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Interview: The Open University of Cyprus Plans To Expand Programs Into English

by Doğuş Kozal via Flickr under CreativeCommons

LOUTRAKI, GREECE - Online and distance learning is expanding to places ranging from Africa to China to Cyprus. Sometimes you find creative people and best practices emerging in these places. At the Conference of Open & Distance Learning in Loutraki, Greece, in November, we met Christopher Christodoulides, a former General Electric Co. executive in the U.S., who returned home to Cyprus to become chief of administration and finance for the Open University of Cyprus in 2006. It is the second state university in the Republic of Cyprus and the online one offering courses online. It already has nearly 3,000 students in 10 academic programs including undergraduate, masters and doctoral programs ranging from MBA, healthcare finance, Greek Literature to Journalism. It also offers some work and vocational certificate training. Christodoulides oversees the strategy, budget and operations of all the university departments. WA editors Paul & Eleni Glader caught up with him over e-mail recently to hear more about how OUC will expand its programs and ply its strategy.

WA - You said OUC is part of Cyprus’ public university system, right? What % of the students resides in Cyprus? And where are other students from on a % basis?

CC - The Open University of Cyprus is the second state university of the Republic of Cyprus. Cyprus currently has three state and four private universities. For the academic year 2011-2012, 70% of the students reside in Greece and 30% reside in Cyprus.

WA - Why would they choose OUC over another public university in Cyprus?

CC - The OUC is the only educational institution in Cyprus which uses the methodology of open and distance learning at undergraduate and graduate levels. This methodology provides for a higher quality of life as it allows students to maintain their professional careers, as well as a balanced family life.

WA - How does funding work for OUC? How much funding do you receive each year and from where?

CC - The Open University of Cyprus currently receives €7 million from the Republic of Cyprus and €5 million as revenues from tuition, fees, research grants and other European Funded Projects per year.

WA - You mentioned the EU is setting its next strategic plans for 2014 to 2020 and will set 6 to 10 key strategic targets. What are your hopes or thoughts on whether they see digital learning, distance learning, online colleges and open universities as a key target?

CC - Currently we are in the 2007-2013 National Strategic Reference Framework period, which includes Life Long Learning (LLL) as one of the strategic priorities of the EU. I believe that we still have a long way to go to assure that education meets the needs of our society and addresses the current critical issues that we face. It is very important that these forms of continuing education remain as one of the top proprieties.

WA - What is the likelihood they will see this as a key area to fund? What have you heard?

Up to this point we are hearing very positive comments that the EU will continue to support the above priorities.

WA - At OUC, how do the student tuition and fees compare to other universities in Cyprus’ public university system? Do students from outside Cyprus pay more?

CC - The student tuition and fees at OUC are very similar to other public universities in Cyprus. Students from outside Cyprus do not pay more than Cyprus students.

WA - From what I understand, the masters degree programs are the most popular - how many masters and undergraduate programs and students?

CC - Currently, there are 8 masters and 1 undergraduate programs offered at OUC and about 2500 students.

WA - You currently have about 2500 students from 16 when OUC started in 2006- what is the persistence rate or graduation rate?

CC - The Open University of Cyprus currently has about 2500 students (1900 masters students and 600 bachelor ones) from 163 when OUC started in 2006. The drop-out rate is about 5%. The low dropout rate can be attributed to the fact that although we are a distance learning institution we make sure that we are very close to the student at all times. In particular, the tutor guiding a team of students has to communicate with them at regular intervals and in particular if he/she sees that a student is not using the electronic platform, is not submitting assignments, or if there are other signs that may indicate that a student is falling behind and/or having problems.

WA - How long does it take on average for students to complete a masters degree? What is the break-down of part-time and full-time masters students (do most have jobs as well)?

It takes 2 to 4 years for students to complete a masters degree. There is no break-down of part-time and full-time masters students, we don’t categorize the students into full-time and part-time, because of the flexibility of the Open University of Cyprus. Most of our students (if not all) are also gainfully employed.

WA - How much of your programs are digital or online in some fashion?

CC - All our programs are digital and online.

WA - What types of education technologies are you using right now in the school?

CC - We currently use Moodle and e-luminate.

WA - You see OUC an agent of change for the elimination of social injustice, why?

CC - I see all Open Universities as agents of change, as well as agents for the elimination of social injustice, because lifelong learning provides more opportunities.

WA - How is OUC better prepared to face challenges than traditional brick and mortar universities?

CC - As a younger, more flexible institution than the other conventional institutions on the island, the Open University of Cyprus can react quicker to changes in the job market and introduce new programs of study that are based on the needs of society.

WA - How many permanent faculty do you have versus part-time lecturers?

CC - We have 20 lecturers for permanent faculty at the university versus 145 part-time lecturers (tutors).

WA - Is there high turn-over - are there issues with retention of faculty?

CC - No, there are no issues with retention of faculty or tutors.

WA - How do you incentivize faculty members to stay on - or is the market such that it is not necessary to have incentives?

CC - Faculty members are well paid and receive good benefits.  At this time those are very strong incentives.

WA - What are the future goals of Open University of Cyprus?

CC - One of the future goals of the Open University of Cyprus is to offer additional programs of study through the methodology of the open and distance learning using innovative advanced technological means and educational methods and new educational material in order to improve the quality of education. In addition, the Open University of Cyprus aims to offer academic programs not only in Greek but also in English in order to attract students across the globe.

The strategic objective of OUC is to become a prestigious university of regional distinction and scale, a Higher Education Institution which will develop educational materials and offer high quality Study Courses in languages other than Greek. Further, OUC has the goal to create strong partnerships with universities in the region and Europe; to promote international cooperation with universities abroad; to design and develop new Study Courses in pioneering scientific fields and areas of the economy, as well as to develop new technological infrastructure. The future plan of the OUC is to become an international University that will be distinguished for the quality of its education, by offering Study Courses that use high quality digital educational material.

WA - What are the biggest obstacles to those goals and growth?

CC - Lack of funding from the government, Government regulations that are bureaucratic and slow us down.  The universities must be guided under flexible rules and regulations that will allow the quick implementation of innovation.

WA - What do you think online and distance learning will look like 5 or 10 years from now?

CC - There will be more collaborative learning and “student to student” learning. The triangle of “Professor, Student, Educational Material”, will be a polygon with much more student interaction. The role of the professor will change from being the focal point in the classroom to being the “facilitator/mentor” in the middle of the above polygon. There will also be a larger emphasis on mobile devices.

WA - How will the university system in Cyprus and elsewhere be different in 5 or 10 years?

CC - Very interesting and controversial question. We (the universities) need to apply more of a business mentality, while maintaining a student-centric approach.

Thanks for your thoughts Christopher. And good luck (“kali epitixhia” in Greek) to Open University of Cyprus.

Christopher Christodoulides, chief of administration and finance for Open University of Cyprus

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