On September 6th CIU arranged a breakfast seminar for its network members on the experiences of using distance education in their cultural youth exchange program with Costa Rica. t42 Distance Education was invited to address three questions, see below.
What were the added values?
The distance education course forced the organisers and participants to relate, and interact with, a shared framework or mind-set. The purpose being to help local entrepreneurs support a more sustainable tourism. Placing this framework on a web-based educational platform accessible at all times, at least in theory, made it a focal point regardless of geographical boundaries. Although Internet access was low, preparing, supporting and working with the booklet version of the course, raised a number of issues to be dealt with. A process that deepened the cooperation between the project managers in Costa Rica and Sweden, brought new dimensions to team couple relations, strengthened relations with the municipality hosting the program and built a bridge between University and society.
The main added value was the sense of reciprocity it developed as the parties involved had to learn from each other in order to move the course forward, covering aspects such as guiding ideas, methods, tools and organisation. Aspects that in turn form the foundation of a learning organisation.
What made it work?
Factors contributing to the success of the program include high quality tutors, interest for sustainability issues, the problem-based learning method and the communication aspect of the Internet.
The tutors were vital for the end-result, as they lead and coach the participants, as well as sell the idea to the municipality. The sustainability issue seemed to attract the participants, although it took some effort in converting the abstract words into something tangible in their immediate surroundings. The problem-based learning method challenged the students to formulate their own questions, rather than trying to remember the ideas of someone else. Using the Internet for chat conversations on the web-based educational platform, enabled participants and resource persons to meet up on either side of the Atlantic in real time.
In sum, the course tested and improved the participants´ leadership abilities, awareness of sustainable development challenges, ability to learn-how-to-learn as well as handle digital working tools.
What can be improved?
The CIU learning-by-doing approach strengthened by the problem-based learning method has great advantages of increasing self-awareness and providing tools for approaching real-life unstructured problems. Although it encourages the participant to dig where he/she is standing in terms of level of understanding, the more confident student will always have an advantage over the less confident one. This confidence, however, is not only a matter of obtaining good grades at school, but also being used to non-hierarchical teaching methods or not. To overcome communication barriers due to different levels of pre-knowledge, more training is needed in the beginning of the course, especially for the tutors. Not only understanding the method in theory, but having the opportunity to try it out in practice before meeting the participants.
There are a number of improvement possibilities related to the host community. A major challenge is to find ways of integrating the course more closely to the core of the cultural exchange program. Perhaps by focusing more on trying a project idea in practice provided by the host community, rather than identifying it in the first place. This could be one way for the participants to faster work their way into the community and add value for the local entrepreneurs.
It was noted that in Costa Rica the lack of information caused difficulties. Interesting enough in Sweden the situation was the opposite. Here, information surplus caused new problems. The lesson to be learnt is that access to information is not a solution in itself. Evaluating the information and turning it into something useful is what counts in the end. Still, given the limited time the participants have at their disposal, providing a reference case study could be one way of lowering the level of initial frustration and injecting a bit more confidence in the learning process.
Finally, technological barriers are still an issue. Internet access meant some six hours journey in Costa Rica. Still, the situation in Sweden was not considerable better, as access to public computers is limited and Internet cafés are not an option in small towns on the countryside. Preconceived assumptions need to be challenged, again and again.