Global policy forum to forge future of online learning

People from across the world have been collaborating to develop policies and actions that will chart the future for higher education, says Professor Mandla Makhanya, vice-chancellor of the University of South Africa. A high-level policy forum at next month’s conference of the International Council for Open and Distance Education, or ICDE, will apply regional lenses to help forge the way ahead for online, open and flexible learning.

The collaboration is sparking something great and innovative in the higher education environment, Makhanya told University World News. Also: “Technology is bringing about a rethink of the missions of universities, and of business models.

“We have acknowledged that the developments, the interconnections we have across the globe that bring about collaborations, are at the core of assisting us to have a different view of higher education. We are working far more together, in a closer fashion, than we ever have previously.”

The high-level policy forum will be one of three major activities around the 26th ICDE World Conference being held at the mega-resort Sun City, north of Johannesburg, from 14-16 October. There is also the conference itself and the ICDE Presidents’ Summit, which will focus on issues of leadership and governance.

The conference will be hosted by the University of South Africa, or UNISA, under the theme “Growing capacities for sustainable distance e-learning provision”.

The policy forum

The policy forum will be held at UNISA on 17 October, a day after the world conference ends, as part of the ICDE Presidents’ Summit. It is being organised by the ICDE in partnership with UNESCO, the Commonwealth of Learning and the Open Education Consortium, with the theme “Higher education for the sustainable future we want. The way ahead for online, open and flexible learning: Opportunities and actions”.

it will bring together leaders and decision makers from around the world including education officials and policy-makers, higher education leaders, researchers, representatives of teacher and student organisations, the education technology industry, global and regional networks and leading NGOs.

The event follows the UNESCO-ICDE Global High-Level Policy Forum on “Online, open and flexible higher education for the future we want”, held in Paris in June, and will discuss developments and suggest regional agendas for action.

The Paris meeting itself drew on earlier meetings including the UNESCO-organised World Education Forum in Korea in May and forums in Bali and Qingdao, China.

Its aim was to take forward declarations from those meetings and turn statements into actions to ensure greater educational equity, access and quality – and particularly to respond to the urgent need for more higher education up to 2030 in the face of massive student demand.

All of this work will underpin education targets in the Sustainable Development Goals to be ratified at the United Nations this month.

“It is very important to understand that success in the world in which we work is dependent largely on ensuring that the policy framework that guides our work will assist us to achieve the commitments we have made,” said Makhanya.

The ICDE and UNESCO will take forward a policy framework from the forum: “We have been granted an opportunity to share our knowledge and perspectives in shaping future policy directions of higher education. We will also be in a position to agree that what we are talking about is feasible and measurable, and that we commit to achievable actions.”

UNESCO, Makhanya said, was keen to galvanise the entire world in this area. “By the time we say we are talking with one voice, UNESCO would have done justice to the process.”

ODeL essential for developing world

The work was crucial, the vice-chancellor stressed. Unless developing countries moved more into open, distance and e-learning – ODeL – they would be unable to accommodate the rapidly growing numbers of people who needed to find their way into higher education.

Across Africa, universities reported that the number of students they were able to admit was far lower than the number of qualified applicants who applied for places.

“As a result, a huge number of would-be students either fall by the wayside because they do not get opportunities at all, or some hit luck or get bursaries to go elsewhere in the world – particularly to first world countries – to pursue higher education.”

It had become clear, when looking at the cost and capability implications of higher education, that bricks-and-mortar institutions were unlikely to come close to the numbers of students that needed to be put through higher education.

ODeL, said Makhanya, was also the best bet to help meet soaring demand for quality higher education. The pedagogical approach and work produced was in the public domain: “You can ill afford a situation where you produce work of poor quality and assume you will survive.

In Africa, he continued, “we understand the cardinal importance of quality". “The African Council for Distance Education, of which we are all members, has prioritised working on a quality toolkit so that we can have an instrument that can be shared among all universities keen to participate in ODeL.”

Responding to a changing world

UNISA, which has a history dating back to 1873, is one of the world’s huge distance learning institutions, with around 400,000 students – mostly South African but also from across Africa and the world. It confers nearly 13% of all degrees in South Africa.

“We’ve seen it all,” laughed Makhanya. The university understood that it could not succeed without making use of rapidly evolving new technologies.

After exploring options, the decision was made to transition systematically from mixed mode delivery, largely print-based, to online learning, and a policy framework to support the technology-driven transition was approved by the university council in 2008.

The policy assisted UNISA to put in place building blocks in the adoption of technologies. “It also brought an understanding that we had to make a huge investment in these technologies – more than we had anticipated at the time.”

