Evaluation of didactics from a cross cultural perspective: The eBIT project: online education in Sri Lanka

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Evaluation of didactics from a cross cultural perspective: The eBIT project: online education in Sri Lanka
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   EVALUATION OF DIDACTICS FROM A CROSS CULTURAL PERSPECTIVETHE EBIT PROJECT: ONLINE EDUCATION IN SRI LANKA Larsson, K., Stockholm University/KTH, SwedenAndersson, A., Örebro University, SwedenWikramanayake, G.N., University of Colombo School of Computing, Colombo, Sri LankaHansson, H., Stockholm University/KTH, SwedenGlimbert, L., Stockholm University/KTH, SwedenWeerasinghe, T.A., University of Colombo School of Computing, Sri Lanka Summary Aim  : The aim of this study is to identify and discuss the challenges when transferring evaluation methodology and practice from one cultural context to another. Approach  : The Asia-Link project Asia eBIT aimed to develop and implement a 3-year online external Bachelor program in ICT in Sri Lanka. An important part of the project is recurring evaluations of several different aspects of the program. Information has been obtained by questionnaires, interviews, field visits, focus groups and expert evaluations, conducted face to face and online. Findings  : The structural differences of the educational systems among partners created a number of challenges, such as: organizational aspects of educational activities, didactic practice, learning culture in traditional education and online courses, staff responsibilities and duties, the financial model, language and other cultural issues. Major challenges mainly concern the interviews and have been three-fold: 1) getting students to talk; 2) when they talk - overcoming the language barrier; and 3) getting students to honestly speak their minds. This process has been a requirement in order to produce usable evaluations at the same time as it is part of the ongoing evaluation itself. Conclusions  : The findings in this study further the understandings of the complexity when conducting evaluations across different cultural contexts. This understanding is important in order to perform high quality evaluations and should be part of any evaluators’ skills when facing similar challenges. This is a unique study on evaluation approaches of Sri Lankan online ICT program.  Introduction and aim Quality is about values. Values have its roots in culture and history. Therefore when culturesand different history traditions meet in a globalised world, there is a need for negotiation,adaptation and reformulation of values. Some values are more easily adopted than others,for instance the value of economic profit and other market oriented principles, however whenit comes to education it is about rebuilding the society by changing and developing the mindsof the new generation. Every society wants the education system to reflect and transmit theideologies of the current order. When education moves online values are again challenged.Internet has its built in values, which are questioned. The early developers adhered to thevalues of speed of information transmission, openness of information and free information.We see today a divergent development of the Internet; both a movement for open and freeinformation and a movement of increasing security, privacy and commercialization ofinformation. Both paradigms have its legitimate reasons for development. This study is aboutonline education developed for Sri Lanka´s need of computer proficient graduates. Whendesigning education there is a need to conduct various types of evaluations in order toimprove the courses and assess their learning impact. Although the evaluation methods maybe the same across cultures, the cultural settings need to be understood by the evaluators asthis is part of the context being evaluated.The aim of this study is to identify and discuss the challenges when transferring evaluationmethodology and practice from one cultural context to another. Background Bachelor of Information Technology (BIT) is an external degree program managed by theUniversity of Colombo, Sri Lanka. The BIT was launched by the University as a mechanismto address the demand for IT graduates in the country. It was designed as a low cost self-sustained external degree program where the university only gets involved in providing thecurricula, conducting examinations and certifying successful candidates. The Universitymade arrangements for optional face-to-face learning opportunities at a number of non-accredited private institutions island-wide. This level of support was totally inadequate asboth candidates and teaching institutes were unable to figure out the expectations of theprogram using a list of textbooks. Thus BIT immediately faced several challenges such as: 1)gradual decline in intake, 2) high dropouts of enrolled candidates, 3) low success rates atexaminations and 4) low participation and success by less urbanised/rural/overseascandidates. Higher education system in the country didn’t allow the staff to be directlyinvolved in teaching