INLOGOV’s first online Masters
It was a historic moment for INLOGOV – even by the standards of the Institute’s long and eventful history. For the first time ever, INLOGOV was to design and deliver an online International Masters in Public Administration (MPA). The new MPA was to be delivered wholly online with students doing all their classroom activities outside the traditional classroom, at a distance from their school or college, and supported by interactive technology tools. The programme was to be targeted at adult learners across the world, specifically those already working in the public sector, who wish to study part-time while maintaining their career paths. It marked INLOGOV’s accession to the new club of educational institutes partaking in an evolution of rather revolutionary nature, which is interchangeably termed e-learning, distance learning or online education.
A worldwide (r)evolution
Indeed, in offering the new MPA, along with two other online postgraduate programmes, the University of Birmingham joined the ranks of other prestigious tertiary educational institutes that have embraced the challenge of delivering e-learning courses. After all, the business case is compelling. Online programmes are rapidly becoming not only an inevitable but also rather lucrative part of mainstream education. The worldwide market for e-learning already reached $35.6 billion in 2011, and generated estimated revenues of some $51.5 billion in 2016, boasting growth rates of 17.3% in Asia, 16.9% in Eastern Europe, 15.2% in Africa and 14.6% in Latin America.
International organisations, such as UNESCO and the International Council for Open and Distance Education, conclude that the revolutionary explosion of e-learning is down to two key factors: First, and perhaps most obviously, the technological advances of the Internet and web-based technologies offer learners and teachers a considerable range of affordable tools and resources. These enable novel approaches to networked learning, change the ways in which knowledge is being imparted and open up new means of engagement. At a time of budget constraints, efficiency drives and a continuous emphasis on optimizing value-for-money, the contemporary and emerging technologies offer unique opportunities for the education sector. Second, online education allows professionals all over the world to upskill and pursue further qualifications while continuing to work in their jobs. And working professionals from Africa and Asia are now able to overcome the inadequacies and asymmetries of local educational provisions by enrolling in e-courses delivered by internationally renowned universities.
But who teaches the teachers?
Indeed, a whole new way of learning that is free from the constraints of time, space and pace – but also a whole new way of providing education! Helpfully, from the learner’s perspective, there is a lot of information out there about the ways in which this type of education differs from traditional ‘brick-and-mortar’ programmes, and what to consider when registering for e-courses. However, from the teacher’s perspective, surprisingly little has been published about designing and creating online education, and finding practical solutions for pedagogical and technical challenges. Tasked with authoring and tutoring the very first module of INLOGOV’s online MPA, my co-convener and I felt like two fishes out of water. Although, as university teachers and researchers at INLOGOV, we have had much experience of designing and delivering public management programmes for mid-career public servants on a ‘face-to-face’ basis (both in the classroom ‘on-campus’ and ‘in-house’ for sponsoring client organisations in the public and voluntary sectors), the new online MPA seemed a daunting endeavour. Preparing and providing an ‘online’ distance-learning module for a more diverse international group of practitioners, drawn from a wider range of public service contexts and experiences, certainly raised new and partly unexpected challenges for us that called for fresh approaches. Since then we have delivered the module twice – and learned an awful lot about how ‘to do’ online education.
‘Doing’ online education from a teacher’s perspective
Working in partnership with the international education and publishing group Deltak-Wiley, we realized early on the need to research and write much of the MPA programme anew. Our existing PowerPoints, although helpful in visually highlighting or synthesizing complex arguments presented in a classroom lecture, were unsuited and reductive for this mode of teaching. Hence, we spent weeks producing fully scripted learning materials of a high quality and publishable standard, which also featured animated videos and interactive diagrams, timelines and theoretical models that could be expanded or collapsed at the click of a mouse.
Mindful of the international nature of the student group for whom the programme is intended, we recognized the need to ‘internationalise’ our curriculum. This was achieved by several means: we added new literature on international public management and governance in the reading lists; we included a variety of contemporary examples of public management from around the world; we produced a series of short, BBC-documentary-style videos featuring practitioners and researchers from across the globe who discussed their particular experiences of public management and governance in their respective home countries; and we used an array of photo images to portray global diversity in public service delivery.
Encouraging critical reflection in relation to the students’ own experiences of working in public management posed another challenge that required fresh thinking. We tackled this issue by including weekly formative assignments, which asked the participants to share and discuss issues and examples from their own country contexts in ‘Discussion Forums’. These forums enabled us to get course participants critically to engage in the activities, rather than simply to absorb ideas from the text, animated videos, or short film clips. In addition, it firmly placed the students at the heart of learning, thus achieving learner-centricity.
Not having the classroom interaction meant that we needed to find different ways by which the students could develop rapport with, and respect for, one another and so learn from each other. We solved this challenge by making the ‘Discussion Forums’ interactive. In order to attract a good grade, our online students were not only expected to ‘post’ their contributions (by particular deadlines) on the ‘Discussion Forums’, but they also had to respond to the ‘posts’ of at least two others (by further deadlines). For the formal assessment of these postings, we chose to use two criteria: a) ‘intellectual contribution’ to the discussion, and b) ‘contribution to the learning community’ focusing particularly on responsiveness to colleagues’ ‘posts’. We thereby incentivized the learners carefully to read each other’s contributions and offer thoughtful and thought-provoking feedback, constructive advice and mutual support – all of which led to the development of a strong learning-community. We also built in two synchronous sessions, which are specified times when students and instructors hold virtual ‘meetings’ online in real-time. However, what can be done so easily in a face-to-face classroom environment proved rather difficult online. Following initial difficulties in identifying meeting dates and times that suited every student in three different continents and time zones, we encountered even more serious problems during the meetings with both the audio (delays and echoes) and the webcams (requiring too much bandwidth). Clearly, online instructors are not the only ones who still need to mature – so does the technology!
The most important lesson
With our first cohort of students soon due to graduate from INLOGOV’s online MPA, we are expecting systematic feedback and more lessons on what worked, or not, about our online teaching from the participants’ perspective. Not to mention that, as we mature as online teachers and are given the opportunity to tweak and adjust our online classes, and deliver them to new and different student cohorts, our insight and understanding as e-learning providers is bound to increase. However, since I first set out, armed with skepticism and furrowed brows, to join the e-learning (r)evolution, the biggest lesson I personally have learned since then is how rewarding and of high educational quality an online course can be.