Online learning in PNG has become a pressing agenda for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) when COVID-19 virus pandemic hit the country and the it had two lock-down periods. The first was in March 2020 for 4 weeks and then in August for another two weeks. During the lock period, learning institutions academic calendars were very much disrupted. Particularly the Universities and College as they scramble to come up with measures to mitigate the disruptions. The processes are ongoing today.
One of the main activity undertaken by most Higher Education Institutions (HEIs ) was the provision of online learning and use of online learning management systems (LMS) like the Moodle, like Google Classroom, Blackboard and host of others as well as face to face communication platforms like Zoom, Skype, GoToMeeting and etc.
Challenges faced by HEIs) For Online Learning in PNG During COVID-19
There are several main challenges faced by HEIs in PNG as revealed by COVID-19 lock down period.
Restricted Student Internet Access.
Access to Internet for students has always been provided in a more restrictive manner at the Higher Education Institutions. Although, staff have full access to internet, student access has been restricted to computer labs, certain areas with Wi-Fi spots and etc. Some institutions have internet access with data quotes per student per day and if the students access internet has gone pass his/her daily data quota limit then access is disallowed until the next day.
While restricted internet access was available with most universities, the story at most of the country’s technical colleges was totally different. Most colleges has no internet access at all available to students and staff. Some have pre-paid internet access with portable routers which are mainly used for administrative purposes only. Mainly email communications.
During the COVID-19 lock down period, institutions find is very difficult to provide student internet access. Because it involved getting the equipment’s from ICT vendors and providing the infrastructure. It wasn’t something they anticipated investing in. In addition, they had to spend money on other necessary requirements to accommodate government imposed SOE COVID-19 protocols like, face masks, additional water taps, hand sanitizers and etc. So with limited students access to or no internet access provided to students, any efforts to produce content for online learning seemed to the institution administration as a waste of much needed resources a crisis situation.
Staff ICT Preparedness for Online Learning.
The ICT skills levels of both academic and support staff was also tested. Face to face mode of teaching and learning has been the dominant form of teaching. Online learning initiatives were a complete shift from it and most staff have limited ICT skills to embrace and quickly adopt. Series of initiatives were undertaken by each of the HEIs to prepare staff for using ICT for teaching and learning. UPNG held a series of training for staff across the different schools to use Moodle Learning Management Learning System. The initiatives were supported by Commonwealth of Learning (www.col.org) Technology Enabled Learning (TEL) project which started in 2019. Papua New Guinea University of Technology, University of Goroka, and Divine Word University also announced in the public media their initiatives to go online learning with Moodle LMS.
Not only did the academic staff required skills in conducting online classes using online teaching and learning technologies like Moodle LMS, but also the technical support staff with the necessary skills to assist them prepare their course contents. In a crisis situation like the COVID-19 period, with all academics trying create content for their respective courses, the lack of enough technical assistance staff was an issue. Those staff with technical skills and quick to adopt embraced the training and did their best to create their content and put them on the LMS platforms while academic staff who had less ICT skills opted to wait for the lock down period to end and resumed face to face with COVID-19 protocol measures.
When the second wave of cases announced and restrictions put in place again, these group of staff had to get back on the drawing board again and start thinking about creating content for online.
Staff Course Loading and Online Learning.
Another factor that impended the adoption of online learning initiatives was the staff course loading. With limited budgetary allocations, a lot of staff teach several courses. In some cases, staff has more than 3 courses. Depending on the course structure and learning outcomes, creating content for online learning requires different input approaches for each course and that put strain on their capacity to create content for online learning. Staff have to first learn how to use the technology and facilitate learning. Then secondly, they have to create content for each course a using a combination of ICT skills to create different contents such as text, videos. And finally, they have to interact with students on those platforms. All these has created a whole new learning opportunities and challenges for the staff.
Student Online Learning.
Students have equal challenges. First the internet connectivity. Given that Internet connectivity is restricted to classroom or computer labs and certain Wifi-spots within the campus. When COVID-19 lock down came, classroom or computer labs were inaccessible in the case of University of Papua New Guinea. For Wifi spots they need a smart phone or a laptop with wireless enabled. It created an unequal learning opportunity for those who cannot have access to a personal laptop or a smartphone. Also, Wifi-spot areas are regarded as public spaces and it not suitable for serious study or concentration. So, most students used the Wifi spots to social media and communication purposes only. Even if students were able to access the LMS, not all the courses were available as a full semester batch. Course availability on the online learning platform were subject to content being posted by the respective academic.
There are students who have opted move out of campus to live with their relatives or parents during the lock down period. They were also disadvantaged because they need to pay for their Mobile Internet Access data. That was an additional cost to relatives and individual students to meet. PNG University of Technology has opted to collect ID student Mobile Numbers and pay for internet data credits direct via arrangement with Telecommunication company like TelikomPNG or Digicel etc
University of Papua New Guinea partner with Telikom PNG to give Mobile Sim cards that can facilitate student accessing UPNG Moodle, UPNG Website and others agreed websites for free while the student can buy internet data if they want to access any other sites.
Student Support Services for Online Learning in PNG.
Lots of students coming into the HEIs in PNG are from Secondary High Schools in the country where they have never experienced online learning and ICT enabled learning environments. Therefore, among the student population in any HEI’s, there exists disparities in ICT literacy skills. There are students who have already been exposed to ICT and have the basic ICT skills to adopt to the changes like Online Learning. And there those who need induction and couching. This responsibility should be shared between the HEI’s ICT Department and the Student Services/Administration department. In most HEI’s there is no clear allocation of responsibilities between these departments when it comes to student ICT literacy education.
Students do learn to adopt to ICT skills while studying. However, it is still a huge challenge for particularly the first year students when they make the transition into higher learning environment. Without the appropriate ICT skills support services, some students will still be behind in utilizing the online services provided at the institutions.
Online Learning Platforms Available Now at Universities in PNG.
The following are links to online learning login sites that are already available now with some of the universities in PNG.
What Can be done by institutions and Government Education Agencies.
COVID-19 has revealed some important things that are lacking at HEIs in Papua New Guinea that needs to be addressed by the administration of the respective institutions and the national government through the Department of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology (DHERTS) as listed below.
- Make student and staff access at the institutions as a compulsory infrastructure at the institutions just like the lecture rooms, office spaces, lecture halls, and student living quarters. For example, Local Area Network (LAN) internet connection at the student dormitories.
- Invest in ICT Departments at each institution to provide quality support to both students and staff on areas of Technology Enabled Learning (TEL) initiatives. Example (support for creation of online learning content and use of appropriate learning management systems like Moodle, Google Classroom and etc). Also, general use of what is considered basics of ICT Literacy like use of PCs, Microsoft Office Applications, Social Media platforms, Email, Internet and etc.