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The Future of (Open) Education 


UNESCO Bangkok Special Seminar 2012 (No. IV):

The Future of (Open) Education

24 April, 2012

Sir John Daniel
President and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning
Former Assistant Director-General for Education, UNESCO



“Open education broke open the iron triangle of access, cost and quality that had constrained education throughout history and had created the insidious assumption, still prevalent today, that in education you cannot have quality without exclusivity.”

Open education or open learning involves the policies and practices that permit entry to learning without barriers connected to age, gender, time constraints or prior learning. Arguably, the demand for open education has never been greater, particularly given the rapid development of ICTs and the ubiquitous spread of information through internet technologies.

The benefits of open education are clear; not only can it enhance the cost-effectiveness of education and training systems, it helps to reach target groups with limited access to conventional education and training, it promotes innovation and allows greater opportunity for lifelong learning. As institutions including the Open University (Britain) and Athabasca University (Canada) throw away entry requirements and engage in distance learning programs, one might consider the critical role of open education in achieving Education for All, and beyond this, in shaping the very future of education.

At the same time, many challenges need to be overcome, including persistent negative attitudes to e-learning and technological shortfalls which undermine the great potential of open education.

In this one hour presentation, Sir John Daniel will present on the concept of open education, the persistent challenges, achievements made and implications for the future of education, particularly in the context of discussion on the post-2015 international development agenda and post EFA. The presentation will be followed by 30 minutes of Q&A.

Sir John Daniel has been working in the area of open learning since its earliest days. “Openness is in my genes” he says.

Sir John is President and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning, or COL. COL is an intergovernmental organization comprised of 54 member states. The overarching focus area for COL is “learning for development.” It aims to help its member nations—especially developing countries—use technology and develop new approaches to expand and approve learning at all levels. Sir John’s first interaction at COL happened over 20 years ago, when he chaired its planning committee.

At that time, he was president of Canada’s Laurentian University. He went from there to lead the Open University in the UK, and then served as head of Education at UNESCO. Sir John’s colleague, Dr. Venkataraman Balaji, is Director of Technology and Knowledge Management, and led the efforts in crafting COL’s recent Open Educational Resources policy.



It is a pleasure to be back at UNESCO’s Bangkok Office. History seems to repeat itself. When I left UNESCO to take up my appointment at the Commonwealth of Learning, my last speaking engagement was here in Bangkok on May 28, 2004. Three days later I started my new job in Vancouver.

Eight years later I am about to step down as head of COL and will be working mainly in Asia from now on. The two presentations that I have given in Bangkok during this visit will be almost my last speaking engagements for COL. I thank you warmly for the invitation. It is good to be back among friends.

You have asked me to talk about The Future of (Open) Education, with the word ‘open’ in brackets. I take that to mean that you think that education in the future will be much more open – and I agree with you.

Here is what I propose to talk about before we move to discussion.

First, the future has its roots in the past. Although I spent most of my university career in new and different types of university, I began by studying in very traditional education institutions founded in medieval times: Oxford University and the University of Paris.

I shall start the story in Paris and then talk about the movement to open up universities in the last part of the 20th century. Higher education opened up partly for idealistic reasons of social justice but also because technology made it possible. I shall therefore explain in simple terms, through my trade-mark Iron Triangle, why technology will revolutionize education – even if that revolution is slow to materialize.

That will lead me to talk about the Commonwealth of Learning, where I have spent eight very happy years. Describing COL will lead me to identify some of the future trends in opening up education, most particularly open schooling, which is the introduction of the principles of openness in secondary schooling in particular. Then I hope we can engage in discussion.

You will forgive me if this talk is somewhat auto biographical but it is exactly forty years since I had the revelation of a revolution in education that changed my life and now is a good time to look back.

Some people complain that education changes slowly – but it does change.

The late 1960s were a time of considerable turbulence in western higher education. I was completing my doctoral thesis in Paris in 1968 when the universities were shaken by what were called, politely, ‘the events of May 1968’ – les évènements de mai.

These events led to a famous misinterpretation of a statement by former Chinese leader Zhou Enlai. In 1972 US President, Richard Nixon, during his visit to China, asked Zhou Enlai what he thought had been the impact of the French revolution. Zhou replied that it was too early to tell.

Press reporters assumed that the leaders were talking of the historic French Revolution, the storming of the Bastille in 1789, and seized on the exchange as a charming illustration of China’s ability for long-term thinking. However, many years later Nixon’s interpreter insisted that Zhou was referring to the recent student uprising in France in 1968.

