Dr Gajaraj Dhanarajan, head of the Commonwealth of Learning, argues that changes
in supply and demand are forcing a reassessment of the role of distance
Advanced and new democracies, as they begin to prepare for the challenges and
opportunities of the next millennium, are struggling to make learning and
knowledge a central aspect of their social and economic activity. Until the
mid-1960s, education was no more than an initiation into social and economic
life; today's ambition is to make the acquisition of knowledge a lifelong
activity in which the school becomes the laboratory for making individuals mature
learners, with an autonomous capacity to self-learn throughout their lives.
Adult students, like those who choose to study at open universities, clearly know
what they want to learn, when they want to learn it and how to go about it.
Institutions have to be sensitive to the desires of their learners and not to the
desires of the staff. Schools, colleges and universities are devising curricula,
delivery methods, assessments and award-making to recognise the new learners and
their needs. It now seems possible to think of a learner-centred environment, as
opposed to one where learners had to fit in with the agenda of faculty and
The nature of the supply is therefore changing in a number of ways, but most
notably in three areas:
Many institutions are becoming open to
non-traditional learners, offering a wide variety of courses of flexible duration
and allowing students to move freely between off- and on-campus. Parallel with
this is the arrival of new providers of education, such as multinational
companies and huge national conglomerates.
This is changing rapidly with the arrival of faster,
interactive worldwide-based technologies. The potential for low-cost 'real time'
communication between any group of people from anywhere in the world using video,
audio and written mode is allowing educators to deliver knowledge and skills
almost as effectively as traditional delivery methods. The benefit of the newer
technologies is not so much in the conquest of distance between learner and
teacher (though this is important) but in the transformation of the relationship
between learners, teachers and learning equipment. Students will truly have an
opportunity, with advanced software development, to be in control of their
Greater expansion in educational demand is taking place at
a time when our economic climate is worsening. Governments will be hard pressed
to loosen control of the educational process as well as their role in financing
these ventures. Those who benefit immediately from education and training will be
expected to meet the cost of the service themselves.
It is clear from the development of distance education over the last four decades
that good quality training and education have become increasingly more accessible
to a far wider range of users.
Although there has already been remarkable progress, the next four decades should
see education reaching out to an even wider group of individuals among whom the
following should feature prominently:
Providing opportunities to a diverse group of learners separated by space, time,
prior learning skills, and new educational and training needs will need an
infrastructure that is flexible, global in reach, interactive and affordable.
Invariably using technological enhancements, some very responsive systems have
been developed at many institutions throughout the world. But this is not enough;
we need to accelerate this change.
- unskilled workers whose job categories are in decline;
- the long-term unemployed;
- women and girls;
- adults who are illiterate and those with low functional literacy;
- recent immigrants and refugees;
- people with disabilities;
- and non-nationals.
One way of achieving this mission would be to create more distance teaching
institutions or, alternatively, to persuade more and more institutions, that
currently teach largely through the face-to-face mode, to give thought to
broadening their delivery methods.
What learning will look like in the next 30 or 40 years is difficult to predict
but what is predictable, from all that we have observed in the last ten years, is
COL has become a focal point for the marshalling of countries' educational
resources to advance the cause of human resource development at the international
level and has become widely recognised as the major Commonwealth source of
professional expertise and innovation in the educational sector. It has provided
invaluable support to Commonwealth countries and institutions in the adoption of
distance education and open learning.
- learning will be part and parcel of every adult throughout his or her life;
- access to learning throughout life will need to become near universal;
- the technologies we will employ to deliver learning must be user-centred;
- providers of learning products must adapt their ways to meet the changing
demands of their clients and to maximise their potential for new delivery
- and learning will have to be a collaborative arrangement involving
individuals, employers, governments and academia.
The COL is continuing to expand its influence: the key component of its current
strategy is to design and implement programmes that support and improve
institutions already engaged in distance learning, create better systems for
distance educators to communicate and share information; and forge new
partnerships between Commonwealth countries and distance educators.
Through COL's expertise and worldwide network of practitioners, assistance is
available in the application of innovative educational technologies, the
availability of model learning materials, open and distance learning systems
development, and in training distance educators.
Model-building is also an important aspect of COL's work. The Commonwealth
Educational Media Centre for Asia (CEMCA), located in New Delhi, was established
by COL in 1994 to promote co-operation and collaboration in technical
applications among educational institutions and media organisations. It also
serves as a regional resource centre, facilitating the exchange of audio/video
productions. Work is progressing on the establishment of a similar centre for
Responding to other expressed needs, COL is developing distance education
curriculum material in fields such as environmental engineering,
technical/vocational education and training and teacher education - where
existing materials are not available or are not particularly suitable - and is
developing copyright protocols for the transfer, use, and adaptation of materials
that do exist.
Capitalising on its wide experience over the past six years, COL is now well-poised to initiate the development of Commonwealth-wide teaching and learning
networks/centres. Commonwealth-wide systems for educational broadcasting, credit
transfer, quality assurance and accreditation of institutions and commercial
partnerships are also just around the corner in the work of COL.
If the coming century is to be truly knowledge-based, governments have to find
ways to ensure that their people remain competitive in a world economy and
responsible citizens in participatory democracies. At the same time, they must
develop caring communities which are committed to the ideals of human dignity,
rights, equality and freedom. COL is playing a vital role in assisting
Commonwealth governments to achieve these ideals, through high-quality
technology-assisted mass and open education.
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©Kensington Publications 1996