in this program. Thus the University decided to provide indirect supportto the BIT candidates using a Learning Management System (LMS) which was introducedduring the 4th year of this program. Initial LMS provided quizzes and assignments using pastexamination questions. Although it provided an opportunity to revise the LMS alone didn’thelp the candidates to learn the courses. Thus it was less effective in addressing the abovechallenges. In the 7th year of the program an open source LMS was introduced along with e-content, e-activities, e-assessments [8]. The new curriculum was introduced to the student in2006 through this having interactive online learning content, activities and assessments. Thisenabled the students to learn through the system as well as the institutes to identify theexpectations of the university and facilitate the students.The EU funded Asia-Link project Asia eBIT aimed to develop and implement a 3-year onlineexternal Bachelor program in ICT in Sri Lanka. The project has been a cooperation betweenUniversity of Colombo, Stockholm University and Delft University of Technology. The EUpartners’ contribution has been in the field of knowledge transition and assistance based onthe partners previous experiences in the field, both in pedagogical and technical matters. TheeBIT project has likely contributed to broader dissemination and easier access to highereducation in Sri Lanka, reducing the national knowledge divide. Providing digital resourcesand a learning space that does not carry the barriers of traditional education makes us saythis. An innovative, yet realistic, approach to the paradigm shift of going from teaching tolearning has made the transformation able to handle for most learners in the program. While  introducing the learners to on-line learning methods and a re-designed knowledge acquisitionmode, we also made sure the literature (i.e. special student manuals) had a central place asa fall back for those who did not want to leap the full step at once. As of today, the newparadigm is there partly in parallel to the old.The program is now running in its 9th year and it has now aligned the curricula to even outcourse content between semesters and reduced dropouts. Number of graduated produced ismore than two folds covering less urbanised and rural areas as well as Sri Lankans livingoverseas. Approach The cultural context includes the structural differences of the educational systems. Thiscreated a number of challenges. These challenges need to be recognized and understood ifthe outcome of the evaluations should be of benefit for the study program.During the project progression the emerging issues has been identified, discussed andadaptations made by all partners to overcome these challenges and understand each others.This process has been necessary in order to produce usable feedback at the same time as itis part of the ongoing evaluation itself.Quality in e-learning needs to be assessed in several perspectives, the following qualityaspects are of importance in online education: 1) Material/content, 2) Structure/virtualenvironment, 3) Communication, cooperation and interactivity, 4) Student assessment, 5)Flexibility and adaptability, 6)Support (student and staff), 7) Staff qualifications andexperience, 8) Vision and institutional leadership, 9) Resource allocation, 10) The holisticand process aspect [5] . In this study we look into these aspects, except for 7), 8) and 9). Thecreation of this education program however is a result of the vision and institutionalleadership of the University of Colombo.The quality aspects listed are clearly visible in the review template created for the expertevaluation which evaluates areas like the constructive alignment (internal and external) [4]content (printed and digital), assessment and learning activities, quality of presentation andfacilitation [6]. Methods This study is based on multiple data sources and data collection methods. Table 1 belowprovides an overview of methods and data. Data was collected continuously during the eBIT-project period December 2005-December 2008. Table 1 Data collection methods employed in eBIT eakuationsData collection method Purpose Who Field studies/visits in SriLanka:Colombo, mountain region,eastern region, westernregion.- To get first hand informationabout project impact, benefitsand challenges.- To learn and adaptaccording to staff and studentviews.- To understand, and explain,local context and culture.