1 - 5 March 1999


Bandar Seri Begawan

Empowerment through Knowledge and Technology

A Celebration of Ten Years of The Commonwealth of Learning

Co-hosted by the Brunei Darussalam Ministry of Education and
Universiti Brunei Darussalam




The Commonwealth of Learning

Ministry of Education
Brunei Darussalam

Universiti Brunei Darussalam

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Plenary presentation:

Sir John Daniel
Vice-Chancellor, The Open University, UK

(and reflections on ten years of The Commonwealth of Learning)

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The knowledge media that result from bringing together computing, telecommunications, and the learning sciences appear to be blurring the distinction between distance learning universities and conventional campuses. It seems that through the Web all universities, indeed every individual academic can teach at a distance. It is helpful to examine this assumption against the hopes that have inspired the development of the Commonwealth of Learning for ten years. These hopes are that distance learning will allow wider access to education and training throughout the world by reducing costs and increasing flexibility of delivery. In this context the fundamental technologies of distance learning have less to do with particular forms of hardware and software than with the technologies of human organisation such as specialisation and division of labour. There is a risk that the quality and impact of distance learning will suffer if it is absorbed into traditional patterns of academic work and again becomes a cottage industry. 

Sir John also reflects on ten years of The Commonwealth of Learning.


I am honoured, delighted and proud to address this 10th anniversary forum of The Commonwealth of Learning.

Honoured because the Commonwealth is such a remarkable association of countries and people. It is a metaphor for the pluralism of today's world yet shares common traditions of language and political culture that allow us to communicate well on occasions such as this.

Delighted because I feel that you, the delegates at this Forum, are "my" crowd. You come from fifty countries - not all of them in the Commonwealth because that is not a narrow concept - and you have achieved great things for the citizens of your countries through the use of open learning.

Proud because I have paternal feelings for the child whose tenth birthday we celebrate here, the Commonwealth of Learning. Twelve years ago, in 1987, Canada was preparing to host two major international meetings. Vancouver would welcome the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (known to its friends as CHOGM) and Quebec City would see the gathering of la francophonie, the countries where French is a significant language. Canada wanted to sponsor helpful initiatives at these meetings and chose open learning for both.

Planning the Commonwealth of Learning

As a Canadian university president with an interest in open learning I helped to develop the proposals for CHOGM and la francophonie. CHOGM duly met and decided, after some animated discussions between Rajiv Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher, to create the Commonwealth of Learning.

Shortly after CHOGM I was asked to chair a planning committee to develop the concept for COL so that governments could sign a Memorandum of Understanding and commit funds to it. It was a wonderful assignment because the group included some very distinguished Commonwealth citizens. From India came the late Ram Reddy, from New Zealand Bin Renwick, from Nigeria Professor Adesola and, representing the universities of the Commonwealth, Chris Christodoulou. This was the calibre of the people I worked with.

Please allow me to reminisce for a moment about the COL planning committee because it relates to our theme today. The United Kingdom buries its governmental committee history under a thirty year rule. However, the Commonwealth is more enlightened, so I assume that ten years is enough.

Chairing the COL planning committee was a challenging assignment because of the diversity of views within the group and the tension between academic ideals and political realities. There was disagreement about the starting point. The thinking behind the Commonwealth of Learning grew out of the work of the Commonwealth's group on student mobility, led by a great Commonwealth figure, Sir Roy Marshall. The economic trends of the 1970s and 1980s made developing countries less wealthy and industrialised countries more self-absorbed. There was a downturn in the mobility of students between Commonwealth countries.

Worried by this trend, with its inevitable consequences for the long-term weakening of the human glue that holds the Commonwealth together, the Commonwealth Secretariat began to explore a simple idea. If it couldn't move students to courses, why not move courses to students instead? A group was set up under Asa Briggs to explore this idea and the report of its work, entitled Towards a Commonwealth of Learning, was a key input to my planning committee.

Indeed, several members of my committee, such as Ram Reddy and Chris Christodoulou, had been members of the Briggs group. Supporting that group was a Commonwealth eminence grise, an insufficiently sung hero of Commonwealth education, Hilary Perraton. I believe that Hilary came up with the name Commonwealth of Learning.

