Education has always piggybacked on, or allied itself to, technological innovations. In fact Open and Distance Learning (ODL) has been in existence for more than fifty years in West Africa, and has always leveraged on the technologies of the time: postal technology, print technology, radio, and the television. I recollect the prevalence of the correspondence courses of the early seventies in Nigeria, as an example. A Wikipedia entry suggests that a similar situation had existed in the pre-digital age in the United States: “In the 1890s commercial and academic correspondence courses on specialized topics (such as how to pass a civil service test) took root and by the 1920s over 4 million Americans were enrolled in correspondence courses covering hundreds of practical job-oriented topics - far more than attended traditional colleges.”
Things have obviously gotten a lot more sophisticated lately in the area of technological innovations (e-mail, smartphones, e-readers, video streaming, fast computers, high-bandwidth ICT, etc.) and education delivery is not going to be left behind. We now have tertiary institutions in many parts of the world, both developed and developing, that are wholly devoted to ODL. Even traditional universities are hopping on the bandwagon of distance learning.
Open and Distance Learning programs are offered using a variety of methods to help you complete a degree according to your schedule, and these programs are particularly geared toward folks who have full-time employments during the day. You may work with printed material that you receive in the mail or with electronic material from the Internet. Video conferencing, audiotapes, videotapes, television, and radio are employed in the delivery of learning. You may also use the phone, e-mail, or regular post office mail to submit homework or assignments and to receive help from your instructor. Some of the ODL programs are based completely on online procedures, while others use a combination of online and offline methods.
A few ODL programs around the world come to mind.
The Commonwealth of Learning (COL) is an intergovernmental organization of the Commonwealth of Nations, inaugurated in 1988 with the mandate of promoting and developing the use of ODL education throughout the 54 member countries. Headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, COL is mostly funded by Canada, India, New Zealand, Nigeria, South Africa and the United Kingdom, all of which have representatives on COL’s Board of Governors.
The Canadian Virtual University (CVU) is an association of Canada’s leading universities specializing in online and distance education. Although CVU on its own does not offer degrees, you are assigned to a partner “home university” that accepts the courses you take at CVU toward a regular degree.
Athabasca University, though a traditional research university located in Athabasca, Alberta, Canada, and formed in 1970, is one of the most reputable ODL universities in the world. The Open University of Israel is an ODL institution whose administration centre is located in the city of Ra’anana. In India, there are over 50 universities with elaborate ODL programs. The Indira Gandhi National Open University is particularly more established. It was formed in 1985, is located in New Delhi, India, and had an enrollment of three and one half million (3,500,000) students in 2010.
The National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) is an institution that is entirely based on ODL. It’s headquarter is in Victoria Island, Lagos, but it has, at least as of a year ago, forty six study centres scattered all over the country, and a student body of over one hundred thousand. NOUN has the objective of educating the masses anywhere in Nigeria. Many of the traditional universities in Nigeria, such as Obafemi Awolowo University, are also getting into ODL, to cash in on distance learning as a sure way to increase their student enrolment and give more people the opportunity to have education.
Open universities have suffered “identity crisis” and discrimination of some sort by (education) regulatory agencies around the world. There is the perception that the admission requirements are too liberal and that the apparent lack of structure in the delivery of learning makes open universities inferior to brick and mortar schools. There is also the perception that the schools attract weak students, with the assumption that the “A-materials” will most likely end up in Harvard or Cambridge, rather than in some open universities. The acceptance of courses and degrees from open institutions is also believed by some to be an issue.
Institutions that are completely open are also challenged by academic programs such as engineering and medicine which require physical facilities.
Although perception is changing, a few concerns still remain. For example, in standard, non-web-based ranking of tertiary institutions, ODL universities are usually marginalized. The Guardian (UK) 2012 ranking of the UK universities does not include the open universities, neither did the Time ranking. This situation can potentially undermine the ability of a graduate of an open school to find a job, especially outside of his or her country.
The argument for the exclusion of open universities in important rankings is that many of the criteria on which universities are judged do not apply to an open university whose students are not on campus.
A blog by Jane Matthews on the Guardian rating encourages the open-university graduate regarding the issue of finding a job: “In the meantime, if you are looking for evidence to use with employers how about the fact that 75% of FTSE 100 companies sponsor their staff on OU courses. Many of the biggest international names are among the 30,000 companies that have sponsored OU students. That’s a pretty powerful vote of confidence.” Note that FTSE stands for Financial Times and the London Stock Exchange and OU for Open University.)
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