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Perspectives on e-learning: case studies from Cyprus.

INTRODUCTION

During the past decade there has been tremendous progress in the advancement of educational technology, making innovative learning solutions such as e-learning and online education increasingly more feasible in many educational settings. In several countries, the use of e-learning has now begun to noticeably contribute to economic growth. In Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean Sea located at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa, many large-scale e-learning initiatives are currently being undertaken by both public and private organizations, establishing the country as a center for education in the region.

Between the 1960s and 1990s, educational technology efforts in Cyprus schools were limited to the use of traditional audiovisual equipment and a few educational radio and television programs produced by the government. In recent years, however, considerable efforts have been devoted to promoting lifelong learning and integrating information and communication technologies (ICTs) in all levels of education. These efforts have been supported in large part by significant investments in the island's telecommunications infrastructure, which is one of the most developed in the region.

THE CYPRUS EDUCATION SYSTEM

Cyprus has a centralized educational administration system, with the Council of Ministers as the highest authority for educational policy, and the Ministry of Education and Culture (MOEC) responsible for delivery of education in Cyprus. Specifically, the MOEC is entrusted with the administration of education, the enforcement of education laws and, in cooperation with the Office of the Attorney General, the preparation of education bills. Education is compulsory up to the age of 15 and elementary and secondary education is free. The education system in Cyprus consists of the following levels:

* Preprimary Education. One-year preprimary education that has recently become compulsory for children over the age of 3.

* Primary Education. Primary education is compulsory and has duration of 6 years.

* Secondary Education. Secondary education consists of two 3-year cycles of education--Gymnasio (lower secondary education) and Lyceum or Secondary Technical and Vocational Education (upper secondary education).

* Higher Education. There are currently three public universities (Cyprus University of Technology, Open University of Cyprus, University of Cyprus) and three private universities (University of Nicosia, Frederick University, European University Cyprus).

After several private higher education colleges had been operating on the island for decades, Cyprus established the first public university, the University of Cyprus, in 1992. With the additional expansion of operations by the renowned Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics, government spending on research and development increased substantially and efforts began to promote Cyprus as a center for services, business, and education in the region. These efforts also included a plan to improve higher education provided by both public and private institutions and a recent law now allows the establishment and operation of private universities in Cyprus. The positions that are allocated to Cypriot high school graduates for studies in higher education institutions are distributed among the candidates based on the results of the competitive entrance examinations that are held every year by the Department of Higher and Tertiary Education.

Cyprus' accession to the European Union (EU) on May 1, 2004 also had a strong impact on the country's education, economy, and culture. Cyprus had been a member of the Council of Europe since 1960 and followed policies similar to those of the EU member-states in the field of education. With accession to the EU, Cyprus has been more actively participating in EU-funded projects in the areas of education, e-learning, and vocational education.

E-LEARNING IN CYPRUS

All European nations have established policies for using e-learning and incorporating ICT in education. Their objectives have focused on the categories of equipment, the acquisition and development of software, the skills of teachers, the skills of students, and the use of the Internet. After the special evaluation report of the Cyprus education system, conducted in 1997 by the International Institute for Education Planning (1997), a number of reforms were implemented on the island in an effort to raise the quality of education, such as the integration of computers and Internet connectivity into all levels of classroom teaching.

In a recent study (Empirica, 2006) about the use of computers and the Internet in schools in Europe, it was found that almost all schools in Cyprus now use computers for teaching and have Internet access, with the highest percentage being achieved in primary schools (95%). Only 31% use the Internet via a broadband connection, ranking Cyprus 25th among the 27 countries participating in the survey. However, the survey did not make clear how many computers are used per class, and the study was based on limited observations.

While schools in Cyprus appear to be well-equipped with technology and an ICT in education plan exists for formal education, what has generally been lacking is a holistic e-learning strategy encompassing education, business, and industry. To that end, the recent International Council for Educational Media 2007 conference, hosted in Cyprus by CARDET (Centre for the Advancement of Research and Development in Educational Technology), invited key national experts in the area of e-learning to present their views and engage in a public dialogue on e-learning. Participants included representatives from the MOEC, the Pedagogical Institute, the University of Cyprus, the Open University of Cyprus, the European University Cyprus, and the University of Nicosia. The findings of the symposium revealed that several initiatives are currently under way which use a wide variety of technologies to offer education opportunities to learners of all ages. Some of these projects are presented and discussed in the following section.

