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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 468 | Julio 2020
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“Online education has been our lifeline”

The academic vice rector of Managua’s Central American University analyzes the experiences, difficulties and lessons learned providing asynchronous online classes to university students in Nicaragua. The UCA has been offering them particularly since April 2018, and now, with the UCA’s physical campus closed, it is the only alternative given the pandemic.

Wendi Bellanger

I am an anthropologist and my doctoral thesis was a sociological analysis of the results of neoliberal reforms in university education. I want to discuss online education, or virtual education as it’s also called, from a social sciences perspective more than a pedagogical one, specifically looking at our accumulated experience of applying online education at the Central American University (UCA).

What is online education?

Initially called distance learning, this in its various forms and technological capabilities has existed for more than a century. Since the 1980s, it has used the new information technologies and since then on hasn’t stopped improving, keeping pace with the constant improvements in those technologies and the increasing accessibility of digital communication.

Online education isn’t an educator connecting with his/her students on a video-call and sending them assignments and explanations by email. [That scheduled or synchronous classroom modality, usually referred to as “remote teaching,” is done online with a program such as Zoom, which permits interaction among the students and with the teacher.] Much less is it done on WhatsApp, although that’s what many schools and universities in Nicaragua have suddenly had to do given their lack of experience and resources. Online education is a teaching-learning process that takes place entirely in a virtual classroom where the educator posts very precise details about all the activities s/he is going to present over the semester for the students to learn a subject. It is a teacher doing everything s/he would do in person translated into an online space each student can enter at any time.

Over the years, this modality has developed to the point where it has become a specialized area of pedagogy. There are journals, graduate programs and centers dedicated to studying online education and, above all, promoting it. The experts most enthusiastic about this modality say it develops communication skills, assertiveness, greater reflective capacity and a globalized perspective in both teachers and students. For all that, much more research is needed to figure out its full benefits. What is indisputable is that it develops information and digital skills in both teachers and students, which isn’t negligible in today’s world, where not only online education but also teleworking is increasingly common. To do telework well, you need a certain command of information skills.

What are information skills?

Information skills are the set of skills a person must have in order to search, find and select quality information online and, once found, know how to use it in the most appropriate and advantageous way to teach or do one’s work. These skills are increasingly essential for life, for any undertaking and even for exercising citizenship. They are fundamental to both teachers and students for online education.

Given the enormous amount of information that can be found online, knowing how to sift through it and find which is of quality, select the most appropriate for your course and your students, then process it in the best way for the subject you teach is fundamental for those who teach in a physical classroom, and even more so if teaching online. Without this skill, the teacher will get lost amongst so much information and not know what to do with it. Developing this skill is challenging because it still isn’t common. Everyone knows how to surf the internet, but surfing doesn’t mean you know how to get where you want to go, then select and make good use of all the information you find.

Most US university students said they chose to study online because with in-person learning they had to get up early, while they can enter the online classroom any time it suits them and advance at their own convenience. This possibility is one of the advantages also highlighted by one of the few ethnographic investigations with university students that have been done in the world.

Is online education “the future”
or does it reinforce inequalities?

We see two opposing points of view among experts about online education. Some think we’ve taken a leap into “the education of the future” with this modality; they see only advantages. They are generally consultants who train educational institutions in how to implement this modality and typically promote it. They are aware of all the innovations it affords, and their work is to entice others with its possibilities. Typically the same ones who promote telework, they argue that we no longer need to have physical offices and advocate that everyone should work from home. I think there’s a “disconnect” in this thinking with how human psychology works.

The other point of view is shared by those who know and have practiced online education but don’t work to promote it. For various reasons, they believe online education reinforces existing inequalities. Those who don’t have sufficient internet to be efficient, don’t have it at all because it’s too expensive, or don’t have a good computer, can’t take full advantage of online education. For this material reason alone, online education causes enormous inequalities, and not only in countries as technologically challenged as Nicaragua. It also occurs in the United States and Europe, where many students no longer have the same possibilities when they have to study at home as they had in the universities with in-person classes, computer banks for student use and powerful internet access. Studying at home shows up the gap that exists between some students and others.

Evidence that online education reinforces inequalities among students shows that, despite everything, in-person education at every level—elementary, secondary and university—has been a great social equalizer because it has the power to deliver the same content equally to everyone at the same time and in the same classroom. Moreover, students from different social classes are physically in the same place, not only in public schools but also in private ones, because even in the most elite schools there are scholarship students. When the university closes, the reality facing a Harvard scholarship student at home is very different from that of a wealthy student at her/his luxurious home.

