Higher education, distance learning and technology

Higher education, distance learning and technology

There has been phenomenal growth in higher education (HE) in the Commonwealth, as in the rest of the world. However, the costs of HE have risen exponentially, way above inflation rates in the past three decades, making it increasingly unaffordable. Using a combination of distance learning, open resources and online provision, the costs can be brought down substantially, the effectiveness increased by the use of technology, and standards maintained by partnering with established institutions.

  Responding to growing demand

As governments and policy-makers seek to expand the coverage of education, reduce costs and improve standards, it is clear that alternative approaches are needed. In the current economic climate, it is unlikely that traditional brick and mortar solutions will be followed. Four recent trends have emerged as a response to the growing demand for affordable quality education: open universities, online learning, open education resources, and massive open online courses.

Open universities. The rising demand for HE has given rise to a range of new types of providers – private, cross-border, online and distance education institutions. The success of the Open University in the UK captured the imagination of policy-makers around the world, but particularly in developing countries.

In the Commonwealth, there were only 10 open universities in 1988, when COL began its operations – three in Canada and only one (UNISA) in Africa. By 2012, the number of open universities in the Commonwealth had increased to 28, as governments struggle to increase access to higher education. Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia all established open universities during this time. The Open University of Mauritius was established very recently, with others in the final stages in Kenya and Botswana. Asia has over 70 dedicated open universities. The next wave of open universities will be in Africa.

One reason of open universities’ popularity is lower costs. The annual cost per student at the Korean National Open University is US$186, compared with nearly $3,000 for a campus student. Similarly the costs for students at Thailand’s Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University are one-third as high as a campus university. Dual-mode provision similarly has lower costs. The University of Nairobi BEd programme costs three times as much as a distance learning programme.

A study by the National Knowledge Commission, India, shows that mega-universities, which achieve economies of scale, cost substantially less than campus institutions. Pakistan’s Allama Iqbal OU costs 22 per cent as much as campus universities; China 40 per cent; India’s Indira Gandhi National OU 35 per cent; and the OU UK 50 per cent.

What of quality? In 2012, the Open University of the UK ranked first in student satisfaction. In addition the OU UK ranked fifth among the 100 universities surveyed by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) in the UK, and was one rank higher than Oxford University.

Online learning. With more access to technologies, there is an increasing trend towards online learning, especially in the developed countries. In 2012, over 33 per cent of all US HE students were taking at least one online course.

While the aggregate growth rate is 7.6 per cent globally, interestingly, Asia has the highest growth rate at 17.3 per cent with Vietnam and Malaysia leading the continent in e-learning. Latin America is not far behind at nearly 15 per cent, with Brazil and Colombia registering the highest growth.

Open education resources. With the rise of social media, there has been a global movement towards collaboration in the development and sharing of content, and we have seen the rise of open education resources or OER. The fundamental principle is that any materials developed with public funds should be made available free to others. These materials are suitable not just for higher education but for all levels including primary and secondary. OER can be reused and repurposed to suit different needs and could be available in any medium – print, audio, video or digital. The OER licence allows adaptation and reuse without having to request the copyright holder.

The Teacher Education in sub-Saharan Africa partnership between the Open University UK and institutions in 13 African countries has developed OER for teacher training in four languages: English, Kiswahili, Arabic and French. These were used by 320,000 teachers in one year, and the free materials as well as the sheer numbers of users have radically reduced the costs of providing quality teacher training to about US$10 per teacher.

Textbooks are a costly proposition. A study in Brazil found that for 75 per cent of students studying at the University of São Paolo, the cost of acquiring textbooks was higher than a family’s monthly income. In Washington State, USA, and South Africa, the governments are developing the use of OER textbooks.

So what impact are OER having on universities? To take one example, the OERu is a consortium of over 20 universities which includes the University of Southern Queensland, Otago Polytechnic and Athabasca, among others. The consortium is using OER to open up education to anyone anywhere in the world. The participating universities are putting a percentage of their courses on their websites as OER so that students anywhere in the world can access them. They will then recruit retired teachers and volunteers to provide free tutorial support to the students. Students pay only if they wish to take exams towards a qualification.

As a measure of quality, the premier Indian Institutes of Technology or IITs, in partnership with the government, have made their engineering and technology courses available as OER. These are being used in over 600 institutions, most of them in remote locations with very limited resources.

  Massive open online courses or MOOCs are a form of distance and online learning. Started at the University of Manitoba in 2008, MOOCs gained traction in the Ivy League institutions of the United States and have resulted in major consortia of the top universities on both sides of the Atlantic: Coursera, EdX and Udacity in the US with FutureLearn led by the OU UK and many others around the world.

