Higher Education in the Information Age

Distance Education and Globalization I

Sir Graeme Davies


Michael Eleey: What role shall we as institutions play in the market for life-long learning? Who will be our competition and who will be our partners? Our next set of speakers will begin to introduce these themes in several directions and from several perspectives. During this segment, we'll hold Questions until the end, and we can also defer questions beyond that to later in the morning as well. After a break, Governor Leavitt of Utah will comment on the origins and future of the ambitious experiment we know as the Western Governors University Initiative. And since we undoubtedly will continue our success in keeping on schedule, we'll then have probably about an hour for general discussion with all of this morning's presenters, moderated by Jim O'Donnell.

I'd now like to introduce our first speaker, Sir Graeme Davies. As we heard last night, Sir Graeme is principal and vice chancellor of the University of Glasgow, previously chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, as well as the University's Funding Council and the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council. He also served as Vice Chancellor of the University of Liverpool for five years, is a material scientist and metallurgist at the University of Sheffield. Previous to that, for 16 years he was in the department of Metallurgy and Material Science at Cambridge. Currently Chair of the Scottish Offices Scottish Education and Training Export Group, he sits on several science and education committees and councils. Created Knight Bachelor in the 1996 New Year's honors list, Sir Graeme is a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society of Edinburgh and holds several honorary positions and degrees. He'll speak to us today about the British Open University and new directions abroad in distance education. Sir Graeme.

Sir Graeme Davies: Thank you for that. As I said last night, for those of you who were here, it's very much a pleasure to be here because this is clearly an area where we're all going to have to cover some pretty common ground. And I thought I might start by asking you the question and asking myself the question about distance education. The subtle shift in terminology, we've stopped talking about distance learning and we started talking about distance education. And yesterday we were, one of the-I think it was Bob Lucky asked the question, "What is education?" And I said to him afterwards that it reminded me of a quote that I've used frequently on addresses which will be in e-mails obviously in the future about what is education. And there's a famous quote from an English educationalist called Fisher that education is what is left behind when what you were taught has been forgotten. And that's what we're trying to do when we think about distance education. It's not just about driving people down a road which gives them some sort of utilitarian experience and fills them with some knowledge and lets them get on and do something. It's about creating people who have an attitude towards learning and studying.

And so we might ask the first question: why should there be distance education? What is the global imperative that's driving it? And there are a variety of these, and they come, in my judgment, from quite a number of different sources. Some of them are political, some of them are straight technological--and yesterday we very much concentrated our attention on that--some of them are operational, but come what may, there's no doubt that they're going to contribute to very significant changes in our academic environment. We all, well virtually all, have international agenda at the moment, particularly in research.

There was some comment made last night that perhaps we haven't devoted enough of our time to research. My feeling is that that is not inappropriate. Most of the research links are driven by particular person to person interests. They build these interests. They work on them. I can nurture them as a head of institution, but nothing is more like the kiss of death than saying to a particular individual that you must collaborate with that other particular individual. However, in the case of teaching I think that's not the case, and I think there's much opportunity for really quite good international positioning and for building strategic alliances. And this is of course one of the other reasons why I find it so important to be in a university such as Penn.

But if we're going to have these alliances we have to ask ourselves the question: who are going to be the leading players? We have a knowledge economy. There is little doubt that the universities and the colleges who have been so involved in the educational business for so long certainly have a very legitimate claim to say, "Look, we are the repositories of knowledge. Traditionally we have been the repositories of knowledge. We're going to get about transforming the way in which we do things to push this knowledge out in ways which are different to the conventional ways." And if you do that, that with the technology that distance education is going to be an essential part of the repertoire. But also as I said last evening, there is great potential in the market, and there are a lot of people already starting to get in there.

We made reference yesterday to the junk that's around. And there is a tendency from any people to take what have been conventional teaching materials and just sort of somehow or other turn them into on-line materials and expect them to have the same impact as they have when they're presented to young people and not so young people in a quite nurturing environment such as the university. They don't work that way. But there will be pressure to try to exploit the opportunities, and again, in my judgment, it could easily lead to a lot of unsupervised supply. And if the unsupervised supply doesn't work properly, then there'll be damnation by faint praise, and all of you could end up with a little mud on your faces because the bad experience is attributed to the deliverers. And it doesn't say that deliverer or this deliverer; you will all tend to be sufferers. And so I think we have to also think in the general context of some form of international validation and some sort of legitimization which makes the material which goes onto the Net or elsewhere have the minimum probability of being junk-like. And one of the best examples of that is the British Open University.