Keynote speakers are allowed grand generalisations. In that spirit let me say that the thrust of the Briggs group was the creation of a University of the Commonwealth. "To allow any citizen of the Commonwealth to take any course from any university in the Commonwealth" was they way they expressed it.

In Canada the preparations for the 1987 CHOGM had been managed by Canada's Department of Communications which was then heavily committed to the satellite technologies of which Canada was rightly proud. They were eager for COL to exploit this technology, which made it easy for others to caricature their concept of COL as a Vancouver-based university beaming courses and programmes to the rest of the Commonwealth. My committee grappled with the tensions inherent in that concept.

First, there was the tension between providing distance learning programmes for Commonwealth countries and helping them generate such programmes themselves. In terms of the old Chinese proverb, was the aim to provide people with fish or to teach them to fish? The evolution of the Canadian view on this issue was typical. The Department of Communications had laid the Canadian groundwork for CHOGM. However, once COL had been established as a new multilateral organisation, Canada asked CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency, to represent Canada within COL. CIDA arrived with a different view of the world, but a view shared by AIDAB, its Australian equivalent, and the British Overseas Development Agency.

These agencies had seen too many examples of the failure of western technological solutions in the developing world. They believed that COL's most useful function would be to help Commonwealth countries develop an indigenous capacity for distance teaching. The Commonwealth of Learning was a camel that had been pushed into CIDA's tent rather than its own idea. Although CIDA staff contributed to the planning of COL with professionalism and enthusiasm the project simply did not have, for their superiors, the salience that it had had for the Department of Communications.

The British shared the CIDA view that COL was about teaching people to fish rather than giving them fish. However, they had another problem. Margaret Thatcher did not like multilateral agencies. She and her companion in arms Ronnie Reagan had already decided that UNESCO was too wet and wimpish for their tastes. She was not eager to invest money, through COL, in another multilateral agency which might do things she did not approve of. However, there were other powerful political forces in play too. Once Rajiv Gandhi had committed India to putting hard currency into COL the UK had to play its part.

The dilemma was resolved by a nice British fudge. Instead of giving funds to COL directly, the UK government said that it would pay the Open University to provide services to COL, notably in the area of information services. This was later to create a nice irony for me personally. As the Canadian chairman of the planning committee, I added my voice, with conviction, to the other members who, with all due diplomacy, criticised Britain for earmarking its contribution in this way. Little did I know that within a year of COL's creation I would find myself on the other side of the table as Vice-Chancellor of the Open University and recipient of these funds in support of COL.

So the second tension was between multilateralism and bilateralism, or national interests and international collaboration. The British attitude encouraged the Australians to stand back a bit too. They agreed a modest contribution to COL but made it clear that they wanted to manage Australia's development interests in the South Pacific in a bilateral rather than a multilateral framework. This had knock-on effects on India and Nigeria. Both countries had generously agreed to put hard currency into COL because they believed in its aims. However, given that the concept of COL was moving toward the generation of indigenous capacity and also that the industrialised Commonwealth was half-hearted about multilateralism, India and Nigeria began to urge that COL use their funds to create infrastructures in their countries.

These were the tensions we faced in planning COL: hi-tech or low-tech; global provision or indigenous development; multilateral or bilateral. We made progress and in 1989 Commonwealth governments signed up to the Memorandum of Understanding we proposed. But the tensions did not go away. They are stin latent today and they were strongly present in COL's early years. COL's infancy, with James Maraj as president and Asa Briggs as chair, was a difficult period.

It is very appropriate that this tenth anniversary meeting is being held in Brunei because there were periods when the Government of Brunei seemed to be the only Commonwealth government that was unreservedly supportive of COL. Brunei made an important financial contribution and gave strong moral support to COL's work. This was a generous stance on the part of our hosts because, given the size, wealth and geography of Brunei, it had less need of what COL had to offer than most other Commonwealth countries.

It is against that background that I am proud to address this tenth birthday party. COL is now in robust health. The regime of Raj Dhanarajan as president and Ian Macdonald as chair is doing a spectacular job. They have clarified the concept of COL and earned the committed support of many governments. A rather unhappy youngster has become a robust and vigorous adolescent and COL's leadership deserves our congratulations.

Universities at the turn of the minennium

The world of the late 1990s is not the world of the late 1980s. The tensions of those days live on but there are new realities. It is in this context that I address the theme of open learning at university level. What is new?

