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The future of (open) education with Sir John Daniel

Sir John Daniel

“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,” says Sir John Daniel, CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning.

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. 

Eight years after he left his position as Assistant Director General of UNESCO, Sir John Daniel visited UNESCO Bangkok to 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. 

Sir John Daniel has been at the forefront of open education since its early days. He was studying in Paris during the 1968 student riots, which can be seen as a precursor to the ideals which initiated the development of open education. Later on, he aspired to become part of the new trend towards open education and joined the Quebec Open University. In 1990, he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the Open University in the United Kingdom. In his current career, as President of the Commonwealth of Learning, he has been promoting learning for development, particularly through technology. 

Throughout his career in education, he has been instrumental in the development of paradigms regarding open education, including his signature ‘iron triangle’ which explains the balance between costs, access and quality in the education system, and how when one increases, the other two factors are compromised. As Sir John explains, “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.”

Having been part of the movement for so long, he has been witness to the development of the ideals which sustain open education. The ‘original’ Open University in the UK was founded on four key principles: being Open to People, Open to Places, Open to Methods and Open to Ideas. As the movement has grown, so have the ideals behind it. Empire State College even has an ‘open curriculum’ allowing students to design their own degree course. Open admissions and distance learning have been widely adopted by universities around the globe. This successful formula has lead to the growth of ‘mega universities’ with other 100,000 students, particularly dominant in the Asia-Pacific region.

Technology has had an undeniable impact on open education, revolutionising the way in which it is implemented. It has, for instance, distorted the ‘Iron Triangle’; enter technology and there is no longer the same cost, access and quality constraints that may have existed previously. High quality education can be more easily accessed at lower costs. Open universities have been exploiting the benefits of technology for some time, including, for example, using technology to diffuse Open Education Resources to a wider audience. 

Initially, there were concerns about the economic viability and thus sustainability of such an approach. Surprisingly, however, universities have found economic benefit since the resources do attract students to paid courses. Indeed, the UK Open University’s OpenLearn website now has 28 million users, and is the largest global player on iTunesU with 450,000 downloads per week. The scope of open learning now goes far beyond traditional degree courses. The Yashwantrao Chavan Maharashtra Open University, for example, has offered a programme for tuk-tuk drivers. Technology has also allowed open education to spread to secondary schooling. This development has not been without its problems, but as the demand for secondary education surges, open education at this level can dramatically increase access. For Sir John Daniel, “Expanding access to secondary education is now education’s biggest challenge.” Technology could well aid the response to this.

As Open Education becomes continues to spread, a number of issues need to be addressed, including perennial copy-right concerns. Publishers, who have had something of a monopoly in the production of educational materials, are increasingly up-in-arms, as governments cut costs through Open Educational Resources. Simultaneously, as Open Educational Resources spread, it is increasingly difficult to monitor quality, particularly if adapted when delivered. With regard to secondary education, younger people may require more contact hours than open education may provide for. 

The Commonwealth of Learning (COL) has been supporting the ‘opening’ up of open education in many dimensions. It supports integrative open schools placed at the heart of school systems, so that the open schools can improve the quality and reach of the overall system and act as a source of innovation and a catalyst for reform. COL and UNESCO have already collaborated on several projects; for example UNESCO’s highly respected competency framework for ICT for teachers, reinforced by the Commonwealth certificate for ICT and teachers. 

As institutions increasingly embrace the concept of opening education or open learning, it is very likely open education will be critical in achieving Education for All, and beyond this, in shaping the very future of education.