The Fourth Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning (PCF4)
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Achieving Development Goals


Open and Distance Learning —Lessons and Issues

Jocelyn Calvert


Education has long been recognized as a critical mechanism for achieving development goals. In expanding access to education, one of the most significant challenges has been finding appropriate delivery methods. The cost of traditional educational delivery, as well as the distance from schools and training centres, prohibits many people from attending school.

Education for Development: ODL Roots


In the last quarter of the 20th century, open and distance learning (ODL) emerged as a viable means of broadening educational access for people who could not spend whole terms in classrooms. With the introduction of ODL programs, other aspects of education were also re-considered and re-designed, including admissions policies, enrolment systems and support, learning resources and experiences, the role of instructors, and the place for alternative educational approaches.


Good practices in ODL have several commonalties in terms of management and approach. Where it has flourished, ODL has:

  • Clearly defined target students and an understanding of their needs and circumstances;

  • Top-level encouragement of innovative strategies to provide educational experiences and resources, along with funding and infrastructure;

  • Groups of people, including teachers, instructional designers, and administrators, using their creativity to re-design educational experiences, monitor progress and make continuous improvements;

  • Awareness of local educational culture, and efforts to gain local academic acceptance for this non-traditional educational approach.


In the 21st century, the lessons learned from earlier ODL experiences are being applied across educational sectors at all levels. A wide variety of educational programs are incorporating aspects of ODL. Meanwhile, ODL is continuing to evolve, using information and communication technologies (ICT) to enhance learning resources and improve communications and delivery. The introduction of appropriate ICT can also support social aspects of learning, and this can be particularly important when students lack sophisticated learning skills.


ODL Policy and Management


The success of ODL programs depends on management policies and initiatives that are sensitive to the needs of learners, while also addressing wider acceptance in the academic community. This requires re-thinking of policies and practices that are the convention in traditional classroom-based education.


Shifts in management come at the institutional level; however state and national policies can help or hinder effective ODL policy development within institutions. At all levels, policy development and management of ODL programs must accommodate changes in ODL practices. Among the most significant changes in ODL is the expanding and evolving use of information and communication technologies (ICT). The use of ICT is blurring the traditional boundary between ODL development and delivery. It is also changing the division of labour in terms of the individuals required to design, develop, and deliver programs, and their roles in ODL. This has an impact on how ODL is managed within institutions. Additionally, there is an increasing emphasis on the social component of learning, which is an area that has often been neglected when the focus of policies and management have been on learning resources and quality control.


What makes ODL successful and sustainable?


Access and Equity


Openness in ODL refers to instructional delivery processes that provide more control to learners in terms of when, where, and how they access education and training. In addition to offering access without the traditional constraints of time-tables and location, open access allows greater flexibility with regard to entry qualification and formal requirements for entry. Thus, learners who are traditionally disadvantaged in terms of the openness and accessibility of education, have greater opportunity for success given the services and flexibility of ODL programs.


Many ODL programs also recognize the importance of fostering equity through both the delivery and design of curriculum. Equity extends to ensuring that all those who are admitted to ODL courses or programs have a good chance of success. Students who have not followed traditional academic and training paths are more likely to achieve success if the educational programming and conditions accommodate their backgrounds, life circumstances, and aspirations.


Monitoring and Evaluation


Reports of ODL initiatives often indicate large enrolment numbers and large numbers of graduates over time. However, these figures might not disclose the number of learners who enrolled in courses or programs but did not acquire the appropriate learning. Failure and drop-out rates might also be under-reported. How should ODL programs be monitored and evaluated? Should we be measuring success in terms of proportionate persistence and achievement?


What should be monitored and measured, and what does the information tell us?


Two vital elements of successful ODL programs are the quality of learning resources and the efficacy of delivery mechanisms. However, given that students might have limited access to support from teachers and other learners, the social aspect of ODL also deserves attention in education for development. While experienced students with good learning skills might succeed in ODL conditions that provide only limited contact with instructors and other learners, the drop-out rate in ODL is troubling. Students with less experience in academic education and training are the main constituency for ODL in development. Thus, in order for education to assist in the achievement of development goals, it is vital to address social aspects of learning. Students require access to appropriate and adequate support and social contact in order to decrease drop-out rates and increase successful course or program completion.


Open, frank, and assiduous monitoring and evaluation are critical to effective management of ODL programs. The results of monitoring and evaluation should be used to implement improvements that better ensure the long-term success of ODL initiatives. Some considerations for conducting monitoring and evaluation programs are as follows:


  • How often should the monitoring and evaluation process be assessed for effectiveness and appropriateness?

  • When monitoring identifies problems, how much effort should be put into changing processes or practices in order to solve the problems, and what efforts should be made to monitor the results of the changes?

  • It is easy to monitor enrolment and graduation rates, but is this appropriate information to indicate the success of education and training programs? It is much more challenging to assess the success of graduates, but will this information better inform education for development?


Practice Based Research


Much of our knowledge of what works in ODL is contributed by teachers and administrators who systematically research their own practice. How can institutions take advantage of the knowledge gained by practitioners, and apply that knowledge to improve policy and practice in broader ODL applications? How can ODL experts within organizations and institutions work with teachers and program administrative staff to develop practice based research skills and find audiences for their knowledge?


Professional Development


Open and distance learning, in particular, can provide new challenges for instructors and the need to adapt to new teaching approaches or methodologies. Just as students require guidance and support with learning, teachers also benefit from guidance and support when they are confronted with the need to change or adapt to new teaching approaches. There are a variety formal and informal tools and strategies to assist instructors in their professional development. Support and guidance can also come from the sharing of experiences with other teachers who have faced similar situations. Many instructors will then build on the experiences of others in order to master new teaching and learning approaches.


ODL differs from traditional learning environments in the participants who develop and facilitate educational programs. Academic experts (who may have no experience in ODL), are teamed with instructional designers and media experts to develop learning resources. Typically, it is tutors who engage with students and help them use the learning resources.


In many ODL systems, even if there is emphasis on the quality of learning resources, tutors seldom get much training, or their training is limited to the routine teaching and administrative aspects of their jobs. Given increasing emphasis on providing rich learning experiences and supporting the social component of education, does this change the professional development needs for tutors and teachers?


In many programs, there are insufficient numbers of resource people to help tutors and teachers to master ODL teaching and delivery methods, yet educators often value guidance from colleagues. Beyond practise based research, can academic experts and tutors in ODL help one another to develop professionally?


Tutoring and Learner Support


In any initiative to improve teaching and support practices (and learning outcomes), engaging tutors, who have direct experience with learners is most productive. With their direct student contact, tutors play a critical role in guiding both the social and intellectual or academic aspects of education and training. Therefore, tutors can provide valuable insight to assist in refining and improving instructional design and delivery approaches in ODL.


In addition to the diffusion of teaching and tutoring expertise through mentoring and support of professional colleagues, what can these front line educators learn from students? Students too can be a valuable source of information and feedback to help ODL program designers, academic experts, and tutors to improve course and program offerings.


There is also ample evidence that learners support other learners, and this another aspect of ODL design and delivery that warrants attention.

Building on Foundations


Many ODL educational programmers assume that the resource materials in which they have invested so heavily do the teaching. While program design is critical, facilitating support for teachers, tutors, learners, and learning communities is vital in order to build on the foundations of ODL and achieve education and development goals.

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