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Talking with Sir John About the Commonwealth of Learning

Tomorrow's Academy

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The Indira Ghandi National University in India* now has 1 million students. Twenty percent of all Indian students are in distance education programs, and the Indian policy is to raise that to 40 percent. So this is a different kind of phenomenon, far from the phenomenon of online learning. I don't mean innovation isn't like that. People do things, and then they discover the consequences were not exactly what they expected.


The posting below is a follow-up to TP Msg. #626 Commonwealth Cooperation in Distance Education: Potential Benefits for Small States, posted on February 23, 2005. It is an interview about the Commonwealth of Learning with Sir John Daniel, a world-renowned authority in open and distance learning, conducted by George Lorenzo, from the July 2004 issue of Educational Pathways ( Permission is granted for circulation.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Academy

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The Commonwealth of Learning is a Vancouver-based organization with a noble mission "to create and widen access to education and to improve its quality, utilizing distance education techniques and associated communications technologies to meet the particular requirements of member countries."

Member countries are part of the Commonwealth, which is a voluntary association of 54 independent nations originally linked together in the British Empire. The Commonwealth "has member countries all over the globe, rich and poor, large and small. It includes the world's largest territory (Canada) and second largest in terms of population (India), and many of the smallest and most remote, including Nauru, the world's smallest republic."

This past June, Sir John Daniel, a world-renowned authority in open and distance learning was appointed president and chief executive officer of the Commonwealth of Learning (COL), succeeding Gajaraj (Raj) Dhanarajan, who retired at the end of May.

Sir John, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1994 for services to higher education, has played a leading role over three decades in the development of distance learning on a global scale. He has served as assistant director of UNESCO, vice president of Athabasca University, vice rector of Concordia University, president of Laurentian University, and vice chancellor of the Open University in the UK. He has been awarded 20 honorary degrees from universities in 12 countries, is a past president of both the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) and the Canadian Association for Distance Education (CADE), and served as vice president of the International Baccalaureate Organisation.

When Educational Pathways spoke with Sir John, he was getting ready for an educational business trip to New Zealand with a stopover in Fiji.

EdPath: Why do you think the U.S. is not a member of the Commonwealth?

Sir John: Obviously the U.S. would qualify to be a member, but they have never seen fit to join, partly because the U.S. does not tend to like being part of multilateral organizations that it can't control.

EdPath: COL is doing lots of great things related to open and distance learning internationally. What does the U.S. need to know about COL, and is there any way that the U.S. can collaborate with COL?

Sir John: While by and large COL spends its money in doing projects and programs in Commonwealth countries, it operates an information service about developments in open and distance learning which is basically free and open to anyone. The COL "Knowledge Finder" (an online service that indexes about one million documents on education and development from selected Web sites related to education and development) is probably the most effective way of finding information about distance learning (on a global scale). A major service we provide is that we have probably the most comprehensive information finding service on open and distance learning, technology in education, and development in education in the world. I think we are pretty good at tracking all that stuff down and making it all available.

Also, the U.S., through USAID, is involved with helping countries to develop their education systems, and since that is the business that COL is in, there is nothing to stop USAID to fund projects that involve COL in various Commonwealth countries - and indeed they do.

EdPath: How would you describe COL's mission?

Sir John: It is to help countries in their development by making their education systems more efficient and able to cope with more people. The focus is on trying to expand education systems at all levels in a quality way. The most successful and long standing example of that is in the open universities in places like India where they have massively expanded access to higher education and done so also in a quality way. And that is percolating down to other levels.

EdPath: Are you including online learning as a means to make education systems more efficient in the developing nations?

Sir John: Online learning in the developed world has not basically done much to increase access. It has increased flexibility. It has enriched courses for on-campus students, but it has not had the effect of increasing access in the way that earlier media has, and that is not really surprising, because earlier media were called mass media and reached a mass audience. Online technologies are not mass technologies, and therefore they tend to not reach mass audiences.

You have to be clear about what you are trying to achieve. When I was at UNESCO, people would say that to solve education in Afghanistan was to give them all lab-top computers. The fact is about one in 60 of the population in Afghanistan has electricity, and about one in 600 has a telephone, so you are far away from doing that.

