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Is Open and Distance Learning the Key to Quality Higher Education for All?

Nick Moe-Pryce

UNESCO has repeatedly argued that the number of places for post-secondary learners must increase from approximately 120 million to 240 million worldwide, with large-scale growth already having been documented over the past decade. In the emerging economic powerhouses of the world, increased access to knowledge and education is crucial to guarantee continued growth.

Yet, it is virtually impossible to build the number of traditional post-secondary institutions to keep up with the increase in demand. Traditional universities represent a tremendous ongoing financial commitment when physical campuses classrooms need to be built, maintained, heated, cooled and secured.

The Distance Learning Solution

In distance learning, these costs (and their environmental footprint) are significantly less. This translates to more resources being spent on course design, development and student support services. This in turn leads to better student outcomes linked to the higher quality of instruction. Distance learning is also uniquely flexible, allowing for studies to be combined with working and family life and to be taken at the correct pace for the student (and in tune with what they can afford). Distance learning has also proven itself able to react quickly to specific economic and societal needs.

Views of distance learning vary significantly from region to region throughout the world. In most countries and regions, distance learning is respected as an alternative to studying on campus. Here, distance education has demonstrated its capacity and quality, and in many countries programmes are accredited by the same agencies that govern campus based education. The fact that we experience convergence between campus based, blended, and distance learning is also a driver for increased understanding.

In some parts of the world, however, this is not the case. The regulatory framework might not recognize distance education, or quality assurance may be lacking, leading to confusion and mistrust. This digital divide is a global challenge, as is resistance to embrace technology, though there are countless examples of ingenuity and innovation which seek to combat this.

Distance Learning in BRIC Nations

It is now ten years since the term BRIC was coined to describe the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China. In distance education, there has been an explosion in student numbers in these countries. Indira Ghandi National Open University in India has the world’s largest student body with 1.8 million students, while The Open University of China’s spring 2011 enrolment saw a 9% year on year increase to 467,000 enrolments. Almost one in six students enrolled in undergraduate studies in Brazil enters into a distance learning course.

However, while each of these countries has experienced amazing progress in distance education, the obstacles that remain are very real: acceptance, regulation, infrastructure, and particularly the question of how to maintain quality at scale.

Please join this month’s Educational Technology Debate to define the problems, present solutions, and point a way forward for Open and Distance Learning in higher education.

About the Debate Coordinator

This debate is coordinated by the International Council for Open and Distance Education, the global membership organization for actors within open and distance learning. ICDE works towards the goals of Education for All through its status as an organization in formal consultative relations with UNESCO, and seeks to raise acceptance of open and distance learning at the government, institutional leadership, academic, and societal levels. The organization also seeks to facilitate dialogue between the developed and the developing world through its conferences, projects and information activity.

This inspiration for this debate came from a session organized by ICDE at the annual Online Educa Berlin conference in Germany in December. We look forward to the contributions from ICDE members representing the BRIC nations over the coming weeks, and to engaging with the ETD community.

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15 Responses to “Is Open and Distance Learning the Key to Quality Higher Education for All?”

  1. Hi Nick,

    Nice that you use the closed question form, which makes it easy to answer yes. Sir John S Daniel already argued in his book "Mega- schools, technology and teachers" that the educational needs of an ever growing world population can only be met by open and distance learning, not only at university level. I am convinced that the 21st century will confirm the breakthrough of the virtual university.

    The position above remarks that there are doubts regarding online learning from an institutional viewpoint: quality assurance may be a problem, but also copyright, technical management, online tutoring skills and adequate assessment techniques may be other issues at stake.

    I feel however that even if the universities, which generally have the means to overcome these obstacles, would implement a solid virtual environment and learning experience, in many countries of the world the students might not be ready to participate – that is not yet. The mobile revolution is sweeping through even the poorest developing countries, but it is hard to imagine a "poor" student preparing for a degree in any science through an iPhone. I guess that leaves some breathing space for the universities to get ready for the massive learning experiences of the future…

    • Thanks David.

      Access to technology is a big issue, as is its appropriateness for certain subjects. But blended delivery modes seem to work well in developing countries, where material delivery might be through the postal system, assignments written by hand, or sent by email from a regional resource centre, and text messages used for reminders, quick questions and general student support. Implementation of technology will have to be gradual to get it right.

