UG online? Editorial
Stabroek News
March 2, 2003

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At the official launching of the University of Guyana's 40th anniversary commemoration programme, President Jagdeo was quoted as saying that his Government was "committed to playing its part in building and maintaining a reputable learning institution." That is good news, although he did not expand on how he expected this to be achieved, considering the fact that funding is a problem and that the local university derives its intake from a still defective school system.

It might be observed that the world in which UG operates is fast changing. In some developed countries universities are going online, and their courses are available to all who can afford them, no matter where they are located. The University of Phoenix, Arizona, set the example, and in the UK, a project entitled UKe-Universities Worldwide, has secured $62M in government funding to create online courses for students around the world in such fields as English language, science and technology, and business. In the initial phase the universities involved will be Cambridge, York and Sheffield Hallam.

According to the BBC, some of the courses will be wholly online, while others will require a traditional exam which could be sat close to the student's home. Study seminars, it was reported, could be held as online conversations, while tutors monitored individual input into the discussions.

This is clearly a growing trend, although it will never completely replace physical attendance at an institution. However, if costs for online degrees from even some of the reputable universities come down dramatically - as they are bound to do over time - the better-qualified among the impecunious Guyanese undergraduates might in the future be seduced away from the local university.

However, that is only one possible scenario. Any explosion in the availability of online tertiary education will also open up possibilities for UG itself. In the long term, in order to be viable in a competitive world it may have to consider rationalising research activity, so it concentrates funds to build expertise and resources in areas where it has something unique to offer - the environment comes immediately to mind, although that is by no means the only possibility.

One of the aims would eventually be to offer courses online itself in very specialised fields, most likely in conjunction with another institution (or institutions), which could generate funds and build the university's reputation in a given sphere. Alternatively (or in addition thereto) such courses could, perhaps, form a component of another university's degree programme. As it is, the Turkeyen campus already has considerable experience of collaborative arrangements with other tertiary institutions, so it is not as if this is an alien concept.

Something similar could happen in the case of the less rarefied courses, where the emphasis would be on teaching, rather than research, and where again it could be feasible to pursue degrees in conjunction with universities elsewhere. It is not inconceivable in the case of core subject areas either, to envisage students doing some courses online from an overseas institution, and others in the classroom at UG. Such an arrangement would open up access to a variety of texts and materials which UG might not have and possibly could not afford to acquire, not to mention a wider pool of teaching resources.

The notion of a university which makes teaching its main focus, has been introduced into the UK, although it is by no means uncontroversial and has had a lackadaisical start. However, the British Government has indicated its intention to push the proposal with a certain vigour in relation to some of the former polytechnics. The qualification is called a foundation degree, and in the British case is designed primarily as a vocational, practical certificate. Of two years duration, it carries the option of a further year to convert it into an honours degree.

According to the BBC, there is also an intention on the part of the Government to make study more flexible, so students could build a degree by dividing their studies into component parts, which could even be done at different institutions. There is already a measure of flexibility in terms of courses at UG, and it is easy to see how variations on this theme could operate in the world of online degrees.

While the tentacles of the future will be slow to touch these shores, they will do so eventually, and we should therefore be prepared to explore what the possibilities might be in the world of the 'online campus' for restoring to the local university some of its early lustre. Even within the country, there are avenues which exist currently for being more adventurous with distance education, if the Government chooses to go that route. Unfortunately, it didn't elect to do so at the time when the Berbice campus was first mooted, but it is far from being too late to investigate current and future options now.

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