E-LEARNING CASE STUDIES

Cyprus and the European Union have signed several protocols on financial and technical cooperation providing substantial financial aid to the island. In addition, Cypriot public and private organizations are increasingly participating in various EU-funded educational initiatives. Recently, the European Commission integrated its various educational and training initiatives under a single umbrella, the Lifelong Learning Program. With a significant budget of nearly 7 billion euro for 2007 to 2013, the new program replaces the existing education, vocational training, and e-learning programs, which ended in 2006. The new Lifelong Learning Program consists of several subprograms, including Comenius (for schools), Erasmus (for higher education), Leonardo da Vinci (for vocational education and training), and Grundtvig (for adult education).

Among the critical factors impacting the development and implementation of e-learning initiatives, are the skills and competencies of online tutors. One recent example of an e-learning project, funded under the Leonardo da Vinci subprogram, is METER (Monitoring, Evaluating and improving e-trainers competences in a life-long learning environment). The project lead partner is the Institute for Adult and Vocational Education, under the Greek Ministry of Education. CARDET is the partner organization from Cyprus focusing on needs analysis, curriculum development, and quality assurance. The aim of the project is twofold: (1) to provide the means for training organizations to monitor, evaluate, and improve the competences of trainers regarding skills required for efficient and effective use of ICT, and (2) to develop training curricula for e-trainers of vocational education organizations to be offered throughout Europe. The projects aims to build the competencies of individuals and organizations involved in e-learning in Europe and at the same time raises the quality of education and training offered across sectors with the use of online technologies.

Another EU-funded project in which Cyprus participates is called Multiple Intelligences Instructional Design Framework for Virtual Classes. The program is in collaboration with the Waterford Institute of Technology and five other EU partners. This project uses the theory of multiple intelligences as a conceptual tool for the design of e-learning programs, and has developed and validated an instructional design framework for virtual classes. Pilot courses are being developed in the area of construction safety, and will be offered and evaluated in the participant countries.

One of the key challenges of European collaborations has to do with the multicultural nature of the organizations participating in the projects across borders. A project funded by the European Commission and which focuses on cultural diversity is called ADAPT (Adapting e-learning to Small Medium Enterprises Cultural Diversity). The project leader is Henley College of Management in the United Kingdom, with partners from Cyprus, Italy, Sweden, and Lithuania. This project aims to analyze and compare the findings from five previous EU-supported projects and to consult with national and regional businesses, trainers, and e-learning developers to explore how e-learning needs can be adapted for different cultures and regions. The project will produce and disseminate an expert report to wider education and training communities in each country, which will inform future e-learning training providers about the specific e-learning needs of various sectors.

In addition to the e-learning offerings by the recently established Open University of Cyprus, there are several e-learning initiatives being implemented by both private and public organizations. Research centers, universities, and colleges have established agreements and collaborations with institutions from abroad. For example, the University of Nicosia has signed agreements with several EU- and U.S.-based universities to offer joint degrees using distance learning technologies. Also, the Mediterranean Virtual University allows students from leading universities in the Mediterranean region and Europe to enroll in various online courses developed and offered by the 11 partner universities. Since September 2006, 40 online courses in computer science and engineering and four courses in development studies have been offered (http://ls-ewdssps.ces.strath .ac.uk/MVU/).

A further EU-supported e-learning initiative is UNITE (Unified eLearning Environment for the School). This is an Information Society Technologies project under Framework Program 6 of the European Commission, and the local partner in this project is the University of Cyprus. The UNITE consortium has developed and established a technical platform enhanced with pedagogical guidance for the creation of high-quality e-learning content for secondary school. UNITE's technology has the flexibility to adapt to the learner's cultural environment and to his or her personal learning style. The UNITE portal-like platform supports the reuse of content material, the exchange of best practices, and the improvement of pedagogic models (http://www.unite-ist.org). Based on a socioconstructivist approach, UNITE developed a "best-practice" pedagogical framework that harnesses the potential of mobile technologies to foster enquiry/discovery learning and autonomous learning.

A large-scale open and distance learning initiative is the Virtual University of the Small States of the Commonwealth (VUSSC) launched in 2001 by the Commonwealth of Learning. The VUSSC is a consortium of institutions from small states of the Commonwealth (populations < 4 million), enabled by appropriate ICT applications, collaborating in practical ways to plan programs, develop the required content and ensure the delivery of those programs and support services to learners. Through the VUSSC, learners from island nations in the Caribbean, Pacific, Mediterranean (including Cyprus), Indian Ocean, as well as small countries in Africa, can gain online access to open educational resources designed to meet the development needs of participating countries. These non-proprietary course materials are integrated into accredited programs at postsecondary institutions in the participating countries, strengthening their educational capacity and outreach (http://www.wikieducator.org/VUSSC).