First, distance learning is now the height of fashion. After toiling for years in obscurity, as the pioneers of open learning did, it's nice to see the field become la mode. Remember, however, the Chinese curse.. "may your fondest wishes be realised". Once something becomes fashionable its currency gets devalued. Today everyone is jumping in, claiming that they are doing distance learning and inventing new terms to make their own activity distinctive.

Second, the hot technologies have changed. When COL was born the satellite star was in the ascendant. Today, if you are not living and breathing the Web you are a technological cave dweller. Three years ago, in the United States at least, distance learning meant video-conferencing. Today, in the United States at least, distance learning means the Web. Since the vast majority of the population of the Commonwealth have never engaged personally with either video-conferencing or the Web that is a problem.

The third new element compounds the problem. We now live in a global world. You may have thought that we always did, at least since the astronomers and navigators of the Renaissance decided that the world was round. But today it is a Global World, capital G, capital W. Imperial fantasies about the Virtual Corporate University of the Universe are rampant. What are we to do? I suggest to you that we should renew and reassert the values of the Commonwealth of Learning, both capital C, capital L and small c, small l.

Let me comment on that challenge as it applies to open learning at the University level. This Forum has divided education and training by level. That is helpful because education and training is a multi-facetted reality. If you try to treat it all at once you are reduced to platitudinous boilerplate.

What is special and different about university-level education? I talk about "university level" rather than about universities because much of what universities now do is not university-level work.

I do not blame universities for this. Our societies have urged us to inculcate simple skins and to transmit well-codified knowledge and we have eagerly complied. Such activities have, however, obscured the core role of universities and encouraged a host of new players, who may well be better than established universities at teaching straightforward skins and knowledge, to call themselves universities and move into the field.

So, let me tell you what a real university is. My reflection on university-level education has been flourished by the Dearing Committee that reviewed higher education in the United Kingdom in 1997 and inspired by my colleague Diana Laurinard who was a member of the Dearing group.

The Dearing Committee said that the role of universities is "to enable society to maintain all independent understanding of itself and its world". Let's unpack that statement.

It focuses on society, not the nation, because this is a global world. University teaching can now cross national borders in the way that research has always done.

It talks about maintaining an understanding, not communicating an understanding because things change, each society is in flux, theories evolve, understanding develops.

The definition talks about "understanding of itself" because the understanding reached must be widely owned and disseminated. Understanding is not the preserve of all elite, but of a learning society.

The word independent is there to capture the unique role of universities as creators of understanding. In a knowledge society many claim the right to help us interpret and understand the world. However, most of those claimants: the media; industrial and government research centres; and the new breed of corporate universities; cannot be independent of commercial interests. The individualistic and disinterested nature of the true university remains unique.

Finally, understanding means going beyond information, it means going beyond knowledge, it means knowledge acquired with the sense of responsibility for how it comes to be known that can make it the foundation for action.

If that is the role of the university what must be the style of university learning? It must not stop at the transmission of information, nor at the communication of knowledge. It means the development of understanding. That is an iterative process involving a dialogue with oneself and others that moves toward a shared understanding. That shared understanding carries with it a critical distance leading eventually to a personal perspective rfrom which learners take responsibility for what they know, how they came to know it and where they may properly apply it. Put another way, knowledge alone is insufficient, university education implies an understanding of the nature of knowledge.

The implication, valid for both classroom and distance institutions, is that university learning requires students to engage actively with the operational aspects of the subject matter and to articulate its theoretical aspects. This is best captured in a conversational model of learning that involves students with academic teachers who are also engaged in critiquing and developing knowledge in their fields.

Supported Open Learning

This ideal of conversation has been the basis of the model of distance education that we at the Open University call Supported Open LearningSM . It has four key ingredients: 1) excellent learning materials; 2) individual academic support to each student., 3) effective administration and logistics., and 4) teaching rooted in research.

The world's largest distance teaching universities, which I have written about elsewhere as the mega-universities, owe their considerable success to these principles of supported open learning which they have introduced with appropriate local variants. It is a pleasure to acknowledge the help that the mega-universities have had from the Commonwealth of Learning, help that they have tried to reciprocate to COL in useful ways. By operating flexibly at large scale, with low costs and with good quality the mega-universities have created a revolution in higher education.

