The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have provided the global community with a collective vision and plan of action until 2030. SDG 4, which deals with education, aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all.
How do we plan to achieve this? One of the recommendations in the UNESCO Framework for Action for achieving Goal 4 by 2030 is to “develop policies and programmes for the provision of quality distance learning in tertiary education, with appropriate financing and use of technology, including the Internet, massive open online courses and other modalities that meet accepted quality standards to improve access”. If the targets are to be achieved, it cannot be business as usual. Alternative approaches and innovations are needed for human resource development.
One of the most significant challenges to SDG4 is that the continuing demand for education far outstrips supply. In Kenya, for example, over 500,000 students graduated from secondary schools last year, but only about 74000 were absorbed by the 31 public universities in the country. Globally, there are 1.2 billion young people between the ages of 15 and 24, most of them in developing countries, and the global rate of unemployment among youth is almost 14 percent. Governments are looking for ways in which these young people can be skilled for employment and entrepreneurship.
As an intergovernmental organisation created by Commonwealth Heads of Government to promote the development and sharing of open learning and distance (ODL) education knowledge, resources and technologies, we have seen that ODL is a tried and tested mechanism for expanding access to quality education and training. ODL will not only become more important in our collective efforts to achieve Goal 4, but can also contribute to the achievement of sustainable development as a whole. It is time for governments and policy makers to harness the potential of ODL and technologies to accelerate progress towards achieving quality education and lifelong learning for all.
Open and Distance Learning
The term open learning describes policies and practices that permit entry to learning with as few barriers as possible, while distance education refers to the separation of the teacher and learner. Because learners and teachers are separated by time and space, technology or media must be used for communication between them. Open learning is not the same as distance education but they are clearly complementary. Which is why we use the two terms together and the expression open and distance learning, or ODL. However, technology is helping us surmount the barriers of distance and there is an emerging trend towards opening up education.
Open Universities and Dual-Mode Institutions
As governments and policy makers sought to expand access to education, reduce costs and improve standards, they realised that traditional brick and mortar solutions would not be enough. The success of the Open University UK, which was established in 1969, captured the imagination of policy makers around the world but particularly in developing countries, where dedicated open universities were established. In 1988, there were only 10 open universities in the Commonwealth, of which four were in Canada and the UK. Nearly 30 years later that number has tripled. The growth has happened mostly in developing countries. The five open universities in Commonwealth Africa will soon be joined by open universities in Botswana and Kenya.
In addition to dedicated single-mode open universities, we have also witnessed the rise of dual-mode institutions. South Africa has had a long history of opening up access to education through its correspondence course institutes. The University of Lagos established the Correspondence and Open Studies Unit in 1973, which is now the Distance Learning Institute. The University of Ibadan’s 15000 students enrolled in its Distance Learning Centre exceed the number of regular campus students. Using ODL helps countries to open up access to tertiary education and increase the Gross Enrolment Ratios, without which sustainable development is not possible.
Open Educational Resources
There has been a phenomenal growth of open educational resources (OER) in the last few years. In 2002, the term open educational resources was coined at a meeting held at UNESCO. In 2012, with support from the Hewlett Foundation, COL and UNESCO organised the World OER Congress, which resulted in the Paris OER Declaration. The declaration urged governments to release all educational materials developed with public funds under an open license, and that all such resources should be made available free to others. There has been an increase in the number of OER policies in the last decade and countries such as South Africa and Seychelles, have developed OER policies at the national level. OER provide countries with the opportunity to improve the quality of textbooks and to reduce costs. This will help address issues of both equity and excellence.
Massive Open Online Courses
Over the past five years, we have seen the phenomenal growth of Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, a form of distance and online learning. In 2015, more people signed up for MOOCs than in the previous three years combined. Last year, the National Open University of Nigeria was the first institution in West Africa, to develop a MOOC with support for the technology platform from COL and the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. MOOCs are an important solution to three key challenges in the current higher education system: rigidity, costs and long duration. A MOOC on ICT integration for teachers was offered in collaboration with the African Virtual University.
The Key to Sustainable Development
COL believes that learning is the key to sustainable development and works along the whole spectrum of formal, non-formal and informal learning. Learning must lead to three things: economic growth, social inclusion and environmental conservation. Through innovative open and technology-enabled approaches, COL supports these pillars of sustainable development:
- COL’s Lifelong Learning for Farmers (L3F) initiative is a framework that links financial capital, human capital and social capital with ICT-based learning. One of the key objectives of the programme is to empower marginalised communities, particularly women. Thousands of farm women in Tanzania, Kenya, and Ghana who have benefited from this programme have access to improved livelihoods and have generated substantial assets. Through mobile learning, the Batwa community in the remote forests of Uganda learned scientific honey and beekeeping practices which has resulted in two meals a day and opened up new possibilities for their children, who now go to
- COL has trained thousands of young people in various trades using video and television. This programme has impacted young people in countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. COL is using distance learning and technology to support the schooling and skilling of girls for employment or entrepreneurship in Mozambique and
- The transition rate from primary to secondary school is only about 79 percent. In addition 23 million children in SSA are out of school. Getting all children into school is a major challenge for most governments. COL’s open schooling provides a cost-effective and flexible approach for universal secondary education. In Namibia, the open secondary schooling offered by NAMCOL costs one fifth of what it would cost to put a student through a government school.
- Ministers of Education directed COL to establish a Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth (VUSSC). All 30 small states of the Commonwealth are active members of this consortium. Addressing the shared concern of environmental sustainability among the states, VUSSC is offering online courses such as eco-tourism and sustainable fisheries. A new MOOC on the blue economy was launched in March 2017 in collaboration with the University of the Seychelles.
How can governments and institutions harness the power of ODL?
The 2016 Kuala Lumpur Declaration was adopted at the Eighth Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning (PCF8), organised by COL. It presents a set of ten recommendations for governments, institutions, the private sector and civil society. These include, one, mainstreaming the use of OER by developing strategies and policies at governmental and institutional levels to enhance quality while potentially reducing the cost of education; two, developing market-driven skills using ODL and blended and flexible learning in collaboration with education, industry, agriculture and service sectors to empower and ensure sustainable livelihoods; and, three, promoting lifelong learning through appropriate technologies in formal, non-formal and informal learning.
Africa is a young continent with a median age of about 20. This youth bulge can be the engine for Africa’s economic growth. That is only possible through effective human resource development. As governments and policy makers review their educational policies and plans in the context of SDG 4, the time is right to mainstream the use of open distance and technology enabled approaches. The Commonwealth of Learning stands ready to support the process.