Finally, recent developments in mobile learning technologies have allowed the implementation of projects that use mobile devices and handheld computers in educational settings. Two ongoing research projects integrating mobile learning are Handlearn and Technoskepsi (http:// mlearn.cardet.org), both supported by the Cyprus Research Promotion Foundation. These projects investigate the use of handheld technologies within nonformal science learning settings as a means to support scientific inquiry and reasoning at the elementary school. Specifically, these two projects aim to: develop and implement curriculum material informed by perspectives on the nature of science issues, and the use of mobile technologies to support learning; investigate the role of handhelds in outdoors science investigations, and; produce material for both teacher education and teacher professional development. The learning context of the two projects combine formal (i.e., classroom), nonformal (i.e., Web-based), and informal (e.g., park) learning environments and engage students in data collection and analysis of authentic data regarding local environmental problems. Furthermore, the two projects try to address current gaps in the literature of mobile learning by exemplifying the theoretical aspects and the characteristics of design frameworks associated with mobile learning, demonstrating rich and complex pedagogical practices that use mobile devices and, characterizing the processes by which students come to understand science through the use of mobile wireless devices.

Successful e-learning initiatives often rely on solid partnerships among organizations that bring together a set of complimentary knowledge and expertise. An example of a partnership among information technology companies, e-content developers, academic institutions, and research centers, is a recent project that is being developed for the Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture. The project goal is to prepare learning objects for 13 subjects of upper secondary schools and technical education including mathematics, physics, carpentry, English language, and culinary arts. The partnership is led by HS DATA and SIVECO, with supporting partners the University of Nicosia and CARDET. This project is cofunded by the European Social Fund and the Cyprus government, and it builds on a project that has been running for a year now, which is also led by HS DATA and SIVECO and which aims to establish a pilot implementation of an e-learning solution (Learning Management System--LMS) at seven schools in the public education system.

The two projects are related in the sense that all learning objects and e-content that will be developed, will be disseminated and made available to schools through the LMS. It is in the immediate plans of the MOEC to have the whole public education system connected with the LMS solution, which consists of a set of services that are designed to support the education process within a lifelong learning environment. This system is designed to support teachers in their everyday activities, the students in accessing educational content, and the parents in monitoring school activities.

CHALLENGES AND POSSIBILITIES

There are several challenges faced by organizations trying to promote e-learning initiatives in Cyprus and the European Union. Most notably, these include the lack of solid strategic plans and the issue of accreditation of online programs. The projects discussed earlier are a small sample of the types of e-learning initiatives currently under way in Cyprus in collaboration with EU countries and the eastern Mediterranean region. Although individual organizations engage in the development of e-learning programs, there is no comprehensive strategic plan that coordinates these initiatives and provides ways to leverage the rich expertise being developed in both public and private organizations on a broader scale. Such coordination is essential and can help establish Cyprus as a truly competitive regional knowledge center.

As in many other countries, e-learning degrees offered at a distance in Cyprus are not always held in the same regard as face-to-face degrees. However, technology is blurring the boundaries between traditional face-to-face and distance education, and educators should revisit their fundamental assumptions about teaching and learning (Vrasidas & Glass, 2002). Educational institutions need to be flexible and open to adjustments brought by technological developments and changes in social needs and the education environment. This is particularly urgent, since higher education institutions are increasingly being criticized for not being able to accommodate the increasing number of students seeking education, and for using ineffective teaching methods such as lectures to large numbers of students (Daniel, 1996; Vrasidas, 2002). Commercial developers and providers of educational content are also rapidly emerging in Cyprus to capitalize on these issues. Private companies that offer training and diplomas in both face-to-face and online are flourishing. A similar trend is evident in higher education.

To bring about the necessary changes and encourage the increased adoption and acceptance of online education, all education stakeholders in Cyprus need to emphasize both the content and process required to develop successful e-learning strategies. All parties impacted by these strategies need to have an input. Personnel from private and public higher education institutions including faculty, heads of departments, technology coordinators, business and industry representatives, as well as government officials and K-12 educators, should participate in the planning, implementation, and evaluation stages of e-learning initiatives.

In developing e-learning strategies, one should begin with the skills and resources that are already available. In higher education institutions and at the MOEC there are often faculty and staff involved in research and development, yet their efforts are not widely known by most of their colleagues. There is a need to establish better communication channels for developers, organizations, faculty, and scholars to share ideas and collaborate on projects. Sharing one's work and discussing projects can help build the collegiality needed to bring faculty and officials together in planning the strategies.