In-person education brings together and equalizes not only social classes but also different nationalities. People of color and whites, students from different countries meet, talk, and listen to each other in the same place and this enriches their education, whereas this fundamental connection is lost with online education. Online, I’m educating myself but I’m not learning to see myself among others who are different from me and who are educating themselves together with me.

An opportunity to escape poverty

Reading texts from Europe and the US describing what it means in this pandemic crisis for a poor student having to study at home, with so many limitations, made me realize that university is still an opportunity to escape poverty for many people. This strikes me because we in the Social Sciences have been very critical of the universities for being elitist, as those who arrive with cultural and social capital are most likely to succeed. While this is still true, the fact that online education reinforces inequalities and leaves behind the economically and socially disadvantaged students shows us that we must continue taking care of in-person education at the universities and in all the educational institutions because they are social equalizers.

At the UCA I have known what it is for our students, male and female, to find themselves on campus. Some come in their own vehicles and others on the bus, but here they all enjoy the same gardens, go to the same library, use the same laboratory and the university’s computers and do their assignments here on an equal basis… while at home, some will do their work in comfort and others won’t be able to do it at all. Very diverse students have access to the UCA, and we have many on scholarships. This heterogeneous mix is a large part of the richness this university offers in providing an education in all senses of the word

A lifeline in times of emergency

I would like to share what I experienced in the UCA when, for emergency reasons, we had to adopt online education. I believe my empirical experience has enabled me to have a more grounded vision, one more practical than theoretical, about the advantages and disadvantages of online education. I confess I’ve never been a fan of this modality, but with all we have lived through in Nicaragua I now consider it a life insurance. As with all such policies you hope you won’t have to use it much…but if we don’t have it, what will we do when we need it? At the UCA we have proved that online education is a lifeline for a university in times of crisis and that’s why we can neither repudiate it nor stop promoting it.

The UCA already has 12 years of experience with online education. It was highly promoted, encouraged and organized by the academic vice rector who preceded me. In those years, before the April 2018 crisis, we managed to offer up to 38 online courses each semester. They were quite varied, generally on some theoretical subjects in different careers, beginning with courses on history, gender and the like. Teachers and students understood the novelty and were inspired, and gradually progress was made. The modality was very much in the forefront in the university, but I don’t think it was a preferential option for either teachers or students. In order to introduce it, the vice rectory put some courses that had to be online in the study plans of certain careers. They wanted to promote the modality, but no entire career was designed online, only certain courses.

When students risked their lives
entering or leaving the campus

The political crisis that began with the April 2018 civic rebellion made the universities and university students the targets of state repression. The UCA was a dangerous place for students throughout 2018. That forced us to switch to online education. It was a leap of faith: we had to abandon in-person education and wholeheartedly adopt online education rather than view it just as an option for certain courses. It was our only alternative in those extremely dangerous times.

We concluded the first semester and couldn’t reopen the campus for several months after April 2018, as entering and leaving the UCA was a risk, especially for young people. By September, the repression still hadn’t ceased, but the most aggressive acts had abated, so we offered what we called an “online academic cycle.” Students could enroll and take two courses in each year of each major, thus advancing toward their degree. Any who didn’t want to, had the right to not study anything online.

By then, the UCA had lost a lot of students. Some had to go into exile, others were in prison and others were sheltering from persecution in safe houses; some had just stopped studying.

The online academic cycle initiative broke several barriers. Prior to April 2018, 10-12% of our students at most chose some class online.

To offer those online courses, we had to hire educators who already knew how to design them. We got inspired and organized in a very short time. It was a tremendous challenge for the teachers, who had to design their online courses, and for the students because only some of them knew what it was like to learn online. In our evaluation we saw that our platform worked with no errors. We learned that we could do it. Achieving what we did was a real accomplishment.

After that feat, 2019 passed quite normally, although the UCA always continued to be under police siege. It was still very much out of favor with the government.

2018 put us ahead of the game

With the pandemic we’ve had to resort to teaching online again. There’s a very significant difference between what we did in 2018 and what we’re doing in 2020. Back then we took a risk. Today, we’ve had to repeat the efforts of 2018, but now with more experience. When the pandemic arrived, I’m sure we were the best prepared university in Nicaragua and perhaps in Central America, except for universities that already have everything online. That 2018 experience enabled us to identify the essential elements the university needed to develop to provide online education of the highest possible quality.