  The MOOC effect can be unexpected. The computer science (CS) course offered by Udacity was signed up for by 270,000 people, many more than the total number of learners who aspire to do CS courses in nearly 3,000 degree granting institutions in the USA. So the potential to reach the unreached is certainly there.

  In an article in Nature, it is interesting to note that of the learners signing up for the big three MOOCs, while the US leads in terms of numbers, developing countries such as India and Brazil contribute about 14 per cent of the sign-ups. A more up-to-date examination of subject-matter of MOOC courses (July 2013) shows that about 28 per cent belong to arts and humanities.

MOOCs have so far been offered in HE. What about MOOCs in Learning for Development (L4D), which is COL’s core business? To explore this, COL in partnership with IIT-Kanpur offered a MOOC on mobiles-for-development, covering technology as well as agriculture, mobile learning, inclusive finance and banking. This interdisciplinary open course attracted 2,282 registrants from 116 countries, 62 per cent of whom were active participants. The six-week course was completed by over 400 participants.

Can MOOCs cut the costs of higher education? Georgia Tech is offering its prestigious Masters in Computer Science course as a MOOC – because of which its existing cost of $40,000 is being reduced to $7,000, affordable even in many developing countries.

As far as quality is concerned, Stanford University’s free course in artificial intelligence attracted 160,000 students from nearly all countries of the world, of which 23,000 completed the course. Students are particularly drawn by the brand names of the institutions and the professors, some of whom are Nobel laureates.

  Relevant and inclusive education for all

‘Relevant education’ develops the capability of the individual and helps them to contribute to their own development, that of their society and of the nation. Walker investigated the capabilities that girls in school in South Africa thought important and relevant and came up with three: personal autonomy and independence of thought; ability to enter the world of work; and an identity and a voice that would get respect and recognition.

 ‘Inclusive education’, according to the helpful UNESCO definition, fulfils the requirements of the poor, the excluded, the indigenous and marginalised people and those with special needs.

A McKinsey report points out that ‘employers, education providers and youth live in parallel universes’, and very often these worlds do not meet. Over 50 per cent of the youth surveyed did not believe that their secondary education would lead to employment. Similarly about 50 per cent of the employers did not think that the new graduates had the skills to be hired even at the entry level. There seems to be a disconnect between what we teach in our schools and universities and what is required by the job market.

What kinds of skills are needed to succeed in the 21st century? The Global Monitoring Report (GMR) identifies three categories: foundation skills dealing with literacy and numeracy; transferable skills relating to problem solving; and the ability to adapt and use knowledge and skills in various contexts and technical and vocational skills associated with specific occupations.

As the Results for Development Institute’s report points out, employers are concerned about non-cognitive skills – communications, teamwork, leadership, entrepreneurship etc. – as much as they are about cognitive and technical skills. The training relating to non-cognitive skills needs to be included in a modern curriculum.

Four key strategies have been identified to get Europe’s youth into work. One is to invest in innovations so that education becomes more affordable and accessible. This has been the fundamental premise underlying distance and online provision. Two, bring together young people, employers and education providers, something that educational providers need to focus on; three, build enabling structures; and four, share the practices that work. Context is always important and the models that we adopt must be ‘fit for purpose’.

How can distance learning and technology address the challenge of skills development, gainful employment and livelihoods? One, by transforming the curriculum to integrate cognitive and non-cognitive skills; and two, by harnessing appropriate technologies to address the needs of youth. The rise of low cost mobile devices is making this is real option in the developing world. And three, by ensuring there is a convergence between the needs of the labour market and the education provided to youth.

As a young Ethiopian woman said, “If someone can give me the skills and the opportunity to work, I know I can achieve my goals.”



Professor Asha Singh Kanwar, President and CEO of The Commonwealth of Learning (COL), discusses the role of distance learning and technology in moving towards relevant and inclusive education. Professor Kanwar is one of the world’s leading advocates for learning for development, became President & Chief Executive Officer of the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) on 1 June 2012. Professor Kanwar joined COL as Education Specialist, Higher Education, in 2003 with the major responsibility of working with Commonwealth governments and organisations in policy and systems development, within the context of open and distance learning (ODL). Before joining COL, Professor Kanwar was a consultant in open and distance learning at UNESCO’s Regional Office for Education in Africa (BREDA) in Dakar, Senegal.


About the organisation:

Hosted by the Government of Canada and headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) is the world’s only intergovernmental organisation solely concerned with the promotion and development of distance education and open learning. COL was created by Commonwealth Heads of Government to encourage the development and sharing of open learning/distance education knowledge, resources and technologies. COL is helping developing nations improve access to quality education and training.

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