Going the distance in open education

Open and Distance Learning (ODL) institutions perhaps more than others rely on innovative thinking in the development and implementation of e-learning programmes for their large student bodies. International collaboration is a vital part of an ODL institution’s success story. The International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE), the global member body for ODL institutions, and an organisation in formal consultative relations with UNESCO, will present OEB session CUL38, Learning Cultures: An International Perspective. This session brings together speakers representing universities in Brazil, Russia and India in a panel discussion exploring theoretical discourse, technology implementation and factors supporting and hindering developments.


International collaboration between developing and developed countries is central to ICDE’s mandate, says Nick Moe-Pryce, Information Officer at ICDE. “Knowledge transfer is one of our key aims on concerns ranging from regulation of ODL to quality assurance. A discussion such as this – involving the panel and also including audience contributions – will create a good synergy.” While there are commonalities in the technical and infrastructure challenges ODL institutions in the so-called ‘BRIC’ countries face, the uniqueness of each situation offers much for discussion. The panel will be co-chaired by Professor Dieter Kennepohl of Athabasca University in Canada and Gard Titlestad, Secretary General of ICDE.




Dr Luciano Sathler of University Anhanguera-Uniderp is Director of the Brazilian Association for Distance Education (ABED). “In the past ten years, ODL has grown dramatically in Brazil as has the country’s social and economic outlook,” he says.  He notes that the country’s profile has changed because of increased life expectancy and a drop in impoverishment, leading to the democratisation of access to higher education. “ODL is the main way to achieve the educational aspects of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals,” he says. Over one million students are enrolled in undergraduate ODL courses in Brazil, and because of the increasing use of ODL, Sathler sees international cooperation with other ICDE institutions as a way to strengthen and improve the quality of teaching practices.


University Anhanguera-Uniderp at a glance:


Faculty members – 3000

Student enrollment – 85 000

Primary challenges – A large student body


Opportunities – Sathler says, “Until recent decades, the illiteracy rate was very high, but in the past forty years, most Brazilian homes have acquired televisions, and mobile phone use has increased rapidly in the past decade. Brazilians have therefore readily adopted ICTs. Another important factor that drives the adoption of ODL and educational technologies in primary and secondary schools and in tertiary institutions is the ease with which digital natives adapt to this new world and begin to show impatience with the traditional teaching models.”




Dr Irina Smirnova is Chief of the Department for International Projects at Moscow State University of Economics, Statistics and Informatics (MESI). She specialises in e-learning and says that it is now an integral part of MESI’s teaching strategy. She says that ODL is fast becoming very popular in Russia, MESI has adopted an innovative approach to incorporating sound e-learning strategies into their teaching practice.


MESI at a glance


Faculty members – 1100

Student enrollment – 10 000 at main campus; 150 000 in MESI Open and Distance Education System




Dr Hemlata Chari is the Deputy Director of the Institute of Distance & Open Learning (IDOL) at Mumbai University in India. At OEB, she will discuss teacher education and the impact of ODL with special reference to Open Educational Resources (OER) in the development of course materials in English, Marathi and Hindi. She is excited at the strides IDOL is making and says, “This is the first year we have offered an M.A. Education, ICT-Information Communication using MOODLE and Learning Management system-OER.”



IDOL, Mumbai University at a glance


Faculty members – 12 000

Student enrollment – 75 000; a further 900 000 at affiliate colleges


Primary challenges – Chari says that while some Indian universities are surging ahead with ICT use, there are many colleges and universities struggling to work with technology. Poor infrastructure, a lack of technical expertise and an erratic electricity supply are often to blame.


Opportunities – IDOL’s vision is for better and more streamlined technology-based teaching, and they wish to become an OER university by next year. Chari says, “I’m also looking at the possibility of collaborations with other international universities from Canada and Australia.”




Dieter Kennepohl, a Professor of Chemistry and Associate Vice President (Academic) at Athabasca University in Canada will co-chair the session alongside Gard Titlestad, Secretary General of ICDE. Kennepohl says that although, traditional forms of teaching still dominate in Canada, ODL is increasing rapidly. “Not only are established ODL institutions increasing their student enrollments, new players (mostly private for profits) are arriving on the scene. In addition, established traditional residential institutions are incorporating much more ODL in their extension and regular programmes. Moreover, other sectors (government, corporate) have recognised advantages in e-learning and ODL and see it as an effective way to train employees. Overall, the result is that ODL is becoming more accepted and mainstream. The downside is that it is also becoming much more competitive.”


Athabasca University at a glance


Faculty members – 176 full-time and 139 part-time academics

Student enrollment – 38 000


Primary challenges – “Basic infrastructure support including (funding, rewards, training, access, equipment, time) needs to be present. However, it is the more internal factors such as organisational culture, climate, coupled with pedagogical and other personal beliefs that really determine whether ODL or e-learning technologies are employed. Individual teachers and academics want to see evidence of effectiveness, and both teachers and students need to be reasonably comfortable with any new learning environment created or technology used. It seems the rate of change of technology is much greater than our ability to use it effectively.”


Opportunities – “Education has deep connections to a lot of other areas (society, economics) and it will be interesting to see the different regional perspectives and approaches that shape those regional cultures of learning. Like many others involved with ODL, I also see a real opportunity in breaking down barriers to education and making it more universally accessible. Globally, the nature and the culture of education is changing, and e-learning and ODL seem to be leading us towards the future. Given the potential scale and speed of this change, will our approach to education in the 21st century be seen as an evolution or a revolution?”


New and Existing Learning Cultures Session CUL38: Learning Cultures: An International Perspective takes place on Thursday, December 1st 2011 at 16.30 – 17.30

One Response

  1. Professor Femi Peters

    I find the panel discussion quite interesting. I work at the National Open University of Nigeria, Lagos and has find the application of IT in our delivery mechanism quite challenging but rewarding. We have found that culture, pedagogical challenges alongside the infrastructure has been our main challenge. (The University has learning centres at about 44 locations in the country including prisons.)


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