The distinctive feature this time, the one that complicates the process, was that the courses had already started in-person and had to switch to online almost overnight. The first infections in Nicaragua occurred in March, and we in the UCA quickly switched to online education to avoid having large numbers of students in the classrooms. The teachers hadn’t signed contracts to teach online and the students had enrolled for in-person not online courses. But both teachers and students understood that we had to switch because it was literally our only lifeline. We’re now offering up to 432 courses online and more than 50% of those who enrolled have carried on studying, including scholarship students, who were kept on their scholarship.

Online teaching critiqued in memes

In Nicaragua, the pandemic opened up efforts to switch private elementary schools to online teaching, and when the private high schools and universities closed, online education entered even more homes and families. Very soon, this modality became caricatured in memes.

When something triggers memes it’s because it’s already of generalized interest and concern. Those memes jokingly expose the flaws in online education as it’s practiced in our country today: with great improvisation. Due to a lack of experience, resources and almost everything, most of the “online” education that’s offered lacks quality and causes parental concern, but there’s no alternative: it’s that or stop studying.

With our 2018 experience, we managed to improve everything a lot and in the first semester of this year we had switched 928 classes and were also teaching English, French and Japanese online. By this time around, we had already discovered a lot: our platform didn’t crash, our technology worked well for what we need, our equipment had the necessary capacity, our educators were trained...

The nuts and bolts
of online teaching

Online education means that everything taught in a given class is provided in the virtual classroom. Employing precise planning, the teacher must specify to the students the course objectives, the readings for it, the assignments they will do and the deadline for sending them in. The educator may plan activities, such as a live conference call with the students who can attend in real time, but it isn’t compulsory. There are variations, but generally an online class has a combination of activities that take place in real time—and are recorded—with activities that each student performs individually, all according to the design previously planned by the educator. The students could take a whole course online without ever interacting with the teacher or being connected with the other students at the same time.

All the UCA’s online classrooms are on its platform, the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), which is mounted on the world’s most widely used software, Moodle. Our computer team created space on the platform for each online classroom and the educator of record, who coordinates and will supervise that class, is assigned to that classroom. It also enrolls all the students who will take that course. The online classroom is always open, but only to those who have previously been enrolled online; they can enter whenever they want.

The first thing an online classroom educator must do is design in detail how the classroom will work, updating the course syllabus and its contents. S/he also has to upload the instructions for the students in the right place, activate a question forum if s/he wishes to offer it, putting in the spaces where s/he will receive the students’ assignments, situating what we call “work agendas.” These agendas, which are usually weekly or bi-weekly, must show all the activities the students will do: readings, assignments, deadlines, how many points each assignment carries… The educator must upload the corrected assignment into this area and give the students feedback, answering their questions or any doubts.

Everything must be
planned in detail

Giving an online course doesn’t just involve making a good syllabus but also developing a good work agenda from those contents, which replaces what would have been all the explanations given in a physical classroom. Everything that will be done throughout the course must be very clearly laid out for the student in this agenda: if queries will be explained, if a videoconference will be offered, if a potentially creative exercise will be designed…

Nothing can be improvised in online education. This week, for example, the educator writes: “In the next two weeks you are going to read this text, this chapter of this book, and then you are going to upload a summary to me, at the latest by this date.” S/he uploads the texts they are going to read and a video if she wants, then awaits any questions or queries in a specific space set up for them.

The student-teacher exchange is affected by the generation gap, so a student will frequently ask the educator a question at midnight or on a Sunday, because that’s when they are busy doing the work. Students born into the digital world are used to the immediacy of the physical classroom and naturally transfer it to online; they also know how to do certain little tricks to present work outside of the deadlines set in the online classroom.

Everything is possible online…

The virtual platform enables a variety of activities to be included in the online classroom: blogs, wiki, questionnaires, exams, videos, different kinds of forums, games linked to cell phones, etc. It’s a long list. But while the educator can do many things on line, it requires not just innovative thinking but also information technology capacity, which not all educators, particularly older ones, have.

The educator can call all his/her students to listen in on a Google Meet conference call on a certain date, where everyone can see each other. The disadvantage with these conference calls is that there may be students without internet access on that date and at that time, but the conference is recorded in the online classroom so those who couldn’t connect then can at least see it at another time. The deans tell me the educators found that conference calls where all the students connect with their teacher at the same time give better results because they are encouraged by seeing themselves together.