The revolution of openness

Although 1972 was too early for Zhou Enlai to summarise the impact of that 1968 student uprising, those events, in France and other countries, stimulated some new thinking about the roles of universities.

I consider that the most significant 20th century innovation in higher education occurred one year later with the creation of the Open University in the United Kingdom.

The opening ceremony of the Open University took place, with auspicious symbolism, in the week that the first man landed on the moon in 1969. A new era in our thinking about our place in the universe had begun.

The UK Open University

In its founding statement the UK Open University declared that it would be open as to people, open as to places, open as to methods and open as to ideas.

Open to People

To be open to people the Open University adopted the radical principle that no academic prerequisites would be required for admission:

"We took it as axiomatic," said the Planning Committee, "that no formal academic qualifications would be required for registration as a student."  Anyone could try his or her hand, and only failure to progress adequately would be a bar to continuation of studies.

Open to Places

To be open to places the Open University implemented a multi-media distance teaching system, using printed documents, television, radio and later the Internet to reach large numbers of people in their homes and workplaces – at first all over Britain and now all over the world.

Open to Methods

Open to methods meant, in the words of the founding Chancellor, that “every new form of human communication will be examined to see how it can be used to raise and broaden the level of human understanding.”

Open to Ideas

In explaining how the new University would be open to ideas the Chancellor said: “there are two aspects of education, both necessary. The first regards the individual human mind as a vessel, of varying capacity, into which is to be poured as much it will hold of the knowledge and experience by which human society lives and moves.  But the second regards the human mind rather as a fire which has to set alight...  This also we take as our ambition.”

Opening higher education on these four dimensions is still a radical project today, but in 1969 it was a revolution.

I was personally infected by that revolution. Exactly forty years ago, when it was still very new, I spent three months as a graduate student intern at the Open University’s headquarters. Those three months in 1972 were, for me, a first revelation of the coming revolution in higher education.

Everything about the Open University impressed me.

There was the scale of the operation: in 1972 there were already 40,000 students after only one year of operation – today there are a quarter of a million. There was the tremendous dedication and idealism of the staff for serving the students. This dedication to students reached from the most senior professor to the workers packing the course materials in the warehouse.

There was the terrific thirst for knowledge among the students, who were of all ages, most of them working adults. There was the wonderfully exciting use of information and communications technology. I spent all my spare time in that summer of 1972 viewing the fantastic TV programmes that the Open University was producing with the BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation.

I was so inspired by my experience at the Open University that when I returned to Canada I decided to join this revolution and joined the Quebec Open University in 1973. This led me into a fascinating academic career that has been very different from the career that I had started four years earlier as a professor of metallurgical engineering.

The cherry on the cake was that 17 years later I was appointed Vice-Chancellor, or President, of the UK Open University and so became one of those lucky people who achieved his top career ambition. Those eleven years leading the Open University, from 1990 to 2001, were an extraordinary fulfilling experience. The University doubled in size, it began to offer its courses in many other countries, and we laid the foundations which enabled the Open University to be the global leader in use of the Internet in higher education today.

A moment ago I listed the four ways in which the UK Open University aims to be open: to people, to places, to methods and to ideas. But I put a question to you. Are there other dimensions of openness that the UK Open University has not adopted?

Let me help you with that question.

In 1971, the year that the UK Open University opened its doors, another new university, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, offered its students openness on another dimension. A great American educator, Ernie Boyer, was then Chancellor of the State University of New York, America’s largest university.

Empire State College

He set up a new campus of SUNY, called Empire State College. Its aim was to open up the curriculum so that students could conceive and design their own programmes. This was new. At the UK Open University the curriculum is closed because, as in most universities, the programmes and courses are defined and developed by the University. Open University students have great flexibility to select courses in constructing their programmes, but the courses are pre-defined.

By contrast Empire State College allows students to invent their own courses and programmes according to their interests and needs. Its slogan ‘my degree, my way’ captures this perfectly.

These dimensions of openness that were introduced by the UK Open University and Empire State College remained the principal expressions of openness in higher education for the next thirty years. Two dimensions – open admissions and distance learning – were widely copied and there are now millions of students in open universities around the world.

In 1995 I coined the term ‘mega-university’ to describe open universities with over 100,000 students. Since then these mega-universities have grown spectacularly in numbers and size, particularly here in Asia. Some of these open institutions have also achieved high reputations for quality.

