Global Trends and Challenges in Open and Distance Learning

By Paulina Gonzalez-Pose, Chief, Section for Higher Education, UNESCO

It’s Friday morning, the last day of the ICDE World Conference 2013.

What is ODL?

Open learning – a student centered approach to education that removes barriers to access and provides a high degree of autonomy to the learner. Open and distance learning includes the concept of open; as well as distance mediated by technology or print delivery; and could include some face to face time.

Open education includes open educational resources, open access to journals, MOOCs, etc.

UNESCO defines open educational resources as including no licensing and free to use and adapt. OERs have many benefits to an institution.

Global Trends

Global context of decreased public funding for higher ed; increase in demand; increase in student fees; education is less accessible. ODL is seen as a way to meet demand. Higher ed has been seen as for the elite. Globally models of higher education need to shift from models of exclusion to models of inclusion. The modern workplace / knowledge economy requires highly skilled workers; so higher education needs to be more inclusive. ODL is a tool has an emergent possibility of bringing education to populations that have been historically excluded from higher education.

Student expectations are evolving. They want to use power and connected tools to advance their learning. Students are insisting on learning in networked and digital environments.

Challenges and Opportunities

Challenges include:

  • How to improve the quality and quantity of education provided
  • How to create an abundant and skilled workforce qualified to meet the demands in the labor market
  • How to ensure that all segments of society have wide access to quality knowledge and skills
  • How to increase and ensure the possibility of research in small institutions

Why ODL is needed:

  • Free or affordable access
  • Empower learners in fast changing economies
  • Helps meet a massive and growing demand for higher education

Some think that the future is that ODL is a tool that complements and enriches traditional instruction. Others see ODL substitutes traditional face to face teaching methods in a transformative way. We are seeing the lines between online and traditional learning blur – students are mixing. Students in traditional classes engage in online learning – either in activities within a face to face class or by adding online classes to their face to face degree.

ODL has moved into the mainstream – impacting both rich and poor countries. Massive growth around the world. MOOCs are attracting over half of their students from outside North America. Challenges includes persistence, retention, lack of a clear business model, imperfect grading of student work. Students who joined a face to face study group were more likely to complete their MOOC than those who didn’t.

MOOC enrollments compared to ODL institutions: Turkey 1.9 million students in 2012; Open University of China, 3.5 million; etc.

Trends in Africa: African Virtual University; University of South Africa; Zimbabwe Open University; National Open University of Nigeria. Top constraints for using digital technologies for learning: finances, appropriate hardware; bandwidth; electricity, training. Top changes: mobile technologies; social media; increased bandwidth. 1 billion mobile subscribers in Africa by 2015. Who is the most important change agent? Government. These stats are from the eLearning Africa Report; ICWE.

Challenges to be overcome: course design & support; individual teacher & student; organizational, society and cultural context; technology access, cost, design, and localization. In developed countries, the challenges are at the course and individual level; in developing countries, the course, context and technology are the larger challenges. For example, countries where the government won’t hire anyone who has an online degree.

ODL can extend educational opportunities to students in areas of sever need; but unreliable infrastructure and limited access are great barriers. While some ODL providers are excellent, some are not. Quality assurance is need to ensure citizens are not preyed upon by poor quality providers with big marketing budgets.

OER is not yet a dominant model; and they are seldom used in primary and secondary education.

Some suggested strategies:

  • Tailor training and teaching practices to improve relevance to teaching and learning needs in a digital environment.
  • Improve and strengthen accreditation processes for ODFL institutions.
  • Align ODL programs with national needs.
  • Women and students with special needs shouldn’t have barriers to access learning.

Quality includes delivering courses in a method that considers the needs of the learners.

A UNESCO Perspective

Why does UNESCO care? It seeks to help its Members States see how ODL can help countries meet their educational goals.

UNESCO does: publications; conferences (including Mobile Learning Week); UNESCO Chairs Programme – 29 chairs are working on ODL from various countries.

“At no time in history has it been more important to invest in higher education as a major force in building an inclusive and diverse knowledge society and to advance research, innovation and creativity.“ Communique of the 2009 World Conference in Higher Education (UNESCO).

Reflection: This perspective is so different than the U.S. sensational news reporting that Higher Ed is dying and MOOCs will replace bricks and mortar institutions. Instead, ODL is seen as a method to bring education to all people; to care about all types of learners, especially those who struggle to gain access to higher education: women, the poor, the disabled.

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