Break down learning barriers to sustainable development

Boundaries between contact and distance universities are rapidly blurring, and boundaries between institutions and developers of technology-enhanced learning ought to be broken down if both worlds are to benefit from each other’s expertise in the interests of sustainable development, thought leaders told a global conference on open, distance and e-learning.

Major shifts and challenges for open and distance learning, and how it might support the newly adopted United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, were explored by a panel at last week’s conference of the International Council for Open and Distance Education, or ICDE.

The panelists were Professor Asha Kanwar, president and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning and former pro vice-chancellor of Indira Gandhi National Open University in India; Professor Tolly Mbwette, former president of the African Council for Distance Education and former vice-chancellor of the Open University of Tanzania; and Professor Alan Tait, director of international development and teacher education at the Open University, United Kingdom.

Paul Prinsloo, research professor in open and distance learning at the University of South Africa or UNISA, chaired the panel at the 26th ICDE World Conference, which was held at Sun City north of Johannesburg from 14-16 October and was hosted by UNISA under the theme “Growing Capacities for Sustainable Distance e-Learning Provision”.

Major developments

Asha Kanwar highlighted two important developments that are having a major impact on open, distance and e-learning. One is open educational resources or OER, and the other is massive open online courses or MOOCs.

“Distance learning institutions have not taken leadership roles in either movement. They are just now beginning to wake up to these new developments.”

There were major implications, said Kanwar. For example, distance institutions “have always prided themselves on the family silver – course content, which was very high quality. Now the rug has been pulled out from under our feet because OER is coming as free content."

So what is to be done?

“We haven’t really overcome the credibility gap that exists between distance and contact institutions,” Kanwar argued.

There should be more invested in learner support, which has been a weak spot in many developing countries. “There is a huge expansion in distance learning, but the reason why the credibility crisis still exists is to a large extent based on learner support.”

Second: “We have all the experience as distance educators to run quality MOOCs, but we haven’t seized the day. We’re trying to look around to see what to do and how to follow. This is one of the developments that would allow us is to make the world a classroom.”

Third, said Kanwar, distance educators needed to place more emphasis on peer-to-peer learning, rather than just teacher- and content-to-student learning.

These areas, along with the rapidly developing area of learning analytics for student support, provided “very exciting opportunities”.

Blurring boundaries

Tolly Mbwette argued that one major development in higher education worldwide was the disappearance of distinctions between residential and open and distance learning universities. All types of institutions were “evolving to use some sort of blended learning”.

Second, challenges ushered upon universities by the recently adopted United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs – and in Africa, the African Union’s new Agenda 2063 – “give universities, and in particular open and distance universities, an added challenge of being able to go well beyond the normal duty of simply teaching students.

“Open and distance universities will have to play a very active role in educating entire communities,” Mbwette said.

To be able to do this effectively, African countries would need to overcome two challenges – lack of internet bandwidth and poor quality. Governments were investing in bandwidth, making the “bad” quality of content and services the major long-term obstacle.

“So universities here are challenged to work with governments to make sure that services available are good. Partnership and collaboration seem to a major way to guarantee quality delivery.”

The open, distance and e-learning, or ODeL, community should “be careful of the boundaries we draw around ourselves”, warned Alan Tait. “There are other conferences taking place around the world, which are well into the secret garden we regarded as ours for many years.

“They would describe themselves as interested in technology-enhanced learning, because technology isn’t only our prerogative now, as we thought it was for so long. It is on campuses.” MOOCs, he pointed out, were pioneered by research universities.

“I think we need to look carefully at our boundaries because we could build some very fruitful relationships.”

ODel, MOOCs and development

Tait said open and distance institutions also needed to think hard about why they had not been at the forefront of curriculum developments – for instance, how could curricula help people manage livelihoods and change – and education to understand sustainability.

“How are we going to make the SDGs an explicit target?” Curriculum developers had to think about how to educate people to understand sustainability, in order to achieve the SDGs.

The Canada-based Commonwealth of Learning was promoting MOOCs for development, Kanwar revealed, “in order not to expand the digital divide or the equality gap”.

Many people in developing countries interested in MOOCs wanted a blended approach, such as all content on CD Rom, so they could use their limited internet connectivity for interaction with tutors or peers. Mobile technology was helping to overcome connectivity challenges.

It was crucial to look at the technology offered in ODeL in order to find ways to expand access without increasing inequality.

“One way would be to use appropriate, available and affordable technologies. And the second would be to build on our experience as distance educators to use more blended approaches, which speak to the constituencies we deal with.”

Mbwette stressed the importance of providing quality MOOCs for developing countries. A curriculum developed by one of the members of the African Council for Distance Education was being piloted by several institutions, with a view to developing quality MOOCs.

