Distance Education in China - Interview with Mr. Carlos Lopes, Executive Director of UNITAR
1.Please introduce UNITAR briefly, what are its mandate and function？What are the role and effect in an international arena?
UNITAR was established in 1965 by the United Nations Secretary-General “for the purpose of enhancing the effectiveness of the United Nations in achieving the major objectives of the Organization” through extensive training and research. Our mission is to deliver innovative training and conduct research on knowledge systems to develop the capacity of beneficiaries.
UNITAR became first known for its activities in support of diplomats accredited to the United Nations, and is now regarded as a leading Institute offering a wide range of cutting-edge training programmes on global and strategic challenges.
With close to 23,700 beneficiaries in 2010, representing a 33 percent increase from 2009, we are a leading provider of short-term executive training to national and local government officials of Member States and representatives of civil society and the private sector from around the world on thematic areas such as Environment, Peace, Security and Diplomacy and Governance.
2. When did UNITAR start offering e-learning courses? How are the courses developed and evaluated?
We developed and delivered our first e-Learning courses in 2003 in the field of Public Finance and Trade. Since then, our portfolio has expanded to courses in multilateral diplomacy, peacekeeping, sustainable urbanization, international law, and knowledge systems. All courses are developed by UNITAR’s proframmes specialized areas as each cover specific learning objectives, according to a particular thematic area. We apply a corporate policy to evaluating its training activities as a whole. Technology-enhanced learning activities are subject to detailed evaluation, covering reaction and learning as a minimum, and in certain cases, reaching the application level, with assessments and learning activities being designed to provide such information.
3. Who are the target participants for UNITAR’s e-learning courses? Have you ever considered promoting your e-learning course worldwide?
All UNITAR courses reach out to beneficiaries all over the world. Following its Statute, the Institute delivers training at various levels, to all persons, particularly in developing countries. Government officials are the primary target audience, but since courses offered cover a wide range of specialized areas, other actors such as staff and representatives from non-governmental organizations, members of the academia, students, and private sector professional also participate in a number of courses. We currently offer e-Learning courses in three of the six UN official languages, English French and Spanish, and continue to work to further improve its language coverage.
4. I understand that UNITAR launched a virtual learning environment in early 2010. Could you please tell us how this virtual learning environment is designed and implemented?
Indeed UNITAR launched a new virtual learning environment in 2010 with a two-fold objective. First, the need to have advanced options to pedagogical design and approaches as learning objectives vary significantly within the thematic areas covered by the Institute. Second, the Institute required enhanced flexibility to respond to an increasing number of beneficiaries. Thus, it opted for a cost-effective solution, deciding for an open-source solution. UNITAR has followed the path taken by a number of other organizations and universities around the world and nowadays utilizes Moodle, an open-source technology for e-Learning platforms, to deliver its technology-enhanced learning activities.
5. Could you please explain some methodologies used in the UNITAR e-Learning courses?
We use varied methodological approaches in out e-Learning courses. The main objective is to facilitate learning. Therefore we offer multiple-instructional settings, catering for personal learning styles, and favoring, as much as possible, non-linear learning paths to develop skills of adult learners. Our instructional design methods valorize interaction and collaborative learning to facilitate networking and encourage experience sharing. The driving force is always the learning objective to be achieved through a particular learning process. Therefore, methodologies and approaches are always customized on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with learning objectives aimed for a particular course.
6. Could you please give a short explanation about the ECBCheck?
The ECBCheck Standards are the result of a multi-agency participatory process to develop a set of quality criteria and certification process for technology-enhanced learning activities in the field of international capacity building. It supports capacity building organizations to measure the quality of their e-Learning courses, advocating continuous improvement through peer review process and the attribution of quality label certificates. The set of criteria are freely accessible on the Internet.
Our online course Governance in Urban Sanitation, implemented by the Local Development Programme, is among the first e-Learning courses to be awarded with the Open ECBCheck certification for its compliance with the International Open ECBCheck Standards.