- To identify suitabletechnology and evaluateKen Larsson – 6 visitsAnnika Andersson – 3 visitsLars Glimbert – 2 visitsHenrik Hansson – 1 visitGihan Wikramanayake – onsiteThushani A Weerasinghe –on site  existing infrastructurecapacity.Field studies/visits inSweden:Stockholm, Umeåa) Post docb) PhD educationa) Gihan Wikramanayake – 9monthsb) Thushani A Weerasinghe – 2 yearsOnline questionnaires To obtain quantitative datafrom students; pre, duringand post expectations andexperiences of the eBITprogramLars GlimbertAnnika AnderssonInterviews a) To obtain a studentperspective on the onlinecourses, reasons for dropouts.b) To a obtain facultyperspective on onlinecoursesa) Annika Anderssonb) All involvedExpert evaluation Holistic overview of courseand program qualityKen LarssonFocus groups Continuous improvement ofcourse design, bothpedagogical andimplementationKen LarssonBesides this there was continuous e-mail dialogues, skype dialogues and video meetingsbetween partners to further the progress of the project and the evaluations and to clarifyquestions, in some instances this have also been an informal evaluation in itself. FindingsCross-cultural challenges in holistic evaluation The purpose of the expert evaluation is to give a holistic overview of quality aspects ofespecially courses. These aspects are covering several different angles like alignment withinthe course, alignment to the semester and study program, the appropriateness of material,activities and assessments, the quality of implementation and presentation, support andfacilitation, student response etc. It is built around the topics that has been dealt with in theknowledge sharing phase of the project and should reflect a cross cultural understanding ofcentral theories in the field of didactics and e-learning.The challenge in designing the template for the expert review was: 1) to focus on thecommon understanding of pedagogical and design issues 2) overcoming languagedifferences 3) transform own educational culture to practices and norms in the educational  system being evaluated. To overcome the first challenge the template went through severalreviews in meetings with partners from both EU and Asia, both at visits to Colombo andStockholm as well as in emails and videoconferences. The final version includes guides foreach section to overcome all three of these challenges.Hardest challenge to overcome was probably to transform from one set of educationalpractices and norms into a different set of educational culture as this included a fullunderstanding of a pedagogical and didactic context and required several visits andinterviews with faculty. Cross-cultural challenges in collecting students’ opinions For the collection of students’ opinions a multitude of different methods have been used forreasons of validity and with special consideration to the cross-cultural context.Major challenges mainly concern the interviews and have been three-fold: 1) getting studentsto talk; 2) when they talk - overcoming the language barrier; and 3) getting students tohonestly speak their minds.The first challenge - getting students to talk - was encountered at teaching institutes whereteachers prompted students to talk in front of the class. When students were too shy to talk,the srcinal data collection design had to be abandoned and students were asked to writeletters instead. This approach with writing questions on the blackboard and getting studentsto write shorter letters in reply actually turned out to be a very effective method and findingshave been used for the evaluation of the project and also used in research [2, 3].As for the second challenge of overcoming the language barrier we have found that cross-language investigations suffer from not having a mutual native tongue. Interviews were notconducted in the native tongue - neither by the interviewer nor by the interviewees - and thischallenge was handled by strategically choosing openness in how questions wereformulated. The interviews were thus semi-formal were we had decided on the topics fordiscussion, but still allowed for much openness in how questions were formulated.Finally, the challenge of getting students to honestly speak their minds. The evaluator foundthat e-learning had become a very strong norm in itself. During the interviews it was evidentthat students felt that they should appreciate e-learning and different features of the LMS. Aclear separation had to be made between the students own beliefs and what they thoughtthey were supposed to say. This required several follow-up questions and references to theobserved behavior.Expressing themselves is a key cultural issue in Sri Lanka as children are not encouraged todo so in schools. However, we have found some students who are quiet in face-to-face arevery active in online forums. However in general most are inactive observers in online modeas well. Forums and all learning in the BIT is carried out in English medium although moststudents have had their prior learning in their native language, i.e. Sinhala or Tamil. We havehad very little activity in the LMS forums and initially the encouragement factor too wasmissing. For instance, an active forum participant said he decided not to post anymore as hisposting on pointing errors in the e-content has been removed after correcting the content,although the instructional designer was thinking that others would get confused if the postingcontinued in the forum. Similarly the same student argued how he could be assured if therest of the content is correct or not, highlighting the impact created due to laps of qualitycontrol. To encourage forum participation a rewarding program was commend subsequentlyby recognising best e-learners at the awards ceremony.
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