Online education has stripped
our classroom problems bare

Online education, now mainstreamed due to the shock of the pandemic, has stripped us bare, and by doing so has done us a favor, because many of the problems we notice in online education were always there in in-person education as well, but they went unperceived. Online educators must have information skills, which enable them to search, select and present information to their students but, first and foremost, they must be experts in the subjects they teach so they know what to emphasize. If they don’t know the material in depth, they won’t know how to organize online teaching well, won’t know which activities they can eliminate and which ones to add, will hardly adapt their programs when going from in-person to online and will be lost in the online classroom.

An educator who only uploads texts to be read and doesn’t program the space for asking questions about it, or places all the instructions in the same space, or doesn’t know how to program virtual space properly will be seen by the students as a bad teacher. It would be the equivalent of an educator going into a physical classroom and just talking or reading the pages of a presentation then giving homework assignments, without explaining anything, engaging with the students, or designing activities.

Students often say, “You don’t learn online” and families tend to complain that the UCA is charging the same for online education as for in-person because they feel online education is inferior. It’s also very common for educators to say: “We have to work much harder.”

Online classrooms can be kept in the university’s archives for a time after the semester has ended. They are eventually erased but, until they are, the course remains there with everything the students did: if they had a forum and the discussions that took place in it; if they saw a video … everything stays there. It’s good to keep them for a time in case any complaint arises.

Organization is the key element

Let’s now look at the most important elements to bear in mind for developing quality online education and allowing the students to experience a relevant teaching-learning process.

Offering online courses involves tremendous teamwork. It entails everyone in the educational institution moving as in a perfectly choreographed, collective dance, where everyone must coordinate their steps, with perfect timing. Any small flaw can easily create chaos and impact everything, which then affects each student in every course. Information technology people play a fundamental role in organizing the whole team, as do those in charge of academic management, who are not necessarily educators. That’s why I think education today needs more engineers, people trained to think logically about cause and effect, find solutions, anticipate problems and innovate. People like that support the faculty so the whole online machinery works smoothly.

In-person education also requires organization, but a flaw in online education is felt immediately. The quality isn’t entirely ensured by the faculty. We have a great advantage today at the UCA because the administrative vice rector is an academic with a good grasp of world-class higher education and he administers the UCA so educators can dedicate themselves exclusively to teaching. An administration that doesn’t understand, or doesn’t want to, makes every solution into a problem and no progress can be made.

A lot of planning also goes into assuring that the entire institution guarantees this way of teaching. It’s a huge challenge for educators because, as I mentioned, you can’t improvise in an online course the way you can in a physical classroom, where the educator can come up with a creative way to deal with some unforeseen circumstance. In online education even the most experienced teacher drops the ball sometimes, just because s/he didn’t properly plan or program some date on the platform, or the space for uploading the assignment or the deadline for reviewing it. You have to plan many tiny details, which don’t take a moment in a physical classroom but have to be exactly planned for in online teaching. Each activity must not only be chosen well but programmed well, with date and time, and all have to be correctly activated on the platform.

Not just educators, but also the institution and the students must be organized and focused on the objective. And that requires good communication between the faculty and middle management. Good organization in a university requires middle managers with leadership talent. We don’t need autocratic figures who are the fount of all knowledge. We need the whole orchestra to know the score and each member to play its part on its own instrument.

There are about 400 people in the UCA’s orchestra. There are all the educators, those in charge of each department and those who coordinate each career. Then there’s the whole computer team. There are those who handle all the centralized administration of the courses, enrolment, and payments. Organizing so many people for online education so it all works smoothly is much more complex for the university than when it was only operating in-person.

Going from improvising to
organized was hard for some

As nothing behind the scenes in the online classroom can be improvised either, many schools and universities found it very hard to suddenly have to switch to online teaching because they didn’t have that know-how. Furthermore, the issue of organization and the errors caused by improvising isn’t exclusive to universities; it’s the same with elementary and secondary schools. Those that already had their virtual platform more or less ready knew how to do it, but those that had to improvise resorted to the Google Classroom and had to start in a matter of days.

There is still so much improvisation today that parents notice their children aren’t learning because they are sent homework they don’t understand; they feel the school is confused and worry that their children are going to flunk the year. They see online learning reduced to the teacher sending homework by telephone, even via WhatsApp, which some get and others don’t. When the learning center isn’t prepared, online education doesn’t go beyond a teacher sending the students WhatsApp messages. Who can learn in that kind of disarray?

