Background: Decentralized support system

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The current organizational structure for distance education in the University of the West Indies has been in place since 1997 when the UWI Distance Education Centre (UWIDEC) came into being. This structure conforms to the requirements of the conventional distance education delivery mode, one important feature of which is the local centre that serves as an intermediary between the student and the central institution. In the UWIDEC context, there are some thirty sites spread across the sixteen English-speaking countries of the Caribbean that support the University of the West Indies. Since the inception of UWIDEC, these sites have been performing such functions as receiving and distributing course materials; organizing local tutorials; monitoring tutor performance; receiving and submitting assignments for grading; collecting mark-sheets from tutors for forwarding to course coordinators; distributing examination cards, receiving and posting final examination results. Above all of this, the site coordinator has performed the important role of orienting students to distance learning and supporting them as they pursue their studies.

As indicated above, with the onset of online tutoring, many of the existing site-based arrangements are either unsuited to the new delivery mode or are no longer applicable. Tasks related to the selection, appointment and monitoring of tutors is one such example. Previously sites would advertise for and identify potential tutors for subsequent appointment by the institution. With online delivery, the entire advertisement, selection and appointment process is done centrally. Moreover, there is no longer a need to have tutors for every course at every site. Thus it is often the case that there are very few or no tutors at some sites. Similarly, many of the functions associated with the administration of examinations no longer reside in the site.

There is the view that this downplaying of the role of the local site may have contributed to students feeling of being disconnected. Even though students are organized into small groups of twenty to twenty-five for online tutoring purposes, many express the view that they do not feel that they are part of a group. The sense of social cohesion that such an arrangement is intended to foster does not seem to materialize in their online learning experience.

It is against that background that this paper seeks to explore the possibility of a revised role for the local centre/site as the ‘human face’ that serves as the intermediary between the institution and the student, now studying online. The paper will first outline some new student support functions that are currently in effect at some sites as described by the site coordinators themselves. In that context, it will also address issues that appear to be blocking similar operations at other sites. It will then report on a student survey that was conducted to get students’ perceptions of themselves as online learners. Finally, the paper makes a proposal for a revised student support system at the level of the local site/centre in light of data presented from both the site coordinators and students’ perspectives..