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 learning

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 institution.

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 learning. 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.

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 that: 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.

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 Africa.

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