In the UCA we have a policy of banning students and teachers from sending WhatsApp messages. We consider it inappropriate for students and their teachers to have each other’s personal phone number because it lends itself to many things, including sexual harassment. If a teacher is well organized and planned, there’s no need for phone calls; everything will flow smoothly, and the online classroom is there for putting all kinds of notifications into it.

Communication and the
need for literacy skills

Online education requires teachers and students to be able to communicate clearly and precisely in writing. The educator must be able to communicate specific information and precise instructions to the student about the activities that must be done and must know how to clearly answer the questions asked. We are very good at communicating orally in our country, and that works in the physical classroom. If someone doesn’t understand, it can be explained, even individually, but this doesn’t work in the online classroom. Comprehensible and precise written language becomes an enormous challenge for the virtual classroom to function well.

I mentioned before that online education exposes existing weaknesses, and one of the biggest in Nicaragua is shortcomings in reading comprehension and writing. Resolving this problem needs to be prioritized for online education to work better at all levels of schooling. We have educators who are admirably skilled with the spoken word. They perform flawlessly in physical classrooms, can give a very good lecture, have a good command of the classroom and the group and know how to get students involved… but all these qualities are not always accompanied by clear writing, and the virtual modality relies on the written word a lot. Of course, the educator can be videoed giving instructions, which can be uploaded to the online classroom, but this also requires good technology and a suitable place to video it… in an office shared with others? …at home?

Seeing the students’ reaction to what’s being said enables a good physical classroom teacher to know if they are understanding what is being explained or not. Without seeing them, it has to be explained very clearly in writing, and we know only too well that there are students, and also teachers, who can’t make themselves understood even in a short email message. Among other things, they don’t use good punctuation. Under these conditions, how can a teacher who can’t explain him/herself well in writing at the level of complexity required by the subject hope to conduct an online course over a whole semester?

And what about the students? Giving written instructions entails an important level of abstraction, but so does knowing how to interpret it. The primary problem is that many people don’t comprehend what they read and don’t know how to write what they want to communicate. This widespread educational shortcoming isn’t resolved by having training courses on the use of technology.

We need ongoing
teacher training

Overcoming this problem is an enormous and pressing task for the national educational system. Meanwhile, for online education to work, continuous teacher training is crucial to teach them how to make the most of the online classroom. One week of technical training isn’t enough. You can give courses and whole certification programs on online education and still find something new. The UCA has a training route for teachers, with certification courses that specifically deal with online education. There are also quick courses, online tutorials and individualized consultancies so teachers can contact an expert who can help them resolve specific problems they come across. They have been so effective and helpful we are promoting having someone always available to resolve any difficulty teachers encounter. Anyone who is going to teach online must also be able to learn online. The UCA produces online tutorials to teach teachers how to do certain things on the platform. I learned with excellent tutorials made by my colleagues. We have a department with an expert in online education who is always available to help.

All educators, whatever their technology level, have the option of receiving tutorials adapted to their ability. We’ve seen faculty members who don’t really understand how to switch to online education, who are “at zero,” and must be trained individually or meet with others who are at the same basic level, because participating in courses with people who know more makes them feel ashamed to ask questions.

There are extreme cases of teachers who know a lot in their own field and know how to teach but, due to their age or for some other reason, can’t master the technology and we don’t have time to train them. We can’t hire them and so lose teachers of long standing because they don’t know anything about technology. I believe that all the full-time faculty at the UCA today are already well trained, as are the adjunct instructors who have more years at the university, but we continue offering ongoing training, so they keep learning new tools.

A university educator doesn’t have to be a cyber expert. We have some who pick up every new technological invention right away. Not everyone has to be like that, but they do all have to understand how an online classroom works because if they don’t know how to use the VCE, the students will know it and lose respect for them. They must be able to move confidently in the online classroom, with the same assurance they show in the physical classroom. They can’t stay in a “corner” of the virtual classroom, just as they wouldn’t stay in a physical classroom’s corner. They don’t have to know everything, but nor can they just upload Power Point presentations. The virtual classroom doesn’t teach by itself; the students must be guided in the teaching-learning process.