Shifting online is not as obvious as it sounds, for a developing country.

For instance, UNISA expected to be interacting with students fully online quite quickly. But it soon found out that while a significant proportion of students had no problem moving online, others from disadvantaged backgrounds were simply not in a position to do so.

The university had to retain print-based materials, so as not to impede access for poorer students. “It is a costly move on our part, in the sense that while we are making a huge investment in technology, we are keeping our print-based interaction with students.

“We also needed to make investments in learning centres spread across the country in cities and towns,” said Makhanya.

Since 2006 considerable investment had been made in setting up a campus in Ethiopia following a governmental agreement that UNISA should establish a physical presence: “We are mainly focusing on postgraduate studies in that country.

“We provide a network environment and computer facilities for students to register and conduct their studies, and to interact with academics and tutors.” UNISA used to have face-to-face tutors but now provides e-tutors who are from around the world. “This system is to the advantage of students, but again it is a costly endeavour because we have to pay the e-tutors.

“At the end of the day you are investing in the right kind of space, because the students who get support are the students who eventually succeed. We can’t afford to enrol huge numbers only to find that only a small percentage succeed – that won’t make any sense in terms of the investments made.”

Most students, across the country and the continent, found the use of technology a major advantage because of easy access to materials and professors. And, said Makhanya, “we have made it very clear now that we see ourselves moving away completely from interacting with students on a print-based mode within the next five years”.

Without the affordability technologies delivered, it would have been impossible for UNISA to envisage growing to 400,000 students – a critical point for a continent where the demand for higher education is huge and growing.

“It is important for us to acknowledge that open, distance and e-learning is not as cheap as some people argue it is. But the investment must be made because at the end of the day it is our governments that gain because with economies of scale you can provide opportunities for huge numbers of students through ODeL, which you can’t do at contact universities.”

Local innovation

Since many Africans live in areas without access to computers or electricity, a challenge was how to combine print-based and online learning while moving inexorably towards online. “We asked ourselves how it might be possible to produce work that can be done online, regardless of the challenges confronting you?” said Makhanya.

The institution developed the ‘digi-band’ concept involving ‘signature’ courses that enable students with little or no access to the internet to register for and complete online courses.

Students work offline when they do not have access to facilities. When they are able to get to a UNISA learning centre, they can go online and automatically connect to and access the work they have done offline.

The globally innovative system was built internally, with assistance from IT specialists. “The technology is well developed and it is our view that this is one of the challenges that we have successfully managed to overcome, and we are proud of this progress.” The ‘digi-band’ system is being replicated so that eventually it will cover all degrees.

“So the systematic introduction of fully technology-based activities that is online teaching and learning is a reality that we’ve begun to see our students involved in successfully.”

Africa challenges and solutions

Access to education and technologies is unevenly spread across and within African countries, and across class and rural-urban divides.

Makhanya said Africa needed a “huge injection of capital in higher education” and general infrastructure “so that we do not have this uneven divide between those who have and those who don’t have. Because it actually reproduces the kind of environment in which we cannot address the challenges of poverty”.

Only with deliberate, significant investment by governments would Africa begin to improve higher education participation rates and the number of economically active people.

“We are operating within the knowledge economy. If we have the majority of people on the continent not succeeding in finding a way into higher education, clearly we are never going to move in the direction that we are supposed to. All successful nations are those that have done well in the area of education.”

Investment, according to Makhanya, needs to be primarily in website technologies.

Mobile technologies were the way to go, because most people in Africa have access to mobile technology including smartphones, which have significant technological capabilities. “That’s an area we need to be investing in, more than learning centres because they are expensive.”

“If we can just focus on ensuring that technology becomes ubiquitous, regardless of what you own as an individual or family or community, that would make it possible for you to access higher education in the cheapest way possible, so the cost is not transferred to the student.”

It was necessary, Makhanya stressed, to have capacity across Africa to work in open, online and flexible quality higher education environments. “It would be foolhardy to say that this is an area we need to move into, only to discover to our dismay that we do not have any level of scholarship in the area – because that means that we would not be successful.”

The conference would assist delegates to share experiences and expertise in the field, where much is changing, where institutions are not all equally equipped to offer quality education, and where there are residential universities moving in the direction of open, distance and flexible learning because of the huge demand for higher education.

At the same time, there were ‘virtual’ universities where huge investments had already been made, by governments or the private sector, that had high-level technology operations and were highly accessible to students. And there were consortia of universities working together to strengthen each other, again dependent largely on technologies.

“There are many developments currently emerging. What will assist us to be successful in the environment in which we are operating is to acknowledge all of them but make it very clear that we need to have a high level of scholarship,” Makhanya concluded.