“The need is there, but the way in which we exploit the MOOCs approach must be more guided so as to produce quality information.”

There were examples of African universities producing world-class online content, Mbwette continued. For instance, maths materials produced by 12 African universities, guided by the African Virtual University, were being used more by people in the United States and Latin America than by Africa. “But why are Africans failing to access their own materials?”

Distance learning and the SGDs

The SDGs, Mbwette pointed out, required that no one was left out. Open and distance learning institutions had a rare opportunity to assist in training citizens with special needs. “That element of inclusiveness is just one example of how ODeL institutions can participate in not leaving anyone out of development, and would also help nation-building.”

Universities, said Kanwar, have always been thought of as ivory towers of learning and research that have never bothered much about the world around them, except for a small element of extension.

But because of increasing constraints on government resources, bricks and mortar institutions were not going to be possible for most people to attend in many developing countries.

“How can we utilise our expertise of the last 50 years, as distance learning has escalated, and get into national development?” Kanwar asked.

Open and distance learning should not only be looked at in the context of higher education – especially when considering how it might contribute to the SDGs.

She gave an example from India of an ODeL university working with impoverished farmers who wanted improved goat herding. The university catalysed partnerships between local farmers and banks and agricultural experts, making a real difference to the community.

“That is education for sustainable development in action” that needed to be scaled up.

Kanwar called for moving beyond the ‘capacities’ highlighted in the conference theme, to ‘capabilities’. “It’s like the difference between moving from outputs to outcomes.”

She cited a 2006 study by Melanie Walker, which among other things asked schoolgirls in South Africa what learning should lead to. They said three things – personal autonomy and independence of thought; entry to the world of work; and an identity and voice that earned them respect.

“Why are we not moving people from capacity to capability? This links very closely with the SDGs,” said Kanwar, which call for inclusive, quality, lifelong education for all by 2030.

“The new strapline is learning for sustainable development, by which we mean an inclusive and holistic approach – learning that leads to economic opportunities, learning that leads to social inclusion and learning that leads to environmental sustainability.

If higher education was able to move from capacity to capability, and provide learning for sustainable development, “I think the global community will achieve the SDGs by 2030”.

The excellence question

Alan Tait said he had been reflecting hard on issues of excellence and openness in ODeL.

“Accounts of excellence are dominated by a discourse of selection. The most excellent universities are those that are most selective. This is not our world, but we find it very difficult to challenge that discourse on excellence.”

Cambridge University in the UK, Tait said, had an around 2% drop-out rate. “Our drop-out rate at Open University UK is much higher, because our excellence is not about selectiveness. My university does not select its students – students select us."

Also, many open and distance learning students come from marginalised communities, from where it was difficult to progress.

“So while we have to pay attention to drop-out, I don’t think we should be intimidated by the fact that our discourse of excellence is about inclusion,” said Tait.

This meant that ODeL universities had a tremendous responsibility to support students. “We have to care about our students and we have to put the goal of student success at the core of our enterprise.”

Choices and spaces

Learning should lead people to the freedom to make choices, which leads to empowerment, Kanwar said. “We are not simply preparing people for the market and livelihood opportunities. That’s one dimension.

“Employment and entrepreneurship is very valuable for economic empowerment. But we are moving beyond that to the social empowerment of people, to have a sense of agency as human beings, as good citizens, as people who have power within their households, within their communities, within their spheres.”

Further, Kanwar said: “As we move into the 21st century, from knowledge workers there is going to be another transition to relationship workers.

“Within an open and distance learning context, how do we create those values and team spirits, the abilities to collaborate – which are going to be key. How are we going to mould curricula to integrate both cognitive and non-cognitive skills?”

Post-secondary institutions were places for critical thought, said Tait, but this tradition was being challenged. He cited French politician Lionel Jospin, who said “Yes to a market economy, no to a market society”.

He referred to the growth of online for-profit colleges, “which offer a very reduced version of education to students that is simply for a market society. Too often they fail students, who take on huge loans for courses for which they are not suited and they don’t even get the livelihood outcomes that they want.”

There would always be a contest between issues such as the employability of graduates and relationships with industry, versus the value of critical thinking and curricula that speak to matters such as values and sustainability.

“We all live and work in societies with particular structures – economic structures, ideological structures – and we can’t pretend they don’t exist,” said Tait. “But they do in many cases give us space to help change, and that’s all open and distance learning can do.

In the past 45 years the Open University UK had transformed higher education – how people think of graduates and who graduates are; they are no longer only out of the elite.

“We have changed what higher education looks like. We have democratised university study,” Tait added. “We’ve invented curricula that serve new kinds of students. We exploit the space we have to make change.

“I don’t want the best to be the enemy of the good.”