Supervision is easier online

Experts in education have always insisted on the importance of academic observation, of supervising how the faculty member is giving the class, to ensure quality at all levels of elementary, secondary and higher education. But this is done infrequently because it’s very uncomfortable to have a third party in the classroom watching how the class is being taught. Because the online classroom is virtual, this discomfort disappears. The course coordinator can enter the online classroom of any teacher at any moment to see what is happening, how the course is being managed, if the students are being attended to properly, how their questions are being answered … and do it invisibly, without causing discomfort or diverting attention. And because everything in an online classroom is recorded, the supervisor can see if a student downloads a document and at what time, how many of them downloaded it, if they entered the assignments space… And if a student says: “I didn’t do that because I didn’t see it,” it is discovered to be an excuse right away because everything is recorded.

There are differences between good and bad teachers online just as there are in face-to-face education, which is why supervision is so important. It also helps us know when a teacher is having difficulties and needs help learning how to make an online classroom work better. The careers that function best on line are those that have coordinators who are constantly supervising.

Not all subjects lend
themselves to online teaching

Some courses lend themselves more readily to online education, such as those that are basically theoretical and generate debate or allow for a lecture, which can have the same richness online as they would have in a physical classroom.

There are also subjects that lose in online education, primarily those in the arts. None of the workshops we offer at the UCA in theater, lyrical singing, choir, music, creative literature and the like have a place in online education. It’s possible that something could be done by being creative, but it would be hard. Sports is another loser. We give cultural and sports training workshops the status of courses because of their importance for human development. It’s why we say we lost a large part of our curriculum by switching to online teaching.

Other activities, such as social service or social volunteering placements, which are so important at the UCA, are not possible to cover online, and neither are pre-professional practical internships, courses that are in the study programs. In both the 2018 crisis, and this one caused by the pandemic, doing internships outside the university has been, and still is, a risk for the students.

All the classes using laboratories also lose out. In some cases, something can be done because there are virtual laboratory simulators. With the accelerated development of online education, alternative solutions have been found for some subjects. There are courses that need specialized equipment and installations that don’t translate so well into online education. In architecture, for example, designs can be made on software, but the drawing table is still used. We have tables in the UCA but there are students who don’t have them at home.

Student support and counselling

Other very important activities that must be included in online education are counselling programs and support for the most vulnerable students. The people who come to the UCA are very heterogeneous; among them are students with very limited resources who study on a scholarship and are already disadvantaged in normal times. We have various programs to support them: tutorials, counselling and courses to improve certain skills that students coming from private education learn at school but not those who come from public schools.

We don’t have to lower our standards by adopting online education; on the contrary, we raise them. We have an office that was dedicated to contacting all the scholarship students when the pandemic crisis began, to find out how many had internet, computers… or what they had.

As many students were without these resources before the voluntary quarantine called for by the medical profession had started, we opened the campus to them and invited them to come and use our computers, connect with the internet in the UCA laboratory and use the library, giving them access to what they didn’t have at home. We didn’t do this only with the students, but also with the educators who didn’t have internet access and their own good computers.

Most of the adjunct instructors don’t have internet access with enough speed or a working laptop at home so we also invited them to come in so they could continue working here. We were able to employ that solution as mandatory quarantining was never declared in Nicaragua, and students were coming in from Managua, Masaya, Granada, León… This wasn’t possible with municipalities and departments far from Managua, particularly but not only the Caribbean Coast. We did it until the end of the semester, when the UCA itself decided to go into strict quarantine.

When we were contacting our scholarship students, we discovered that many of them had found a solution or one was found for them: they went to the house of a neighbor or a friend and borrowed a computer and/or modem so they could to keep studying. One student, who was on Ometepe On April 20 when the riot police attacked and besieged the island, fled and took her computer and modem with her so she could keep on working… This strengthened our belief that the alternative is never to lower standards or requirements. This idea is important because there’s a strong temptation in our educational community to reduce demands on scholarship students in times of crisis…

Accessing international
online courses

One advantage of online education is that anyone can access other countries’ educational programs, which they couldn’t participate in if they weren’t online. This is a great opportunity. Today there are online masters and even doctorate courses. Another advantage is to create international experiences in the online classroom. A teacher in Nicaragua can contact a teacher in another country and join their classes together. The participating students grow with this experience.

This is comparable to traditional academic exchanges, except that the latter are only accessible to those who have a family able to pay their costs. Most students can’t even consider it.

Neoliberal ideas in education

The current emphasis on promoting online education isn’t a direct consequence of the neoliberal reforms in education. Online education precedes those reforms, whose consequences go further in teaching/studying modalities and methods. That said, neoliberal reforms do very much tend to promote the information technologies, generating users for the telecommunications companies, internet and non-free software, whose licenses cost a fortune. Companies that produce educational software are known to spend millions of dollars annually convincing educational institutions and the general public that education on line is as good as it is in person.