For example, the last time that the Government conducted comparative assessments of teaching quality in all English universities the Open University placed 5th out of a hundred universities, just above Oxford University where I once studied. Also the Open University has come top, and never lower than third, in national surveys of student satisfaction conducted with a large sample across all UK universities.

I note that Empire State College also comes first in student satisfaction surveys among the sixty campuses of the State University of New York. Athabasca University, which is Canada’s Open University, also comes first in student satisfaction in its juirsidiction. These results show that openness, quality and student satisfaction can all go together.

Open Educational Resources

I now turn to a newer dimension of openness which has great importance for the future. This is Open Educational Resources, which are educational materials that can be freely accessed, used, re-used, shared, and modified.

The Open Educational Resources movement began over a decade ago when MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, started making the lecture notes of its faculty freely available on the Web. It was called Open Courseware and it enabled people all over the world, many of them in Asia, to see what and how MIT was teaching.

Seeing an important new educational development, UNESCO convened a forum on Open Courseware in 2002. This meeting invented the term ‘Open Educational Resources (OER)’ as a general term for open courseware. Since then the movement has grown steadily.

Yesterday, at our Regional Policy Forum on OER for the Asia-Pacific Region, my ex-UNESCO colleague Stamenka Uvalić-Trumbić and I reported the results of a survey of governments about their policies and intentions regarding OER.

While there are huge disparities between countries in the adoption of OER it is fair to say that this region leads the world in the intensity of OER developments. If you are interested, that speech is on the COL websites along with the slides.

But today let me continue with the UK Open University and use it as an example of the use of OER. The UK Open University has become another large provider of OER through its OpenLearn website, which has 28 million users, and on iTunesU where it is the biggest global player with 450,000 downloads per week.

The availability of a rapidly growing amount of OER offers new opportunities for universities to be open. Many millions of people spend time looking at OERs in various formats: print, video and audio.

Some of these people are potential students and Martin Bean, the president of the UK Open University, argues that universities should provide paths from this informal cloud of learning towards formal study for those who wish to take them.

The UKOU’s OpenLearn website, for example, is not just an OER repository but a hive of activity involving many groups of learners. Digital technology is breathing new life into the notion of a community of scholars and social software gives students the opportunity to create their own academic communities.

OERs also facilitate the expansion of Empire State College’s open curriculum model. A group of ten universities around the world is setting up a consortium called the Open Education Resource University that will offer teaching, assessment and certification to students who learn by accessing OER. This idea also originated in this region, in Australia and New Zealand, although the ten founding consortium members are from all over the world, including Empire State College from the US.

Let me leave the story of openness there for a while and move to my second topic, technology.

Technology now allows institutions to deliver their programmes through media and to give students more control as distance learners. This can cut costs substantially without loss of effectiveness and the cost advantage of distance learning is increasing steadily.

The revolution of technology

How can technology cut costs?

Most governments want to widen access to education while improving its quality and reducing its cost. We can visualize this challenge as a triangle of vectors, which makes the simple point that in conventional classroom teaching there is little scope to alter these vectors advantageously. Improving one vector worsens the others.

Pack more students into the class and quality will be perceived to suffer. Improve quality by providing more learning materials or better teachers and the cost will go up. Cost cutting may endanger both access and quality.

We call this the ‘iron triangle’ and it has constrained the expansion of education throughout history by creating in the public mind an insidious link between quality and exclusiveness.

However, technology is able to stretch this triangle to achieve, simultaneously, wider access, higher quality and lower cost. Asian studies show that costs per learner in technology-based distance learning systems are a third of those for conventional learners.

The open universities have been exploiting this advantage for years. They enrol millions of students and some achieve impressive ratings for the quality of their teaching as I reported a moment ago.

This revolution of providing high quality teaching to large numbers at low cost was originally achieved with traditional learning technologies (print, audio, video and stand-alone computers). It was based on the principles of industrial production, which were identified two centuries ago by Adam Smith as division of labour, specialisation, economies of scale and the use of machines and media.

Today’s new generation of digital technology is characterised by the concepts of networks, connectedness, collaboration and community. As well as increasing economies of scale, since digital material costs almost nothing to distribute, this technology also speeds up and intensifies the interactions between students and their teachers.

