-on-line course was delivered over 6 weeks during May and June 2004.
The pedagogical approach was learner-managed rather than content-led, step-by-step training. Learning was based around set readings, activities and discussion. Material and activities were provided through the WebCT environment. The Middlesex tutors held 2 hour weekly sessions using the Macromedia Breeze web-conferencing system. These sessions were used to address issues raised from the activities. Between sessions advice was provided through a regularly moderated bulletin board system.
The course covered topics such as: pedagogical models, definition of learning objectives, student assessment and evaluation of e-learning materials. Individual learner needs were catered for through negotiation of individual learning agreements.
Participants worked in cohorts of 16. Local facilitators were identified for each of the cohorts. In addition participants were asked to work in smaller groups of 4.
Figure 1. Induction session
Participants were asked to develop an e-learning resource and present it in a final review session. These sessions were conducted with ISDN videoconferencing and interactive Smartboards. This was assessed by tutors, peer review and self-assessment. Evaluation criteria used were developed by the participants themselves during the course.
Figure 2. Review session
Delivery in distance mode provided several benefits:
In the course stage of the project the emphasis has been mainly on the individual and institutional levels. However, it should not be seen as a one-off solution to a training need or a solution to the country’s training needs. Firstly, it is not economically sustainable to continue supporting such courses. Secondly, there is limited long-term impact on needs of the country - serious capacity building needs to be achieved through donor-funded projects.
To address this, in the next stage of the project, a series of videoconference dialogues will allow course participants and tutors to reflect on the experience and share this with policy makers and practitioners in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This will provide a starting point for participants with the opportunity to explore the national and strategic issues in e-learning.