EdPath: So, in general what kinds of education systems are we referring to here?

Sir John: We are talking about the whole mixture; what we call multi-media distance learning. Radio, for instance, is a very important medium in rural areas, and it is also very important for people who are not literate. Television - not as a sole medium but as a back up - is important. Print is still very important. One of the lessons we've learned is that some purely online plays can collapse, and those that do collapse, tend to become multi-media operations. Students essentially have said that there was no point in ruling out books, because books are actually a convenient way of studying.

The most important technologies of distance learning are not technologies in the sense of things that plug into the wall and have flashing lights and so on. They are approaches. The essence of open and distance learning, and the key to expanding systems, is to use the very old industrial technology division of labor approach. The idea is to move away from the notion that all teaching and learning has to involve one teacher and a bunch of learners with the teacher doing everything from planning the lessons, delivering them, organizing them and so on. We can divide that out so that different people specialize in different parts of the operation in a way that we take for granted in almost every other aspect of life. Lots of what we are doing in COL is helping countries develop some of those changes and attitudes that enable them to get more bang for their buck. The technologies they use are to some extent secondary.

EdPath: You have obviously seen education systems all over the world. How would you categorize the Commonwealth world of open and distance learning?

Sir John: It is a strange mixture of states. You have a block of small states in the Caribbean. You have a block of small states in the Pacific. You have a mixture of states in Southern and Central Africa. And then you have very big countries in South Asia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and to a lesser extent, Sri Lanka. So you have everything between India, with a population of 1 billion, and Nauru, with a population of 3,000. It is quite a challenge to serve them all, because obviously their needs are massively different. We try to let developing countries benefit from what other developing countries are doing. A program developed in India is much more likely to be useful to Africans than a program developed in the UK or U.S., because it is probaby more adapted to their reality - their management or environment - and because it will be a whole lot cheaper.

EdPath: So where do the online education technologies fit in with all this?

Sir John: The key message is the fact that online learning is wonderful, but there is beginning to be a strong feeling in the states that, while it may well deliver its potential in the future, the first years have essentially been disappointing. The point is that distance education is now a very complex reality, and people should realize that there are different approaches to different environments, and they fit different purposes. Even your biggest fanatics of online learning in the states I don't think can yet claim that this is a mass medium that is opening vast new audiences.

The Indira Ghandi National University in India* now has 1 million students. Twenty percent of all Indian students are in distance education programs, and the Indian policy is to raise that to 40 percent. So this is a different kind of phenomenon, far from the phenomenon of online learning. I don't mean innovation isn't like that. People do things, and then they discover the consequences were not exactly what they expected.

It is just a case of understanding that and realizing the focus is not on the means - distance learning - it is on the end, which is to help countries in their economic, social and cultural development. Improving education is a means to that. Old methods won't do, and you have to find a mix of methods and approaches and organization that will in fact enable people to have much more effective education and training systems at all levels.

EdPath: So, do you think we Americans are moving in the right direction when it comes to working with developing nations in building more efficient education systems?

Sir John: It's changed a bit now. One of the things online learning has done is to move the perception of Americans and what distance learning is from pre 1998, when Americans assumed that distance learning meant extended classroom, and all the rest of the world assumed that it meant learning at home. Now I think the asynchronous technologies have managed to bridge that gap, and Americans have adopted much the same perspective as the rest of the world. In 1998, it was a real problem, because when you said distance learning, most Americans assumed you meant remote classroom operations by satellite, or landline, and interactive, and whatever. The nice thing about asynchronous is that it has put everyone on the same wavelength. It is a very interesting area, I think, and anything that can be done in the area of online learning, as in most other areas of life, that can get Americans to be a bit more aware of the rest of the world is a noble mission.

* Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) has a multi-media approach to instruction that is comprised of self-instructional material and counseling sessions conducted both face-to-face and via teleconferencing. For courses in science, computers, nursing, engineering and technology, students undertake practical classes at select study centers. In the tradition of Open Learning, IGNOU provides considerable flexibility in entry qualification, place, pace and duration of study to students.