      This article contains some interesting points on delivery of science tuition through distance learning in North America: http://www.icde.org/b7C_wJjQYo.ips. You may have seen this already, but there are some very interesting case studies on mobile learning here: http://www.icde.org/b7C_wJnMYw.ips

  2. rwagasana gerard

    Hi Nick and colleagues,
    I am convinced that, if we accept that education is a fundamental right for all, distance (online) learning is the best feasible solution for all countries confronted to the increasing number of students registered in traditional institutions, to millions of men and women who cannot register there for many reasons (financial, work, distance and other barriers), particularly in developing countries.
    The issue of quality could be addressed in different ways.
    One of them is proposed by the Open Educational Resources University (OERu) Project initiated by the OER Foundation:
    and http://wikieducator.org/OER_university

    rwagasana gerard, rwanda

  3. Clayton R. Wright

    I agree with David Dionys’ comments that quality is only one of several key factors affecting the successful deployment of online learning at the postsecondary level in developing countries. And, I accept Rwagasana Gerard’s view that distance/online learning is a feasible solution to address the increasing number of students and that quality can be addressed in different ways.

    As stated in “Developing and Reviewing Online Courses: Items for Consideration”
    (http://newsletter.alt.ac.uk/2011/11/developing-and-reviewing-online-courses-items-for-consideration/), “Quality in an elusive concept, as it can be defined differently by all who measure it and it is affected by the context in which the measurement is taken. The real measure of a quality course is whether it helps learners achieve the stated outcomes” and helps them to have a better understanding of the world around them and/or solve a problem. Often at institutions, we say we have a quality course because many gifted people have been involved in its creation. However, if learners are unable to learn from the material and are unable to apply what they know, can we still say a quality course has been produced?

    I believe that the British Open University firmly established the benefits of developing courses in a collaborative team environment. Many others have followed suit including the African Virtual University (AVU, http://www.avu.org/) and the University of Mauritius (UoM, http://vcampus.uom.ac.mu). AVU employed authors and reviewers from 12 universities in 10 countries to develop and peer review modules for their Teacher Education Program. They used a Quality Assurance Framework (http://www.avu.org/Teacher-Education-Programme/design-development-quality-assurance-framework.html) based on the best practices of local and international educators. Materials were pilot tested and adjusted accordingly. Further, by releasing the modules as open educational resources (OER), more people are able to view the material and offer suggestions regarding how it could be improved. Due to the approach used by AVU, their materials have won awards and have been accessed by many.

    However, the production of quality materials is only one implementation step towards increasing access to educational opportunities in countries with weak economies. Although, “everyone has the right to an education” (United Nations, Article 26, 1948), this cannot be achieved without addressing factors such as open copyright licenses, stable and affordable electrical power and communications infrastructure, capacity building in pedagogy, andragogy and educational technology, and so forth.

    A number of distance education implementation issues are being addressed by those involved in the establishment of OER University (OERu) with regard to tutoring and accreditation. Those involved should be commended for their efforts. But there are still other areas that need to be addressed if equitable access to educational opportunities is to be achieved. As noted by Allen (2010, http://www.unisa.ac.za/scop2010/docs/education-fo… “globally, of those 20 or younger, 30 million are qualified to attend university, but there are no places for them. This number increases to 100 million by 2020”. Thus, according to Atkins et al. (2007, http://www.hewlett.org/uploads/files/ReviewoftheO… “in order to serve the number of youths qualified to enter university in 2020, a major university would need to be opened every week”. Open and distance learning, in its many forms, is a key solution to providing quality education for all.

  4. Clayton R. Wright

    In my previous response to the EdTech Debate, I inverted the question posed and focused on quality in distance learning. You can only have quality higher education for all if the learning programs are of high quality regardless of how it is delivered. Thus, open and distance learning can only be the key to higher education if the learning program itself is of high quality.

    Also, readers of my previous response might think that quality is only considered in distance learning course development; but as we all know, quality or lack of quality affects every aspect of a distance program including:
    •Learner effectiveness or achievement
    •Student and faculty satisfaction
    •Accessibility, especially regarding time, place, and accommodation for those with disabilities
    •Student retention and graduation rates
    •Accreditation and credit transfers
    •Student employability or pursuit of further education
    •Cost effectiveness
    •Accountability to primary stakeholders
    •Reputation and credibility, as these are key factors that affect the ability to attract and retain students and faculty, and obtain funding.

    From my perspective, a quality distance program displays the attributes below.
    •The program is learner-centric. Those developing and delivering the program are clearly cognizant of whom they are serving. Decisions are based on addressing student needs.
    •Leadership recognizes that quality is not a static end-point, but a dynamic, evolving process.
    •Leadership values people and encourages all to reflect upon and critique the activities of the distance program developers, providers, and support personnel. Suggestions brought forth by the educational community are listened to and acted upon.
    •If words such as accessibility, equity, flexibility, and just-in-time learning are included in mission statements or goals of the course or program, though difficult to measure, practical means are devised to determine progress in these areas.
    •The outputs of the program are measured, not just the inputs.
    •The distance learning teams work in a collaborative manner, yet each member is empowered to make an immediate decision and take action to best serve students.
    •All staff and faculty are highly trained or education. They, like their students, are actively learning.
    •Students, faculty, and tutors are involved or have input into the governance and operation of the distance learning program. Students are respected.
    •Effective distance courses/programs are interactive and engage the learner. They require learners to search, compile, analyze, interpret, and apply data from the real world. They encourage critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving; provide opportunities for practice and knowledge transfer; offer timely, constructive, relevant, and frequent feedback; and provide links to resources beyond the content and the learner’s communities.
    •Criteria are set and routinely revised. Programs are reviewed continuously and revisions are based on reliable data. But, there is room for “gut instincts” and personal reflection.
    •Applied research is encouraged and the results are used to inform the quality assurance process.
    •There is an unwavering commitment to excellence and innovation by all. Quality is not just an add-on, but fully integrated into all facets of the operation. Quality and innovation are everyone’s business.