Nonetheless, the most important element of the neoliberal reforms in higher education isn’t focused on student learning but on student satisfaction with the school. They turn the student into a client and the teacher into a professional who has to offer an education that satisfies the student. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it isn’t the main objective of education either. Neoliberal reforms stress the educational institutions’ control systems to one end: the student’s feeling of satisfaction with the “product” the educational institution is “selling.” Whether the student learns or not is secondary. This turns pedagogy into the study of how to manage educational institutions in order to attain satisfied student-clients. Universities now have to navigate in these waters.

These ideas have also come to Nicaragua, where the processes regulated by the National Council for Evaluation and Accreditation are based on that rationale. Such processes don’t ensure a substantial improvement in teaching. Online teaching sharpens the students’ neoliberal focus; they become convinced that, as “clients,” they are buying a product when they pay the university tuition, and what they are being sold when they are offered online classes is second-rate. This is the tension we’re feeling.

Nicaragua’s autonomous
institutions are isolated

Another tension we feel in today’s Nicaragua, is that of being alone. Autonomous institutions such as the UCA are alone. No state project is collaborating to better prepare all the universities for online education. The government hasn’t even suspended in-person classes in the public schools and universities. Incredibly, the modality of study has become a political issue in Nicaragua. Those who obey the regime and have lost every vestige of autonomy eschew online learning. This confuses the students and teachers and jeopardizes any effort to protect people in a time of COVID-19. Some adjunct instructors at the UCA have been teaching our students online but have had to continue to go into the physical classrooms of public universities.

The National Council of Universities should have been prepared for the challenge of expanding online education, considering that when it inaugurated the Open Online University, in March 2017, it said it would offer degrees, technical careers and free courses to over 20,000 students. The president of the Popular Universities of Extremadura, an autonomous community of Spain, came to that inauguration, wept with emotion, and said that Nicaragua was “making history” and had become an example to the world of higher education democratization. We don’t know what has become of that project today. To me, it always seemed to be on a par with the Inter-Oceanic Canal: a huge sham.

Cultural factors
against online learning

Not only do most people in Nicaragua today not have good internet at home; there are also few places such as cybercafés with that technology near many students’ families, which results in many of the youngest students having no one in the family with minimal skills to help them at home. This also happens to university students.

Many cultural factors—always an enormous obstacle—also explain why most people don’t appreciate, and even detest, online education. In the first place, when people compare online with in-person, online always comes out losing. Teachers prefer to see their students and the students want to see their teachers. Moreover, students’ families feel “they don’t learn much” at home… or are learning nothing.

Many people ask if the teaching is as good online as when they received in-person classes and if the students learn as much as they did before. The two modalities aren’t comparable, but people always compare them. When we evaluated it, the students said they had learned and everything worked well, but they didn’t like online education because it’s always compared to in-person learning. At least they have been able to adapt and continue learning.

This is how the youngsters always answer our evaluations: Did you learn? Yes. Was the teacher good? Yes. Did s/he do this, did s/he do that…? Yes. Did you achieve your goals? Yes. They answer yes to everything but when we ask them if they will take another online course, they answer: NO. Why? Because I prefer in-person courses. So, we know we’re doing it right, the best we can, but people just don’t like the modality, and if you’re convinced you don’t learn, you don’t learn… that’s how human beings are.

Something curious is happening these days: people are willing to look for a partner and fall in love online but not to study online. How many people even go for drinks with someone they just met online, but learning the history of Nicaragua online? No.

The academic culture is
also against online learning

The academic culture is another, perhaps even more significant, factor that is prejudiced against online education. The prevailing academic culture in a country, institution or faculty is sometimes very deeply rooted. Every university faculty has academic departments, which constitute “a country with different peoples.” Law students have their particular academic culture, which you can see in everything they are and do. It’s the same with those from Communication or Engineering or Economics. These subcultures within academic cultures are part of the richness of a university, something positive, but they also influence a student’s capacity to open up to online education or make the most of it. There are careers where online access is inherent to their discipline, while in others it’s incidental.