7. What mechanism and measurements are used by UNITAR to guarantee the quality of e-Learning?
UNITAR is currently in the process of implementing internal quality assurance mechanisms. We have a Monitoring and Evaluation section that is responsible for the respective policies of all its activities, including technology-enhanced learning. Other internal bodies, such as a Quality Assurance Committee and the Knowledge Systems Innovation unit, provide overall guidance on design, implementation and evaluation of courses. The ECBCheck Standards provide the overall quality framework for e-Learning courses developed by the Institute.
8. What are the requirements for UNITAR in terms of looking for new partners? What are the main types of partners? What are the advantages of becoming a UNITAR partner?
When looking for new partners, we need to be clear on our objectives such as to reach out to new audiences, to increase number of beneficiaries, to broaden our training portfolio, to enhance our visibility, or to receive funding. Then, we review partner’s capacity to achieve those objectives in terms of content, methodology, audience, and finance. Moreover, for private sector partners, we review their capacity to carry the values of the United Nations and to comply with UN Global Compact principles and UN guidelines on partnering with the business sector.
As UNITAR does not have a political agenda on a specific issue, we are open to all kind of innovative partnerships that would allow us to reach our objectives and doesn’t affect our autonomy and independence with regard to the United Nations Charter.
There are a number of advantages of being UNITAR’s partner and one of them is improvement of the partner’s image. This is quite understandable and straightforward that being associated with an UN agency provides a good image and legitimacy in what they do.
In addition, partnering with the UN indirectly means that the organization is in compliance with UN goals and principles, which are checked before signing any partnership. They will also receive a methodological guidance in developing and disseminating contents that are aligned with UN goals.
Working with the United Nations often means being international, which I believe is one of the most important aspects for Chinese partners, even if their main audience is in China.
Being associated with the UN and channeling funds through UNITAR gives a strong signal regarding “good” financial governance, which indicates no corruption, financial accountability and transparency.
9. How do you foresee the e-Learning courses development in China? Do you have any plan to promote your e-Learning courses in China?
China is certainly an untapped opportunity for UNITAR and is on top of our consideration list for geographical and language expansion of our e-Learning courses. However, it certainly needs to be aligned with the capacity to assure quality products in terms of methodology and contents. Therefore an eventual expansion of courses to Chinese audience would require the establishment of a reliable and sustainable partnership with a specialized Chinese institution that would shoulder UNITAR in assuring the quality of the products.
For the moment, we have a partner university in Hong Kong but we need to increase the partnership basis in China in order for us to assess the needs of the Chinese audience, develop and implement our courses in Chinese languages.
It is relevant to many of our programmes, such as Multilateral Diplomacy Programme, or MDP. Promoting the MDP e-Learning programme in China is an important area of expansion in recognizing the increasingly important role of Chinese diplomacy in the 21st century and how such online tools can help train their diplomats in UN and diplomatic skills.
Other courses such as peacekeeping training or sustainable urbanization are also relevant to Chinese audience, considering the increase in the number of Chinese peacekeepers and the rapid urbanization of Chinese cities. We strongly believe that there is a significant potential and needs in e-Learning courses in China and we would be eager to find credible partner or partners in China to start serving the Chinese audience.
10. What are the plans for UNITAR for 2011 and beyond?
As stated in the UNITAR 2010-2012 Strategic Plan, we are committed to respond more effectively to beneficiaries needs and to enhance quality and diversity of products and services. This means, if there is a strong needs in China for e-Learning courses on topics that we currently cover, such as public finance and trade, multilateral diplomacy, peacekeeping, international law, sustainable urbanization and knowledge systems, UNITAR would seek partnership with credible Chinese institutions to develop and deliver these courses. As I mentioned above, quality assurance is one of the main pillar of our policy in developing new partnerships, and we welcome a proposal for partnership from Chinese institutions that could ensure the quality of courses and to implement joint activities with UNITAR in Chinese language. Any inquiries for partnership opportunities will be welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org.