    Quality, important that it is, is only one component of a successful distance or e-learning program.

  5. Godfrey Mayende

    I want to be a little bit real. In Uganda we are still using the first generation distance learning i.e. use of printed material, and less of technology support, etc. Open and distance learning drives its support through good development of reading materials. However, in Uganda a high percentage of students pay their tuition fees two weeks to the start of exams. Yet the student is supposed to get open and distance learning study materials which are a key component of distance learning when he is paid up. How can we ensure quality in such a situation?

  6. Mark Mcguire

    Godfrey, you make a key point.

    The word "distant" describes our relationship with the people whose lives we would like to improve (for the benefit of us all). Too often, we talk ABOUT these people, but we rarely talk TO them, or, more importantly, LISTEN to them. We cannot assume to know what technologies and solutions are most appropriate on the ground when we are so far in the air. I'm thinking about the disappointment of the $100 laptop per child initiative, for example.

    If we want to help, we should first ask people what they need most, and first. We could learn from experiences in related areas, like the microloans program and the Fair Trade movement. We may need to address some basic, immediate economic issues as part of the goal of addressing educational needs. In "Three Cups of Tea" (http://www.threecupsoftea.com/) Greg Mortenson reports that he went to a village to build them a school. First, he discovered, they wanted to build a bridge. The school followed.

    The values that underpin Open Education should also inform our response to the enormous, urgent need for education worldwide. As we respond to this need, let's not replicate the hierarchical, exclusive, top-down thinking and structures (including buildings) and that characterize traditional educational institutions. If we learn to listen, we can learn as we teach.

    Thanks for getting the conversation started.

    Mark McGuire
    Blog: http://markmcguire.net/
    Twitter: @mark_mcguire

  7. As someone who has worked all his life in open and distance learning, I of course fully support the expansion of distance and open learning.

    However, it should not be considered an either/or, for any country. For economic development and a civilized society we need mass education, or education for all, but delivered in a variety of forms.

    To be honest I don't accept the argument that the ONLY way to expand access to education is through open and distance learning. Developing or less economically advanced countries will still need more physical schools, colleges and universities, including some elite research institutions focused especially on that country's needs. However, open and distance learning could and probably should constitute a larger proportion if all learners are to be served. This means thinking carefully about how to build an integrated system so that all needs are served.

    One way to ensure that distance education is just as accepted as conventional education is to build new institutions with a mandate and resources (including training) for both campus-based and online teaching. In particular, over the next decade, we shall see more and more hybrid learning, where students do some study on campus and the rest online, so the dividing line between distance and campus-based teaching becomes increasingly blurred.

    Even with a broadened mandate for campus-based institutions, though, we are still likely to need some dedicated, large-scale mega distance teaching universities. In other words, there is no single solution, but the need for an integrated, multi-faceted approach to expanding educational opportunities around the world. But distance education and open learning will play an increasingly important part in any such strategy.

  8. I found Tony´s article very balanced in the sense that he is aware that although Distance Learning can be a very useful tool in terms of making education accessible to remote parts of the world it also implies a change of mentality. I would also agree with " For economic…. but delivered in a variety of forms".

    In my experience, what I have seen is that "imposing" ICT in schools, as it happened in my country, Uruguay was and still is a total disaster. It was a political ploy, so thousands of XOs were given out to primary and secondary students. Some "minor" problems were: a. the teachers had no training on how to use the computers, let alone the material; b. the project started in 2007 and only by 2009 did the authorities realise there "might be a problem with the teachers", c. by 2008 more XOs were broken through mismanagement than there were in use.

    This is just a little anecdote, but it confirms Tony´s view that " This means thinking…. so that all needs are served"

    In 2007 I ran the first course ever in Uruguay, called " Educational Use of ICT " ( an Intrernational Qualification from EDI) for Teachers. It was a real headache because getting ELT teachers to relinquish control over their students was really difficult.

