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A distance education revolution

In Danny Boyle’s Olympic Games opening ceremony, the portrayal of the Industrial Revolution was extraordinary for its energy and drama. Underpinning it was the power of technological change.

Oceans of Innovation, a recent essay published by the UK's Institute for Public Policy Research, argues that in the late 1700s and early 1800s there were a number of prevailing conditions that allowed so many innovations to take off.

Among these was the democratisation of education and the realisation that ‘ideas’ were no longer simply the business of the wealthy elite.

The process of spreading education used to be extremely slow, requiring whole-system change. Just as it was in the Industrial Revolution, the ability to spread information is only part of the story.

As Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler suggest in their recent book Abundance, tomorrow’s education system is “decentralised, personalised and extremely interactive”. For distance learning to be really effective, active engagement is essential.

MIT, Harvard, Coursera and others promise to deliver high quality higher education content to massive global audiences via massive open online courses – MOOCs – and, in some respects, these are the higher education broadcast platform for the internet age.

The Open University

In the 1970s, The Open University (OU) partnered with the BBC to deliver information, to what were then staggering numbers of learners, through its late-night TV lectures. Then, as now, the OU’s experience showed emphatically that simply making content available did not result in high quality learning.

Open educational resources, or OER, can and do deliver greater interactivity, as the OU has proved in recent years.

The university has delivered a number of highly successful OER projects including: OpenLearn, a free learning resources website that attracts 400,000 unique visitors a month; Bridge2Success, a project to help US college students develop basic maths and learning skills to continue their education; and TESSA, which uses OER to develop teacher training across 12 African countries.

The OU has received a US$1.5 million grant from the Hewlett Foundation to examine the impact of OER across schools, universities and colleges. This work will inform the thinking of higher education institutions in distance learning who are looking to deliver a high quality study experience across geographical boundaries to as wide a number of people as possible.

The university is creating hi-tech tools that facilitate and enrich the learning experience.

Highlights include the development of an internet-based virtual microscope system, which allows students to explore rock sections as thin as 0.03 millimetres with all the interactive functionality of a physical microscope, and the development of the Wolfson OpenScience Laboratory, a global centre that will be at the cutting edge of practical science teaching and operated entirely online.

As OU Professor Stephen Swithenby said earlier this year: “Practical science has been an underdeveloped area of online education – it is cost-effective, and is a bold way of making the world of science accessible to many more people.”

Access to information plus the tools to interact

Providing access to information and the tools to interact with it are critical to spreading education and stimulating innovation. Distance learning providers have a responsibility to do both, but they also need the organising framework.

The internet offers opportunities to collaborate across vast distances and at great speed. For 43 years, the OU has been developing increasingly sophisticated ways of connecting students with teachers and fellow learners.

Students, staff and alumni can take ownership of the process and collaborate with colleagues around the world on platforms of their choosing.

In the 21st century, just as in Brunel’s day, open access to information, interactivity and the ability to collaborate and connect are crucial ingredients in the recipe for effective education and game-changing innovation. For the first time, technology is giving distance education providers the tools to deliver this internationally and at scale.

As well as Brunel, the London 2012 opening ceremony featured Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web. One of the greatest engineers of the Industrial Revolution was seen alongside the most important innovator of the modern age.

The key building blocks of learning may not have changed dramatically in the two centuries between their lifetimes, but the opportunity to open up a quality education to millions of people worldwide is a reality that Brunel could never have even dreamed of.

Let us seize the moment.

* Lucian J Hudson is director of communications at The Open University. This article originally appeared in the International Focus Newsletter of the UK Higher Education International Unit. Follow the unit on Twitter.


I agree. The only problem with accessing good resources for higher learning is that the links are all promoting downloads of PDF documents at a cost. This happens if one tries to access from home. If accessing from university it is free. Some are finding a reason to make money which then forces students to opt for materials at university libraries as resources are wide and varied.

Adi E. Samanunu Waqanivalu commented on the University World News Facebook page
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