BRITISH COMMONWEALTH: Big changes in small states

One of the world's leading distance learning organisations is pushing ahead with plans to give students in some of the poorest parts of the developing world equal access to university education. The Commonwealth of Learning - the world's only intergovernmental agency solely dedicated to promoting and delivering distance education and open learning - is working with 30 of the British Commonwealth's smaller states to create a 'virtual university'.

The Vancouver-based organisation was set up in 1989 by the 55 Commonwealth heads of government. It says its Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth will "throw a wide bridge across the digital divide" that separates the wealthy, information-rich first world from poorer, less developed countries.

Focusing on creating post-secondary, skills-related courses in areas ranging from tourism and entrepreneurship to disaster management and other technical and vocational subjects, the virtual university will connect the established tertiary education sector in each country with students through special "non-proprietary, electronically-held course materials", COL says.

Course materials are designed "to be adapted to the specific context of each country" and "used in the offering of credit-bearing qualifications in the countries' post-secondary institutions, strengthening their educational capacity and outreach".

COL, the only official Commonwealth agency located outside Britain, says the aim is to enable "small states to become active contributors to global development and leaders in educational reform through the innovative use of information and communications technology".

Sir John Daniel, COL President and Chief Executive, is a world-renowned authority on open and distance learning whose career includes stints as assistant director-general for education at Unesco and vice chancellor of Britain's Open University. Daniel sees the VUSSC as a key part of the drive to open up learning in the developing world.

Speaking last month at an African Council for Distance Learning conference in Lagos, Nigeria, in a paper titled E Learning on the far side of the digital divide, Daniel said that helping provide appropriate internet-capable hardware and software to teachers and students in the developing world - particularly mobile phones and low-cost computers - was only one part of the challenge.

"No combination of connectivity, equipment and software does any good unless people can use it. Although the 'teach-yourself' approach suits information and communications technology because training is often built in, it is still helpful to seed that process with some formal training," he said.

"This is one major purpose of the VUSSC which COL is coordinating on behalf of the ministers of education of 30 small states, eight of them in Africa. The other main aim is to produce e-learning materials as Open Educational Resources on a variety of skills-based post-secondary topics chosen by the ministers in order to reinforce the offerings of the existing tertiary institutions in these states."

The virtual university was not a new tertiary institution but a way of networking the existing ones so they could raise "their game in e-learning", Daniel said. The way VUSSC was being introduced was designed to help cascade e-learning training.

"To launch the development of e-learning materials in each new subject, COL convenes a three-week workshop in one of the small states and all the states interested in developing that subject send experts. At the workshop they get training in methods of distance education design and development, collaborative development strategies and tools, and a range of different technologies that are used in e-learning development. Participants acquire these skills while working on real courses."

To encourage wider dissemination, workshop delegates are expected to share their new knowledge with other teachers and trainers when they return home.

The VUSSC is backed by another COL project, the WikiEducator, an international resource for the development of free educational content. Launched in 2006 under the slogan "we're turning the digital divide into digital dividends using free content and open networks", the WikiEducator enables the creation of online communities that allow members to work together to create content and plan conferences and other educational events.

By bringing education innovators together to create materials licensed for copying, editing and free reuse with attribution under the Creative Commons copyright protocols, WikiEducator seeks to simplify the current multitude of different freeware or shareware licences governing open access educational materials.

In keeping with its brief to continue expanding the learning opportunities it has brought to millions of people across the Commonwealth in the past 20 years, COL is naturally offering free online versions of its virtual university workshops every month.

So far, 870 people have been trained online and Daniel says COL intends to reach 2,500 by the end of this year to complement the face-to-face workshops already conducted in Ghana, India, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Zambia. For COL it seems that e-learning is not only the future but very much the present too.