In an alliance with the University of the West Indies, Ryerson University’s G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education will be offering animation-enhanced e-learning to help keep the Caribbean’s practising nurses qualified and up to speed with the best medical practices.

According to Ryerson’s director of distance education, Keith Hampson, the new-e-learning solution is geared toward nurses who are already practicing but need to upgrade their diploma to a full-fledged degree. (The program would allow them to continue to practice during the schooling, as 75 per cent of the course content is online.) Retention of nurses with up-to-date Bachelor’s-level skills is a real issue in the Caribbean, where, according to the Pan-American Health Organization, 35 per cent of nursing positions are unfilled.

Another challenge in getting the e-learning tools into the hands of Caribbean nurses is the reliability of the telecommunications network, said Hampson. “They don’t have as many high-speed networks as we do, which is extremely important. They’ve got some highways to build.”

The first course, Health Assessment, goes online this week for the 67 nurses enrolled in Jamaica, St. Lucia, and Belize. Ryerson plans to create ten more over 2007 in a program that is being paid for out of university Chancellor G. Raymond Chang’s pocket with funds that were set aside before the Jamaican-born-and-raised Chang became Chancellor.

In order to make maneuvering the e-courses as easy as possible, the technology Ryerson went with is designed to be accessible. “We’re very loath to exclude people just because their system or connection isn’t fast enough. We’ve kept the file sizes down,” said Hampson. The students access the Web-based learning management system, based on open-source Moodle, where administrative tasks like grading and communication are handled.

Once in that system, students can then use a simple log-on name and password to get to the actual e-learning module, which is run on the Ekron content management system (the same program that all 300 of Ryerson’s online distance education courses are run from).

Hampson’s team added another benefit to the already-popular interactivity of distance education technology-animation. “There’s a number of Flash-based objects that allow the students to practise their nursing skills right at their desktops,” said Hampson. Fed up with online education that was unable to translate great teaching into great e-learning, Hampson’s team worked closely with educators to craft course components that would mesh exactly with what the students need and should pay attention to, with the results fleshing out the 25 per cent or so of course content taught in the classroom or the lab.

“The term ‘simulations’ usually applies to very expensive, large-scale projects with badly-drawn people inserted into a boardroom,” Hampson said. Here, students, for example, can “give” a patient an eye evaluation, shining a light in the virtual patient’s eye. The drawings are simple, according to Hampson, so that they are not distracted by non-crucial elements: “If it were a photo instead of a crude drawing on, for example, assessing a patient’s range of motion, the student would notice age, sex, and race, and so on, which is irrelevant at that particular moment.” Hampson, for now, only uses photos when specific details are necessary, such as diagnosing a problem from visual cues; his team is working on combining photos and animation for upcoming courses.

Hampson is confident that the technology used here could be applied to other e-learning disciplines in the future and is right in line with the interests of the Web 2.0 generation. “Animation gives us the opportunity to create much more control in the hands of the students: they can stop (the lecture or animation), back it up, dig deeper. This is no different than the web revolution that is putting more control in the hands of individuals,” Hampson said.

It’s a concept that Hampson believes everyone can get behind: Ryerson is also pursuing e-learning alliances with schools in India, Egypt, and Syria, and Hampson sees their non-profit, academic status as setting them apart, since the American universities pursuing online distance education in the Indian, Chinese, and Eastern European markets are driven by the profits to be had. “We’re not simply sponsoring them and then letting it fall apart after the year is over, or making money from it,” said Hampson.

“What’s different here is that they’re putting the official stamp on the whole e-learning environment, which is being relinquished from the for-profit private and corporate sectors,” according to IDC Canada vice president of services research Sebastien Ruest, who said that Ryerson’s move is right in line with a current Canadian online learning trend. “They’re now targeting the professional side of continuing education, which is tied to a lot of development in trades,” said Ruest.

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