    So my conclusion, is that unless we start from a "more open-minded" view" of Education, which implies that learners becoome Independent and contribute to their own learning process we are still stuck. Lots of universities/ schools now have their "computer room" , others have their Whiteboards which are a total waste of time unless the students have tablets which enable them to communicate with others, etc .

    I would agree with Tony that unless " students do….rest on line" It t will be very difficult to get the whole teaching community to move towards a more flexible way of teaching, which inevitably depends on a MAJOR change on the Roles of Teachers and Learners in the classroom, and assummes "trust" in the students.

    In order to build an "integrated ststen" as Tony says, we have to: 1. have a deep look at the Educational Values we subscribe to, 2. How distance learning can contribute to it; 3. Make both teachers and students aware of the advantages they would get from Distance learning or simply incorporating ICT into their regular classrooms.

  9. Godfrey Mayende

    Tony, I entirely agree with you. To me I will always try to map what you say to an African context to be specific Uganda. Most of the Universities in Uganda are running both campus based-teaching and distance learning. However, there is a challenge that managers of the University still look at these distance education departments as any other department in the university i.e. in terms of staffing and operation. There are no policies that support distance education in these hybrid universities. Some times decisions are taken that fully undermine the running of distance education in these universities. Therefore, directorates or departments of quality assurance do not incorporate distance education in their day to day activities and planning. How can we bridge this gap?

  10. Such as, the requirement by Uganda's National Council for Higher Education, to have all students on distance learning platform, report to the University at least twice in the semester. Here at (www.ihsu.ac.ug), our South Sudanese and Rwandese students have found it hard – because it costs more to travel than to pay for the module under study.

    2 things i have picked from the debate so far, 1) Quality is Key, as well as 2) Technology Access needs to be guaranteed. Policy is a big driver, and I was amazed that on our last graduation, there was no (extra) excitement about our first batch of remote-learners. There was no one in attendance, from a higher supervisory body and/or policy formulation organ, that could draw insights from these masters graduands as a way to gain valuable INSIGHTS into experiences from a learner point of view, and possibly address these at a policy level.

    Often, we assume the quality of materials – but what about quality of tools – the platforms. Do we address that at a technical level, or at a policy level? Do we leave it at institutional level to determine which courses are fit for Pod-casting and which ones are not? How much policy level control do you exercise without appearing to suffocate the institutions?

  11. Ashenaf Tesfaye

    Yes,Tony this is a crucial issue in our country Ethiopia. I strongly agree that distance education contiribute a great value in the development of once country. But what i observed in implementing distance education for needs is that most private college and universities assume this education as gift and bones that who ever certify and fill the gaps, only by paining the school fee. However this is dangers in other hand because as the name indicates '' education'' it should define the base that is permanent behavioural change of the citizen. Other wise the education given is meaningless. Rather giving fund for some people. Personaly if gov't give a sirous attention and deal with thse institution and take action for these college that is advisable.

  12. marja ritanoro

    In our nordic european countries Norway, Finland and Sweden eLearning is accepted as a part of Digital Literacy . Digital Literacy is a core competense for all citicens in Europe. We put the individual on the first place as a part of Education for All .We talk and for how learning happens. Teaching from teachers point of view is question of certification for the profession ?
    Women that have many kids, people in remote areas, those who work, they are happy to have possibilities as everyone, or ?
    I see, as Tony, we need dedicated, first primary educators as the ground, then assessibility to educational opportunities to the higher levels and LifeLong Learning. eLearning and open learning must play an important role to economical growth in all countries. brgs from snow in sweden.

  13. It is great to see responses from Uruguay, Uganda, Ethiopia and Finland to my earlier comment.

    Godfreye asks the question: directorates or departments of quality assurance do not incorporate distance education in their day to day activities and planning. How can we bridge this gap?

    In answer to Godfreye's question, there is a new book out: 'Quality Assurance and Accreditation in Distance Education' edited by Insung Jung and Colin Latchem and published by Routledge. There is a chapter on Quality Assurance in Distance Education in Sub-Saharan Africa by Sarah Hoosen and Neil Butcher, that states, interestingly (p.54): In Uganda there are no national standards for QA in DE, but the Department of DE at Kyambogo University has established its own policies and procedures.

    For an online list of e-learning quality standards, go to my web site: http://tonybates.ca/2010/08/15/e-learning-quality

    I think that it is important not to wait for governments or external QA bodies to set up standards, but to develop and apply your own, based on best practice elsewhere.

    The larger question though comes down to university and college planning. Is there a plan for distance education or e-learning, and how does this relate to other plans, such as the academic plan or the technology plan? This should also address the insititution's role/commitment to lifelong learning. Without a plan that defines the role and importance of online education and/or distance education, you will always be struggling for resources and attention within your own organization. That will also include resources for getting the right tools, such as a learning management system.


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