Policy for Open and Distance Learning
reviewed by David L. Stoloff - 2004
Title: Policy for Open and Distance Learning
Author(s): Hilary Perraton and Helen Lentell, Editors
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415263077, Pages: 268, Year: 2004
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In their introduction, the editors pose the question – “does [open and distance learning] work, and if so what policies are needed to make it work effectively?” (p. 3). To answer this question they consider two themes for this text: 1) the acceptance of “open and distance learning and its new place at the world’s educational tables” and 2) changes in the role of the state and its institutions which resulted in students having to meet more of the costs, declining central control of broadcasting, globalization, a new kind of competition between universities, and “limitations of existing accrediting structures in protecting student interest” (pp. 4-5).
This collection of essays from educators active in open and distance learning (ODL) in Malaysia, South Africa, Hong Kong, Uzbekistan, Australia, India, and Britain is structured into three sections – “inputs – in terms of learners, staff and resources; processes – organizational structures, technologies, globalization, and governance; outcomes – benefits set in the context of costs.” The text concludes with a discussion on framing ODL policy within national and international educational policy and development.
Does ODL work? Perraton notes that there are 120 million children in the world still out of school and new technologies have only limited relevance to children in the poorest schools. The radiophonic, nongovernmental schools in Latin America did offer some success, demonstrating that “the combination of radio, print, and supported group study could be effective in offering a basic education to children and to adults” (p. 11).
ODL for secondary education has been more successful. The open school model in Africa, Latin America, and Asia offers “junior- and sometimes senior-secondary education to adolescents for whom there are no conventional schools, for reasons of geography and economics” (p. 12); these open schools make use of broadcast television to reach rural populations. A variant of this approach, the “correspondence centres, where students came together to study centrally produced correspondence lessons under the guidance of a monitor” (pp. 12-13) has had more success in developed than in developing nations, due to the demands on student time and family and governmental support. A third model, commercial correspondence schools, has provided support for adults who had not gained the qualifications they needed from the conventional school system.
“Open and distance learning (ODL) is best known today for its work not at secondary but at tertiary level” (p. 14). Building on earlier models of adult education in the United States, South Africa, and the Soviet Union, the Open University in Britain commenced in 1969 “to attract students in large numbers (initially 20,000 a year) and to attain parity of esteem with conventional universities” (p. 14). With over 30 nations currently supporting open universities and conventional universities establishing open-learning programs, recent technologies may stimulate the process of convergence of the increasingly diverse techniques for the dissemination of knowledge within tertiary education.
Perraton notes that “the use of open and distance learning for teacher education probably outstrips all other vocational education” (p. 16). The need for other vocational education is rationalized for economic development, access for isolated populations, cost effectiveness, and for creating strategic collaborations with business. He concludes that “in the early twenty-first century open and distance learning is, perhaps, being reborn as virtual learning” (p. 24).
In the section on inputs for ODL, Jenkins cautions that we need to know more about students, their educational culture, needs for learning support, differing learning styles, and motivations. Abdullah, in a chapter on students in ODL in Asia, recommends that adult students become more involved in decision making around their own education and become more self-directed as learners. Teachers and administrators need to instill self-esteem among students and should study success and failure factors. Policy makers should recognize that ODL may not be as cost-effective as envisioned, but that it still needs to be supported adequately. Panda counsels that “distance educators have to be more active professionally, and should do quality research and always be concerned with high standards of (distance) education” (p. 96). Perraton notes that the funding of ODL tends to be complex, with resources coming from the government, individual fees, the community, the private sector or non-governmental organizations, and grants from foundations. Sustainability of ODL initiatives is often questioned when such issues as variety of educational offerings, quality, cost, and retention and completion rates are discussed.
In the section on process, Rumble and Latchem examine organizational models for distance learning – single-mode institutions, either face-to-face or distance education; dual-mode institutions – to teach both on- and off-campus; distance-education consortia; corporate universities; for-profit institutions; and virtual institutions. They predict that these latter institutions, e-distance education, “may enable academics to regain control over the teaching-learning process” through small course modules, small course sizes, and control over the administrative processes (pp. 134-135). Perraton and Moses discuss factors in choosing technologies for education, including availability and convenience, local and national constraints, curriculum, and costs. They suggest a slogan for policy-makers – “consider the curriculum and count the costs” (p. 150). Farrell, Ryan, and Hope examine the driving and constraining forces behind the policy agenda for information and communication technologies (ICT), student support issues for e-learning, and quality assurances. Robinson examines the issues of governance, accreditation, and quality and cautions that “approaches which concentrate on the measurable at the expense of educational worth and value are likely to be counter-productive in the longer term” (p. 204).
In the section on outputs, Raza discusses the benefits for students, the labor force, employers and society of ODL and concludes that “open and distance learning can be successful in reaching a range of students who have been marginalized for either economic and geographical reasons” (p. 221), that “ODL is more effective in certain areas … providing inservice training to teachers, for instance” (p. 221), and that “the preoccupation with efficiency in education is often at the cost of effectiveness” (p. 221). Butcher and Roberts suggest that in the discussion of outputs, one should differentiate between effectiveness and efficiency, actual costs and notional estimates, and fixed and variable costs, direct, indirect, and overhead costs, unit costs and cost centers, cost drivers, personnel costs, and capital costs. They offer an international comparison of cost per learners and comparative costs for ODL projects in South America, Asia, and Africa and conclude that “their cost-efficiency and effectiveness depend primarily on the number of students who can be recruited to each of their courses and the quality of their teaching materials and student support systems” (p. 244).
Lentell concludes the text with an essay on framing policy for open and distance learning. The critical issues in policy and planning for ODL are:
· “Identifying the target population and their needs.
· Choosing the type of system.
· Choosing the appropriate technology of delivery.
· Business planning and costing open and distance learning systems.
· Materials – developing or acquiring.
· Tutoring and supporting students.
· Recruiting and enrolling students.
· Assessing students.
· Managing and administering the open and distance learning system.
· Monitoring, evaluation and quality assurance.” (pp. 252-253.)
Lentell concludes that “the contribution of open and distance learning – access to education and training and efficient use of scarce educational resources – will be lost if fundamental policy and planning issues at international, national and institutional levels are ignored” (p. 258).
This text is highly recommended for students, faculty, and staff members on all levels of education concerned about open and distance learning. As e-learning and online learning and teaching become more pervasive, many of the issues analyzed in this text will only become more relevant. This text serves as a fine summative evaluation of ODL’s first fifty years or so. It should be followed by a formative evaluation of online learning and teaching in nations on the road to economic development and in those nations that are struggling to retool their infrastructure at a time of aging populations and declining public resources.