Also, investments are an important component for the success of e-learning and the general expertise needed to develop and offer distance learning courses. If Cyprus wants to engage in serious research and development to improve education and the quality of life of its people, all stakeholders have to take research more seriously and put in place the mechanisms for providing the necessary funds, in particular for e-learning initiatives. For e-learning to grow and to continue to offer Cyprus a competitive advantage, the government needs to establish policies and procedures that will facilitate the growth and accreditation of e-learning courses, certificates, and degree programs. Higher education institutions should collaborate more closely with all other levels of educational organizations and pursue research grants from corporations and the European Union. It is only through close partnerships that a clear vision for a better education will be realized.

Accreditation is often associated with quality assurance. Without well-defined quality management of online programs, it is difficult to build a good reputation. A quality assurance system should consist of the policies, attitudes, actions, and procedures necessary to ensure that quality is being maintained and enhanced (Kefalas, Retalis, Stamatis, & Kargidis, 2003). Unfortunately, there haven't been any commonly accepted approaches. Therefore, many obstacles to implement and achieve quality can be found in practice. However, the new quality standard ISO/IEC 19796-1 was developed to overcome problems of choosing and implementing the appropriate quality assurance system. Yet, ensuring quality in an educational organization is a complex task requiring competencies, commitment, and resources (Pawlowski, 2007). Content providers and institutions in Cyprus need to have a well-defined quality assurance policy based on clearly articulated frameworks and methods for review. Institutional review addresses the ultimate responsibility for the management of quality and standards that rests with the institution as a whole. Moreover, the missing quality assurance management for online learning is one of the reasons why the Cyprus government is reluctant to take appropriate legislative action for online learning.

CONCLUSION

With the help of e-learning, Cyprus has already made great strides toward becoming a regional center for education and creating an open, wall-less, and paperless educational environment that serves the needs of more citizens, especially the ones traditionally disadvantaged. The government needs to increase its support to both public and private organizations and stimulate the necessary competition among education providers. Governmental support is also necessary to achieve the main objective set by the European Council held in Lisbon in 2000. The European Council decided that by 2010 the EU should "become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world." Reaching this goal implies a challenging program for modernization of the education and training systems, both in Cyprus and elsewhere in Europe.

Establishing a clear e-learning strategy is not an easy task, particularly when one deals with technologies that change so rapidly. The most critical challenge facing education systems is how to develop the capacity for change and remove the barriers built into their cultures which prevent change. In addition to increased funding, what will facilitate the development of advanced e-learning is the establishment of clear policies and support mechanisms in order to remove the barriers placed on attempts for change, innovation, and technology adoption. Therefore, framing a comprehensive e-learning strategy within which quality education and training will be offered is just one of the many ways in which Cyprus will be established as a regional center of excellence in education.

REFERENCES

Daniel, J. S. (1996). Mega universities and knowledge media: Technology strategies for higher education. London: Kogan Page.

Empirica (2006). Use of computers and the Internet in schools in Europe 2006. Country brief: Cyprus. Retrieved November 16, 2007, from http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/ eeurope/i2010/benchmarking/index_en.htm

European Commission. (2007). Life long learning programme. Retrieved December 3, 2007, from http://ec.europa.eu/education/ programmes/llp/index_en.html

International Institute for Educational Planning. (1997). Appraisal study of the Cyprus education system. Paris: UNESCO.

Kefalas, P., Retalis, S., Stamatis, D., & Kargidis, T. (2003, May). Quality assurance procedures and e-ODL. Proceedings of the International Conference on Network Universities and E-Learning, Valencia, Spain. Retrieved from http://www.city.academic.gr/special/ research /xcityng/papers/Kef-Ret-Sta-Kar-03.pdf.

Pawlowski, J. M. (2007). The quality adaptation model: Adaptation and adoption of the quality standard ISO/IEC 19796-1 for learning, education, and training. Educational Technology & Society, 10(2), 3-16.

Vrasidas, C. (2002). Educational technology in Cyprus and strategies for higher education. Educational Media International, 39(2), 123-132.

Vrasidas, C., & Glass, G. V. (Eds.) (2002). Distance education and distributed learning. Greenwich, CT: Information Age.

Charalambos Vrasidas, CARDET--University of Nicosia, Metochiou 66, Engomi 2407, Cyprus.

Telephone: +357-22461566 ext. 227.

E-mail: pambos@cardet.org

Lucy Avraamidou, CARDET--University of Nicosia, Metochiou 66, Engomi 2407, Cyprus.

Telephone: +357-22461566 ext. 223.

E-mail: lucy@cardet.org

Symeon Retalis, University of Piraeus, Karaoli & Dimitriou 80, Piraeus 18534, Greece.

Telephone: +30-2104142765.

E-mail: retal@unipi.gr
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Title Annotation:SPOTLIGHT ARTICLE
Author:Vrasidas, Charalambos; Avraamidou, Lucy; Retalis, Symeon
Publication:Distance Learning
Geographic Code:4EXCY
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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