How should the mega-universities and all universities engaged in distance learning react to the new technological forces of change? The response should begin by recognising that these forces present threats to universities as well as opportunities. What are they?

First, new technology makes it easier to access information. But we must remember that university teaching is much more than this.

Second, technology tends to drive the curriculum towards skills rather than knowledge and understanding.

Third, technology is best exploited by teams whereas universities emphasise the creativity of the individual academic.

Fourth, the market approach to education creates alternative providers who threaten the financial base of universities by picking off the cherries of basic skills development and skimming off the cream of basic knowledge transfer. True university learning for understanding must be linked to research, which costs money.

Fifth, government pressure to widen participation in higher education at low cost appears to threaten the close student teacher relationship that university learning requires.

What is the best response to the opportunities presented by technology and the most effective answer to the threats posed by current trends? I distinguish first between hard technologies and soft technologies. Hard technologies are bits and bytes, electrons and pixels, satellites and search engines. Soft technologies are processes, approaches, sets of rules and models of organisation.

My central conclusion is that if you want to use the hard technologies for university-level teaching and learning that is both intellectually powerful and competitively cost-effective then you must concentrate on getting the soft technologies right.

These technologies are simply the working practices that underpin the rest of today's modern industrial and service economy: division of labour, specialisation, teamwork and project management. These are not the traditional working practices of universities. Although universities specialise and divide labour as between disciplines, the habit in teaching is for the same individual to do everything: develop the curriculum; organise the learning resources; teach the class; provide academic support; and assess student learning.

This robust, cottage-industry model does not require much organisation. However, it also does not allow us to reconfigure the eternally challenging triangle of cost-access-quality in the directions of lower costs, greater access and higher quality.

The mega-universities have been able to reconfigure that eternal triangle and we should look to them for inspiration. Their achievements are remarkable. Costs per student are between ten and fifty percent of those of conventional universities in the same country. They have expanded access dramatically - the dozen mega-universities enrol over three million students between them. They are steadily gaining a reputation for quality. Last year, for instance, the Open University achieved a maximum score of 24/24 in the UK's national teaching assessment scheme and was ranked higher than Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College for the quality of its teaching of General Engineering.

The mega-universities have achieved this feat by adopting the soft technologies of modern enterprise that I listed. Division of labour means that some people develop learning materials, others support students, yet others provide logistic support and so on.

Division of labour means specialisation, and this enables the university to focus special training and resources on each function. For example, the Open University spends at least two million dollars annually on training its 7,000 associate lecturers who provide support to individual students. They become highly skilled at that task and very dedicated to their students.

Once you have division of labour and specialisation, teamwork is necessary if you want the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts. But experience also shows that when academics develop courses in teams the outcome is superior, in both academic and pedagogical terms, to what an individual could do alone. This is because the work of the course team is a splendid example of the development of understanding that I stressed a few minutes ago.

The course team engages in an iterative process which involves academics and other professionals in a dialogue that moves toward a shared understanding. Instead of simply repackaging the current scholarly orthodoxy this process moves the academic paradigms forward. I cite a new Open University course, Understanding Cities, as a good example of this. In teaching students how to think about the mega-cities that will dominate the world in the next century, the course team found it needed radically to revise the standard thinking about cities. The impact of this work will be felt across the whole academic community and not just by the few thousand students who will take the course.

Finally, division of labour, specialisation and teamwork all require project management. The university itself has to take responsibility for seeing that it all hangs together.

How do I sum all this up? Very simply. Success in the coming era requires a radical change of focus. The tradition in universities is that the individual teacher teaches. The future is that the university teaches.

This may be a radical change of focus but it does actually take us back to the roots of universities in medieval times. If the future reinforces the notion of a community of scholars acting collectively to enable society to maintain an independent understanding of itself and its world that will be progress. Such a resurgence of the general notion of a commonwealth of learning, small c, small l, is a nice theme for this tenth anniversary conference of this Commonwealth of Learning.


Daniel, John S (1996) Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media: Technology Strategies for Higher Education, Kogan Page, London

Laurillard, Diana (1990) New Technologies, Students and the Curriculum: The Impact of C&IT on Higher Education

Sir John Daniel
The Open University, UK

BRUNEI, 4 March 1999

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