In eastern Colombia, and more precisely in the Antioquia province, is located the Universidad Católica del Oriente (Eastern Catholic University), an insignia institution for young people from rural areas and surrounding the big cities. It’s teaching model consists in placing the student at the center of the entire learning process, guaranteeing full support and assistance for both in-person and online students.
According to Guillermo León Herrera Gil, coordinator of the Virtual Theology Program at the university, the institution’s online initiatives are becoming more important every day, and are currently divided into three areas:
1. Fully Online
Ten years ago, the Universidad Católica del Oriente decided to launch its first fully online course, when it began to offer its Master’s Degree in Education as part of an agreement with the Northern Catholic University Foundation. This online postgraduate degree – for which demand has always been high in the region – has been very successful from the outset with two main areas of study as focal points, namely rural education and human rights.
Later in 2013, the university expanded its course offering and added an undergraduate course in Theology to its list of fully online programs. “We saw the possibility of offering a course that was already highly in demand in ecclesiastical circles and also for training laymen. Our university was much sought after, but when we only had the face-to-face program, distance was a problem for students living in the countryside”, said Herrera Gil.
In order to guarantee that both programs functioned well and also to offset the high abandonment rates that exist in online education, Católica del Oriente has various student assistance initiatives. One of these is called ‘Pedagogues’ and it consists of training tutor-teachers that know how to be in constant communication with their students through email, WhatsApp chats, and the Blackboard Learn platform, on which both online courses operate.
“People believe this is impossible in the virtual world, but for us there is no choice. All online courses have to have at least two student-teacher synchronous meetings, so they can talk and resolve any queries or concerns,” said the coordinator.
2. Face-to-face with some online courses
All face-to-face programs offered at the university currently have at least one fully online course. This is due to the first subjects chosen to be taught online were ones in the common core, namely electives and humanities.
“The aim is for us to start offering all electives online by 2018 – those that involve significant research. During the second semester of 2018 and the first semester of 2019, we will look course by course, for basic subjects that can be offered online. This is something that students who also work part-time or that come from other regions have welcomed warmly,” said Herrera.
Virtual courses that are part of the face-to-face curriculum use Open LMS, and all incoming students receive platform training during their orientation week. Herrera explains that the university has created its own tutorials for students to know step by step how to hand in assignments, arrange a synchronous meeting, or how to teleconference.
3. Online component for all in-person classes
All face-to-face classes must have a virtual component to them, and this is done through Open LMS. Although these classes take place mainly in the classroom, course content can be also be uploaded to the platform, meaning that evaluations can also be carried out online. “All students can find the course syllabus, repositories, and the teacher’s publications on there. It is very important to us that they all have access to the information online and learn to study that way. Some students get distracted when they are in front of a computer and end up checking their social media, but for a digital native it is an essential know-how to study this way,” concluded Herrera.
Thus, while fully online courses operate on Blackboard Learn, face-to-face courses also have Open LMS for virtual assistance available at all times. This way, all students joining the institution can enjoy the benefits of technology for an enhanced education. What’s more, all students can count on continuous guidance and support from their teachers and mentors, regardless of whether they are available in-person, or a click-away online.
Guillermo León Herrera Gil, Virtual Theology program coordinator, Universidad Católica del Oriente