More and more students are opting for this form of teaching and forecasts that digital technology would create a generation gap, with young ‘digital natives’ seeking online learning while older students avoided it, have been proved wrong. Research on UK Open University students shows that although older and younger people use technology differently, there is no clear break between two separate populations.

The research was conducted on 7,000 students aged between 21 and 100 with 2,000 between ages 60 and 69; 1,000 aged 70 and over; and, for comparison, four 1,000-member groups of students in their twenties, thirties, forties and fifties respectively. (I note in passing that only an open university could have students who are one hundred years old!) The results showed that while there are differences in the use of digital technology with age, the change is gradual from group to group. There is no coherent ‘net generation’.

One important discovery was a correlation – independent of age – between attitudes to technology and approaches to studying: “Those students who had more positive attitudes to technology were more likely to adopt a deep approach to studying, more likely to adopt a strategic approach to studying and less likely to adopt a surface approach to studying.”

This evidence that, at any age, a good attitude to technology correlates with good study habits is important in refuting the view that online learning tends to trivialise instruction. The intelligent use of technology can improve the quality of learning.

Let me add here that for work-related learning, such as management training, people learn better if their study is combined with work where they can apply and test the concepts they are learning in their courses.

This seems obvious when I state it, and it explains why even very traditional universities are now offering programmes like MBAs at a distance. Clearly, this is an advantage for open universities. And, of course, as lifelong learning becomes more and more important, part-time distance learning is not only the better option – it is the only option for many people. I think, for instance of a programme for tuk-tuk drivers – auto-rickshaw drivers – that COL helped the Yashwantrao Chavan Maharashtra Open University (YCMOU) to develop in India.  We launched it at the end of last year.

That mention of COL brings me to the third part of this talk. Let me give you a quick update on the Commonwealth of Learning.

COL in brief

COL is a small organisation with 35 staff in Vancouver and seven at our Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia in New Delhi. It was created in 1987 by the Commonwealth Heads of Government and has been based Vancouver ever since.

Commonwealth Member Governments fund COL on a voluntary basis – which is a good way of keeping an organisation responsive and honest.

In the last six years the number of Commonwealth countries making voluntary contributions to COL has risen from 27 to 44. That must mean that most Commonwealth countries like what we do. But the real test of success is that as well as governments, our hundreds of partner institutions and the hundreds of thousands of individuals affected by our work also value our impact.

What does COL actually do? We were created 20 years ago because Heads of Government believed that media and technology, particularly Open and Distance Learning, had an important role in advancing education, training and learning generally. Everything that has happened since indicates that they were correct. Today, millions of people around the Commonwealth are involved in all kinds of technology-mediated learning.

Our mission is Learning for Development.

We believe that giving people the chance to learn is the fundamental route to achieving the international development agenda of the Millennium Development Goals; the Campaign for Education for All; and the Commonwealth values of peace, equality, democracy and good governance.

However, the challenge of learning at all levels is so massive that traditional educational methods cannot cope. Technology has helped respond to other development challenges and is now essential for expanding learning.

COL is increasing opportunities for learning on two fronts.

Formal Education

In the first, we help countries to expand formal education. That means using distance learning technology in four areas: First, to expand secondary schooling because 400 million children between 12 and 17 are not now in school; second to expand and improve teacher education, because 10 million new teachers are needed; third to improve the quality of higher education and, fourth, to help the Commonwealth’s 32 Small States provide postsecondary skills for their people.

That last is an exciting programme, called the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth, which was initiated by and is managed by those countries, a good number of which are in your region.

Livelihoods and Health

On the second front we help to expand the informal learning that is essential for improving livelihoods and health.

That sector, Livelihoods and Health, has three initiatives: informal approaches to skills development; lifelong learning for better farming; helping communities improve health by using local media; and eLearning as a cross-cutting theme through the whole programme.

I also note the exciting work of our unit in New Delhi, the Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia, which is playing a key role in the expansion of community radio in Asia and has helped set up hundreds of stations in India alone.

We believe this programme subsumes all important educational development priorities

How does COL work?

That is what we do. How do we do it?

Technology advances relentlessly so innovation is our watchword and scale is our mantra.

We help countries and organisations achieve impact by articulating policies, creating partnerships, refining models for technology use, building capacity and helping people develop learning materials.

I give you just one example. This very day thousands of women in India, who have been equipped with special SIM cards for their mobile phones by their local cell provider, will each receive several short audio messages giving them tips on how better to rear and feed the goats on which their livelihoods depend. The proven result is goats that are healthier on every dimension, which means more income for the women and their families.

