Reimagining educational delivery for flexible learning pathways  

Throughout its 47 short years of existence, The College of The Bahamas (COB), now University of The Bahamas, has been marked by tides of change.

Similarly, in more recent times, we have had change thrust upon us as a nation; first through Hurricane Dorian’s devastation resulting from climate change, then the catastrophic health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Globally, societies must embrace change by necessity, while creating change for sustainability.

As The Bahamas adapts to a new environment and circumstances, we must forge a paradigm shift in the delivery of education and training.

Recent disruptions, along with significant advances in technology and artificial intelligence, have triggered what is now being referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Unfortunately, many societies are attempting to maintain the education delivery system that was created in the 1800s rather than pivoting, leveraging technology, and implementing progressive changes.

Pandemics normally happen once in a lifetime, every 100 years or so, and spark changes that propel the world into a newly defined paradigm.

This means that today’s academicians, as learning facilitators, have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of redefining, reimagining, and re-envisioning educational delivery for generations to come.

Today, one of the key challenges that colleges and universities around the world are facing is declining enrollment due in part to declining applications and fears associated with returning to face-to-face learning.

Surveys reported in Inside HigherEd and the Chronicle of Higher Education – two leading academic publications – indicate that almost 50 percent of the faculty surveyed want virtual teaching and learning opportunities to remain.

As it evolves and grows from a transitional period of emergency remote instruction, University of The Bahamas will be adopting the use of smart, interactive classrooms that will allow students to be taught using a hybrid approach, both face-to-face and virtually.

Though challenged, our academic and training institutions must seize the opportunity to evolve, create an economic paradigm shift, and help lead the country in addressing transition and transformation through digitalization, online and expanded modular skills training.

On a national, regional and global level, there must be significant expansion of online degree offerings, certifications, global partnerships, and dual-enrollments with colleges and universities.

We must capitalize on niche training opportunities and work collaboratively across disciplines, while engaging in new research focusing on the delivery of teaching and extension services, and providing solutions to current community needs that may not have even existed before March 2020.

As we adjust to this new environment, we must adhere to a model of research that expands certifications along with graduate and professional studies, particularly as new technological and artificial intelligence specializations are created.

Over the past 24 months, on many levels, the focus has been on a return to what we considered “normal”.

However, going backward must not be our destination, or even our direction. There is no getting back to normal. It is time to focus on “now” and what we create for the future in the delivery of education in the 21st Century.

Sadly, for the many children who have missed significant periods of learning over the past two years, because of gaps in access to education, even heightened remedial interventions will not fully bridge what they have missed in their social, educational and emotional development.

Moving forward, what is needed is problem and project-based learning, student-centered education and individualization.

We need to implement “Flexible Learning Pathways” across all levels as the 21st Century key to providing equal access to education for all and meeting the needs of diverse students.

In the summer of 2021, the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) hosted a forum where Sustainable Development Goal 4: Planning for Flexible Learning Pathways in Higher Education was launched “to support efforts to promote equity and lifelong learning opportunities for all by investing in flexible higher education systems” (International Policy Forum Background Paper written by Michaela Martin and Uliana Furiv, June 2021).

The UNESCO definition of Flexible Learning Pathways is the creation of “entry points and re-entry points at all ages and all educational levels, strengthened links between formal and non-formal structures and recognition, validation and accreditation of the knowledge, skills and competencies acquired through non-formal and informal education” (UNESCO, 2015, p.33).

To foster progressive and adaptable skills, all college students should be required to complete at least one Computer Information Systems course and learn how to work and create in augmented virtual environments within the first year of their studies. Conversely, this means creating an enabling environment to ensure that this is sustained.

Academicians are being challenged to develop more inter-institutional partnerships, especially through new technological avenues.

They have been challenged to reach out to colleagues around the world, creating virtual study abroad options, and developing co-faculty teaching opportunities. They have been challenged to envision engagement in more faculty and student exchange opportunities, using online, virtual reality, augmented reality and in-person channels.

In this fourth industrial revolution, we must also stretch ourselves into exploring the widespread use of virtual labs, across all grade levels, as we prepare a new generation of productive citizens for a dynamic world.

For the benefit of students at the post-secondary level, this should incorporate creating internships through business and industry, subsequently redefining and increasing avenues for faculty and students to learn and grow in this new era.

Over the next several months and years, we will continue to see a transformation of educational systems around the world.

There will be an increased emphasis on individualized learning through the use of artificial intelligence. As we increase the use of technology to allow our students to learn at their pace, under the supervision of “Learning Facilitators”, we will see a blurring of the lines between the grade level systems that were created in the 1800s; what some have called a factory-model approach to the delivery of education.

We will see systems with more flexible learning pathways that will allow young children to absorb more knowledge and information at a much faster pace than the traditional face-to-face delivery mode.

We will also see more adults taking advantage of the use of flexible learning pathways. They will maximize the use of acquired knowledge, both formally and informally, while attaining new knowledge through the supervised and unsupervised use of artificial intelligence.

Through all of these learning pathways, the evaluation of the acquisition of new knowledge will be completed almost instantaneously.

Our brains are all wired differently. We should not expect our children to all learn in the same way.

As a former school psychologist, I have never tested two children with the same analytical or emotional approach to learning.

This is why, many years ago, I helped teachers design and implement Individualized Educational Programmes (IEPs) to help children progress, at their own pace, from one level of learning to the next.

Today, in a post-pandemic era, IEPs are needed on a more massive level if we are going to bridge the gaps caused by these most recent disruptions.

We stand on the cusp of a moment that offers us the opportunity to harness accelerated technology and flexible approaches to equip our human capital for new-age demands, to increase our capacity to thrive as a country.

Our next steps are crucial.

Dr. Rodney D. Smith is the first president and CEO of University of The Bahamas which was established on November 10, 2016.

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