One of Veola Stewart’s life goals was to earn an advanced degree in education. However, when her job posted her to a rural location in The Bahamas several years ago, that goal seemed more out of reach than ever – in literal terms.
The geography of her country, with its more than 700 islands and cays, often makes it difficult for citizens outside of large urban areas to pursue advanced studies. Facilities, teachers and resources may simply be inaccessible.
And so, Stewart decided to shrink the distance; she opted to continue her studies via the internet.
“I am a product of online education. Through this medium, I was able to complete my master’s degree in education. I wouldn’t have been able to achieve my goal without it, as there wasn’t any institution at the graduate level on my island,” she says.
Online instruction is the latest stage in a centuries-old evolution. Distance learning traces its roots to the first half of the 1700s, when Boston-based teacher Caleb Phillips advertised shorthand lessons by mail. Today, some of the benefits are the same – distances overcome and different lifestyles accommodated – while modern technology enables fast communication and a range of audiovisual and interactive options to enrich the learning experience.
Despite these advantages, the adoption of online education in the Caribbean has been slow.
“This could be the result of cultural and community-based low-tech traditions and the habits of Caribbean society,” says IDB Learning Specialist Stella Porto.
Access to the internet around the world
To address this challenge, the IDB developed an online course where instructors can learn to design and teach their own online courses.
“There are key competencies involved in designing, developing and administering online courses. Online education requires you to revisit the process of learning, and interaction via different technologies needs to be considered critically as part of this process,” Porto says.
Stewart completed the course in 2017.
“It has been my goal for many years to become an online professor. When I heard about the course, I was so excited and interested to take advantage of the opportunity,” she recalls.
Today, Stewart is working to become an online professor with the University of the West Indies.
Samantha Roach, an educator of nearly 15 years from Trinidad and Tobago, credits the course with increasing her knowledge of online feedback and assessments, online teaching tools and strategies for developing curriculums for internet-based courses.
Roach has been a firsthand witness to the transition in Caribbean educational institutions toward more online-based instruction, as the college where she works has begun to offer classes entirely via the internet in several departments. While she was already certified in managing and facilitating online learning, she took the IDB course to gain “the foundational skills necessary to build an online class that creates a sense of community.”
Since then, she has led an initiative at her college to offer an associate degree entirely online. She has also gone on to train other teachers in internet-based instruction and to help craft an institutional online-learning policy. Roach currently focuses on developing the curriculums for certification programs offered fully online.
“I believe that in this 21st century, online learning is essential to providing education to persons throughout the world and the Caribbean... It has the ability to revolutionize higher education in our region,” she says.
The wide gap in digital infrastructure in Latin America and the Caribbean – and to what extent investments are made to shrink it – is also critical in determining just how far online education can go.