Our third obsession, after innovation and scale, is country focus. We have an individual action plan for each Commonwealth country.

Our Vice-President, Professor Asha Kanwar, who takes over from me as President at the end of next month, leads an intensive programme of stakeholder engagement. When we report to governments at meetings of Education Ministers and Foreign Ministers, each country gets a separate report detailing what we have done to help that country. This is one reason why countries appear to support us with enthusiasm.

Finally, COL is highly focussed. I doubt that any of the world’s intergovernmental agencies applies results-based management better than COL. But results-based management can easily degenerate into an obsession with process. We are obsessed with outcomes and impacts and we can demonstrate those.

That’s my short introduction to COL. We are well-known and appreciated by our thousands of stakeholders around the Commonwealth and proud to be in partnership with UNESCO in various programmes – like the OER work that brings me to Bangkok.

Trends to watch

I said that I would end by flagging some trends to watch. I like to think that COL has captured most of the important trends for opening up education in the programme I have just described, so let me simply emphasise one of them, which is open schooling. For me expanding access to secondary education is now education’s biggest challenge.

This was one of the two topics in a book that I published in 2010 with the title: Mega-Schools. Technology and Teachers: Achieving Education for All. The other topic was teacher education.

Essentially the book examines the consequences of both the successes and the failures of the campaign for Universal Primary Education.

The success is that enrolment rates have increased significantly. The numbers in school have increased substantially representing a tremendous input of resources and effort by developing countries.

The flip side is the failure. Many children are still not in school. It is hard to forecast the precise numbers of primary age children who will still be out of school by 2015 – a lot depends on how fast the economic downturn ends – but the estimates range around 70 million.

This is the starting point for the book, which addresses both the challenge of success and the challenge of failure.

The challenge of success is the secondary surge.

The challenge of failure is the need to train more teachers.

Part of the book is about expanding secondary education. The other part is about expanding teacher education. I will only talk about secondary education today.

My first point is that the numbers are very considerable. Up to 400 million children from 12 to 17 are not in school. Of course some children, like these, are well catered for. But others are not so lucky.

In the book I rehearse several arguments for the importance of secondary education but the only one I shall use today is that secondary schooling is the best medium-term weapon against climate change. That is because the most powerful driver of climate change is increasing population.

Since the industrial revolution the world population has grown by a factor of seven and each human being today, on average, makes seven times greater demands on the earth’s resources. That’s a fifty-fold increase in humanity’s impact on our planet in two centuries.

Slowing population growth is one way of limiting that demand. Women with secondary education have, on average, 1.5 fewer children than those without. A difference of one child per woman means 3 billion more or fewer people on the planet by 2050. Secondary education for girls must be a priority.

Expanding secondary education is – or soon will be – the key priority for many developing countries. Yet in a time of economic difficulty countries need to strive for greater efficiency – and in many countries secondary education is not at all efficient. Professor Keith Lewin’s research shows that if the unit cost of secondary education is more than double the unit cost of primary education a country will never achieve universal secondary education. In many developing countries the multiple is far greater than two.

Hence, I stress the importance of expanding open schooling, which is an adaptation of the methods of distance learning. But I do not simply propose the creation and expansion of open schools as a separate and distinct element within national school systems. Open schools should be seen as catalysts for integrating all elements of schooling into an educational ecosystem fit for the 21st century.

I shall conclude with that.

The key point is that it will not be possible to accommodate the secondary surge through the conventional provision of secondary schooling, skills training and adult education. Governments must encourage alternative approaches and foster providers that can deliver quality learning at scale with low costs.

Developing and expanding open schooling are particularly promising alternatives that can also be integrated with other approaches to make them more cost-effective and cost-efficient. An integrated approach also holds the promise of providing education that is better adapted to the needs of the 21st century.

It can blur the unhelpful distinction between formal and non-formal education; build a bridge between knowledge acquisition and skills development; and has the potential to reduce the inequalities of access that blight conventional provision in most countries.

Very importantly, open schooling is less expensive than conventional schooling and the differential is increasing.

The Commonwealth of Learning promotes the concept of an integrative open school that is placed at the heart of the whole school system in order to improve the quality and reach of that system, to be a source of innovation, and to act as a catalyst for reform.

I’ll stop there and hope that something I have said will strike a chord with some of you. Thank you for inviting me back to UNESCO.