-Institutions, teachers and students were forced from one day to the next to continue with their schooling, completely depending on technology, electricity and interconnectivity. This did not occur in the same way in all corners of the world or at all educational levels.
-In the third and final installment of this series, we will learn details of how the experience of distance training in higher education in Venezuela was lived during the pandemic. What lessons has this experience left us?
The Covid-19 pandemic forced all students and teachers of all educational levels in all corners of the planet to join the distance learning modality by trial and error. It was the alternative that arose as the only possibility so that the educational dynamics did not completely stop during the almost two years that the pandemic lasted.
This took both educational institutions, teachers, students and families without being prepared. They had to carry out the classes depending completely on technology, electricity and interconnectivity.
Some educational institutions were better prepared than others to carry all their activities virtually. The quality of existing energy and telecommunications services in each country varies and in some, as in the case of Venezuela, they are unstable, which meant an additional complication.
On the other hand, it is definitely not the same to provide online education to preschool children than to postgraduate students. In addition, to be able to do so, it was necessary to count on the students having equipment that allowed them to be connected, and in the case of the little ones, having a family environment that accompanied them in the day to day of the classes.
It was quite an adventure that was taking shape along the way, in which all the participants were looking for their alternatives to move forward. Now, when the first school year in which face-to-face education has returned almost completely has just concluded, the results of this adventure should be evaluated in a comprehensive way.
Virtuality in higher education at Universidad Central de Venezuela
-Most serious educational institutions have platforms for virtual education that go beyond a messaging or video-conference service, and teachers must be prepared to use them – says Alejandra González, research coordinator at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of the Universidad Central de Venezuela.
In this Venezuelan university institution, distance education has a tradition of more than 50 years – tells us Luis Millán, director of the Distance Education System of the Universidad Central de Venezuela (SEDUCV) – It began in the 70s when it was approved the supervised university study program. This modality received a great boost at the end of the 1990s with the incorporation of technology and the design of a platform for managing the university’s own distance courses.
-In 2007, the distance education system at the UCV was approved, so the pandemic caught us with a good road traveled and rather offered an opportunity to continue growing. There we focused on offering the contingency training program through which just over 2,000 UCV teachers passed, which represents 25 percent of the faculty of this institution.
It should also be added that many professors use other communication platforms in addition to the official virtual campus of the UCV, as evidenced by a recent survey of some 800 professors of this university, of whom a little more than 50 percent stated that they were developing activities in distance education. Of them, 50 percent use the virtual campus platform and the other 50 percent use other platforms.
-The institutional position of this house of studies is that priority be given to the use of the virtual campus platform for the development of this type of activity – points out Luis Millán.
Virtual education resources
In the field of virtual education, the use of tools such as infographics, quizzes, and interactive games make the difference between students turning off the camera on their side and even falling asleep during classes, and actually becoming interested in the content and motivated to continue searching for information, taking advantage of the huge amount of information repositories that are available today through the Internet.
-During the pandemic, what most of the teachers did was continue giving their same face-to-face master classes but through the computer screen. In most cases, they did not use the formal platforms of educational institutions, but did so through Meet, Zoom, and even WhatsApp. These applications offer resources but are limited – says Alejandra González, who had the experience of teaching specialization and doctoral seminars and undergraduate courses virtually at the UCV Faculty of Architecture in Caracas during the pandemic.
Among the positive things that this experience has left us, Alejandra highlights that the first thing to recognize is that the distance modality allowed us to gain time over time and realize that we could effectively continue teaching without having to move, at that time when it was impossible to do so. But she also points out that this experience has made us lose important spaces.
-You lose the power to see the faces of your students and read in them if they are understanding and if they are attentive. In many cases the students turn off the cameras and the teacher has to order them to be turned on. In addition, in Venezuela there are interruptions in the electrical service in some cities of the country and this causes interruptions in the connection. In a group where there are students scattered in various cities and even in other countries, this creates inequality, because some have a stable connection and others do not. These discontinuities do not favor learning processes.
-There are also considerations that have to do with empirical aspects, with direct, observational experience, both from the student towards oneself and from one towards the student. All the resources that one has in a face-to-face activity will never be the same as in a distance one.
-One can creatively try to incorporate some resources such as the use of mental maps, infographics and that helps a lot. Having students present using those resources makes the classes more participatory. But if the teacher, who is not adequately prepared for virtual education, continues using the traditional classroom methods but through a computer, this tends not to generate solid or significant learning.
One of the contributions of distance education, which was used intensively due to the pandemic, was that it made possible to have guest teachers who live in other countries and who were able to share their experience and knowledge with students who are in another place.
-This is extremely valuable – points out this university professor – This facilitates the exchange between universities and the use of professors who have left the country but in whom the desire to continue contributing to education in Venezuela prevails. In fact, in the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of the UCV, a formula has been established that allows professors from abroad to teach with a low academic load.
-Distance education has fostered the interconnection of realities – points out one of the professionals who are studying for a doctorate at the Faculty of Architecture of the UCV – and this is an important transformation that broadens the vision we have of the world.
Now that we are in the post-pandemic era, some activities have remained online. In Venezuela, some educational institutions have not established a formal criterion regarding the modality in which the educational process will continue to develop in the post-pandemic era. They continue solving it in a casual and irregular way, without a serious evaluation of the result that this is bringing to the quality of the professionals in training.
-In higher education, I would favor a hybrid system, virtual activities can be complementary – Alejandra González tells us.
Students state that they prefer subjects that are taught in person. In a country like Venezuela, unfortunately, other problems such as fuel supply failures and the low salaries received by teachers and professors of all educational levels are also involved in the fact that education is completely returned to face-to-face modality.
More than a year after the end of the pandemic, a serious evaluation of distance education is urgently needed, so that in many cases it does not remain as a habit and remains for convenience, and so that the weaknesses that this modality may have caused in the training of new professionals can be determined and the positive aspects of this way of approaching the training process can also be rescued.