Nicaragua’s academic culture has a problem: we need to promote autonomy and proactivity in university students’ learning process, but throughout their schooling our students are used to their teachers leading them by the hand in frequent and extended classroom sessions. The students’ lack of autonomy leaves them less prepared to adapt to online learning in difficult circumstances so as to continue learning. We also have a continuous assessment system, in which students accumulate points, points, points…

Their skills are cognitively divided, knowledge is evaluated piece by piece so the students go step by step, and when asked for something more comprehensive they become flustered because they are used to answering now this, now that, now the other… They aren’t taught to think, to analyze.

I’m talking about higher education, aimed at students who should be autonomous. Elementary students do need to be taken by the hand, so they don’t go off track. That’s less true secondary, where they need to progress gradually towards autonomy. However, this doesn’t always happen in our academic culture and we continue to see and treat university students as if they were elementary students… The worst is when we try to unify course syllabuses, fearing a student’s confusion if one lecturer says one thing and another says something else, even knowing that knowledge is formed by listening to different opinions and making a determination based on a plurality of criteria.

Comparing ourselves
to other countries

In other countries, teachers will plan to evaluate their students’ progress in one semester with two or three assignments, sometimes with just one; in Nicaragua there can be ten or fifteen evaluations. This can have advantages: students aren’t alarmed, they gain points as they progress; it prevents them from flunking; it gives the teacher the possibility of detecting on an almost weekly basis how they are progressing in their learning… But it has negative aspects as well because children get used to being led by the hand and this reduces their ability to understand a non-specific instruction and execute it with common sense, something they will have to do when they become professionals. Reproducing this approach online is more complicated and difficult. Studying online can feel lonelier for someone used to asking the teacher for constant clarifications.

Online education:
For better and for worse

This academic culture leaves students less prepared to study and learn in the current emergency situation affecting our country, and the whole world. Furthermore, another pandemic could come along, caused by another virus, or another “April” against the regime. Therefore, we must accept that online education is going to be there as a lifeline, because if not, what will we do? Close the university?

Whether we like it or not, online education is here and, for better or for worse, will undergo continuous development. For better, because every day it adapts more to the needs of the users, making it increasingly easier to learn to use it and figure out how it’s programmed, and it’s increasingly more accessible. And for worse, because of what we said earlier about it reinforcing economic and social inequalities, and because educational institutions of countries like Nicaragua must invest a lot of money in having and maintaining servers with the required internet speed. Online education can be more expensive than in-person: keeping it updated is very expensive, as is keeping the servers updated with capacity so the platform doesn’t crash. There are universities with the latest equipment and software. The UCA doesn’t have that but we have known how to use what we have very well. The time will come, however, when we’ll have to invest more in technology. The students will also have to spend more on technology if they want or need to be up to date. There may be students today without books, but not without computers and it’s the same with teachers.

More research is needed that takes into account the psychological and cultural aspects of online education because the studies that abound focus on technology, and all the wonderful things it enables you to do. But studying, teaching and learning are also social phenomena, and comparative studies are needed, set in different realities, to enable us to understand which type of education is best for which subjects, how they can be best adapted, which mental processes are fostered by online learning, for which ages it’s best suited, which tools are best for teaching what… There is still very little research on all this and, as the experts in online education are also promoters of it, a lot of their research has a hidden agenda: to show how marvelous it is and that criticizing it is wrong. What needs to be done now is to better understand its limitations and advantages based on interdisciplinary studies that allow it to continue being developed in a more equitable and open way.

For the UCA it’s been a lifeline

Despite all its advantages, it would be foolish to say that all education should now switch to on line because that’s where the future lies. This modality has to be seen as it is: an important technological advance that enables us to continue with our educational work in emergency conditions such as those we are currently experiencing. At the UCA, we have shown that we’re capable of adapting and we have developed resilience. For the UCA, it’s worth repeating that it has been a lifeline.

In 2018, students risked their lives by coming to university, entering and leaving the campus through gates surrounded by heavily armed police. At that time, and now with the pandemic, educators and students have understood it and decided to study online because it was the only thing there was. Nobody has demanded in-person classes of us because everyone knows very well what’s happening. When studying online is the alternative to not studying at all, people accept it.

That’s why it’s worth continuing to promote online education. But this doesn’t mean the UCA is going to move to online teaching forever or for everything. The students miss the campus, they miss coming to the university, seeing their classmates and their teachers, joking, taking photos, eating, playing, being together… We also miss them. Gregariousness is a powerful factor that defines us as human beings, and also educates us. The UCA’s educators, students and administrators are all desperate to return to in-person learning and when things improve, and we’ll do it immediately!

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