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


Meaningful Learning in Education and Development

Som Naidu


Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; help him learn how to fish, and he eats for life. This is a commonly known aphorism that underscores the centrality of learning and education in development.

All development activity involves the learning of some process or product. This may include anything from learning about basic family planning practices, to learning how to manufacture and market local produce. In order to achieve their full impact, development programs and activities require careful attention to what needs to be taught and how to optimize its learning.


Learning that is most effective is a process that is situated within the context and the culture of the learning community. This is called meaningful learning.


The Role of Context, Culture and Community in Meaningful Learning


Learning design that focuses on the transmission of information has been found to be ineffective in the long run. Contemporary views on learning see it as an active and recursive process. This perspective is driven by greater recognition of the pivotal role of the ‘learning context’ in knowledge construction and understanding. This is the constructivist perspective on learning. It is grounded in the belief that learning and cognition are most potent when situated within a meaningful context, and within the culture and the community within which learners live.


The constructivist view of learning is one in which there is a process of developing understanding through problem-solving and critical reflection. As an active process, learning is most effective and efficient when learners are engaged in learning by doing.


This approach also highlights the importance of the learning group in the learning process. It argues that learning, and the development of understanding, is a social process which comes about as a result of learners acting upon authentic problem situations in groups, through dialogue, discussion, and debate.


Instructional designs that embody the constructivist perspective of learning make use of scenarios, problems, incidents, stories and cases that are realistic or authentic (i.e., that reflect real life situations). These activities ‘situate’ and ‘anchor’ all learning experiences, and in this constructivist approach, assessment of learning outcomes is closely tied to the learning context.


Evidence of this view of learning is reflected in the widespread use of scenario and problem-based learning in the study of medicine and the health sciences, case-based reasoning in the study of law, business and economics, and the use of role-play in the study of social sciences. Within these contexts, learners are put into situations where they are required to think for themselves by reflecting on their actions, drawing conclusions, and defending their decisions and actions.


Fundamental Principles and Practices of Meaningful Learning


Following this perspective on meaningful learning, there is growing consensus among educational practitioners that learning is most effective when:


§ Learners are active partners in the process, rather than passive recipients of information and data;

§ Learners are engaged in learning by doing;

§ Learners are engaged in problem-solving tasks and activities;

§ Learners are engaged in critical reflection during and after their activities;

§ Learning is situated within the context of real-world or authentic problems;

§ Learning scaffolds support and promote cognitive apprenticeships;

§ Assessment of learning outcomes is closely aligned with the learning context and the learning activities.


Contributions of open, flexible and distance education to development


Along with this growing understanding of meaningful learning, we are increasingly becoming aware of the role of learning and education in the promotion of social, economic and political development of our societies.


It is widely acknowledged that information and knowledge is power, and that those who have it (or have access to it), are often in a better position than those who do not. In the context of development, access to information may be as basic as the ability to obtain news and weather reports from radio or television broadcasts, or to acquire knowledge about how to cope with natural disasters.


Open, flexible and distance learning is making a major contribution to development by providing learning and educational opportunities to those who have been constrained from participating in campus-based educational programs. In the past, without access to conventional education, many people have been marginalized and unable to fully engage in the social, economic and political development of their societies. These groups include:


  • Those who are in regular employment or committed to other family care responsibilities;

  • Those who are unable to participate due to their gender or socio-cultural status, language, political disadvantaged;

  • Those unable to afford the costs of campus-based education, or those unable to access education due to the physical location of the facilities or institutions; and

  • Those who lack the formal qualification that is necessary to gain entry to campus-based education.

 In most circumstances, and especially in the resource-poor contexts, open, flexible and distance learning can create opportunities where conventional education systems have left gaps. This generates crucial opportunities for personal and professional development for many more people in society. It also benefits the community in which they live, and the nation as a whole. In the absence of these learning and educational opportunities, and where the provision of campus-based education is limited, development of all kinds is likely to be severely hampered.


Contributions of Open, Flexible and Distance Education


Open, flexible and distance education is especially well known for galvanizing change within several facets of learning and teaching. Course design and development, the role of the team approach in education, and the use of time- and place-independent technologies in teaching and learning, have all been re-considered in the context of open, flexible and distance education.


The team approach in instructional design and development has drawn attention to new teaching methodologies, especially with the introduction of media and information and communications technologies (ICT). This also incorporated careful attention to constructivist approaches that shifted the role of the teacher from being a ‘sage on the stage’ to being a ‘guide on the side.’ This orientation to teaching and learning design is at the heart of what is called a ‘learner -centered’ focus.


Contributions of Technology for Learning and Development


A critical driver behind the increasing availability of open, flexible, distance learning opportunities is increasing access to affordable information and communications technology (ICT) that enable time- and place-independent learning. According to one report, in 2002 one in every four people in Botswana owned a mobile phone. This scenario is quite common in other developing countries as well. Moreover, mobile phones in use today have the computing power of the desktop computers used throughout the developed nations a few years ago. However, despite the technological capabilities, cell phone and many other ICTs are yet to be effectively deployed in learning and teaching. 

Information and communications technologies can place a great deal of resources within easy reach of learners and teachers. As such they can facilitate learning and teaching environments that are learner-centered. By providing opportunities for interactivity, ICTs enable instructional design and delivery in which learners are allowed and expected to develop their knowledge by engaging in problem-solving tasks and learning by doing.


These attributes and affordances of ICTs create the potential for new models and approaches to learning and teaching. With greater access to ICT and appropriate instructional design and delivery, education can better support development activities that assist individuals and communities in achieving their full potential.


Achieving Development Goals


Given the centrality of learning and education in all development activity, what are the challenges and opportunities for meaningful learning? How can educational programs and initiatives better foster the building and sharing of knowledge that fits the context, culture, and community in need of development? How can programs address sustainable learning, and indeed, how can they achieve sustainable success given the challenges of an ever changing development environment?

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