In my last role, when I was in the funding body looking after the universities of Britain, the Open University was one of the universities we funded. It is largely public funded. So I thought I'd run through the Open University as a sort of case study. Most of you know about it or of it or have a feeling that it's one of those places you should be familiar with, but I suspect you're not as familiar as you should be with what has happened because it is an extraordinarily good role model. It is helped in being that role model by it's central government funding, and it's central government funding runs currently at about 100 million pounds a year. Well, what goes on in the Open University?

At the current moment there are 218,000 students. Of those 141,000 are on degree courses at undergraduate level, 10,000 are registered for post-graduate degrees, and a lot of others are picking up particular certification qualifications as they go along, some professional, some non-professional. So, for instance, typically a lot of the teaching profession are picking up adjunct qualification in a discipline which is not their primary discipline, but which allows them to position themselves professionally in a different way. There are professional programs, particularly in business, and we'll come to that in a moment. But the two essential characteristics of the Open University is that it is open to everyone in the European community. We are required to treat all European citizens as if they were British. And they have free access to the British University System, the British educational system, no tuition fees. They only have to pay for particular elements. And finally, of course, it is an open university because it goes to the people, and it puts material out. In the early days it was predominantly by post and by radio and television broadcast through the BBC. It occupies all sorts of interesting slots. The 5 a.m. slot is an extremely popular one. But now of course it's starting to really build upon it's network and work through computer links of one form or another.

The student population is quite unlike the one with which most of us are familiar. Most of them are between 25 and 45. The oldest graduate was 93. The youngest graduate was 9. But most importantly, three quarters of the students are in full-time employment, so they're actually pursuing these outreach programs while continuing to pay the mortgage, look after the family, do all of those other things, which is one of the reasons why the majority of the broadcasts are in the slot from sort of 5 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., on Sunday mornings, or in the slot between midnight and 2 a.m.. It operates all over the world, and I'll give you more detail about that in a moment, and it has a business school which is now has 20,000 students on its books. It also runs a lot of particularly focused corporate management programs. It is only 25 years old. And it has built a reputation for quality and for class. And currently it is operating, as I say, everywhere. Those are the European centers in which it has major outreach locations.

By a major outreach location I mean it will actually have a branch office which will be delivering study programs to support the material that's coming over the air waves or down the telephone line, Austria to Switzerland, but also increasingly through what is called the European Know How Fund a lot of involvement in taking modern education into eastern Europe: Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, the Chechs, Slovakia, but also now very big programs operating in Singapore and Hong Kong. And increasingly there is this move to enable all of the study to be initiated down the Internet, but supplemented by the other forms of activity.

So it's an educational process which is now, as I say, moving into the Internet. I make reference there to supported distance learning. It's supported in the sense that it uses custom design materials of various sorts. Some of it is paper based. Some of it is clever, experimental home kits. One of the things that was said earlier on: it will never work for science. But they have designed a great many extremely clever packages which can be posted out which allow people to do small, supplementary experiments with video material which gives them more detailed information. There are also usually very well structured summer schools run all over Europe to which students can move to pick up particular elements. Of course the one thing that you hear most frequently from the people involved is that the contact with the students is not enough face to face, and it's quite clear that the students do value the face to face elements. Increasingly there's involvement now, much more of a dialogue. The second paragraph there is quite an important one. The links between the tutor and particularly between classmates-the sort of thing we heard those young people talking about yesterday--has become now an important part of the wallpaper of the Open University.

There are, give or take 300 courses available, not all of them yet available on the Internet, but gradually they are building. If you want to have a good browse around in the system, if you go to www.open.ac.uk there is a very comprehensive set of home pages on the Open University which tell you a great deal about how it operates, where it operates, how you access it, what it costs, what you can get from it. But on top of that I would commend to you three special initiatives which allow you to buy into their expertise very easily and very cheaply, and I'll run quickly through these.

One of them you can't quite buy into, but you may have partners who want to link to it. There is an initiative called the European Distance Education Network which links together a great many institutions, but it also brings in a lot of other deliverers who are involved in the game, and so you find that there are 170 institutions and individual members in 28 countries in Europe that belong to that. It is a subscriber system, so you can get into it very effectively. It is about sharing best practice, and there is so much to learn that we have to, I think, cast aside once and for all the old "not invented here" syndrome, because if you don't do that it is my belief that you'll be left behind. So the European Distance education is one of their very important supporting partnerships.

A second one is the International Center for Distance Learning. Again, a multi-part operation. It has a distance education data base which logs virtually all advertised courses available or known about. There's a regular updating process that comes with the subscription. There's a research library. There's an international resource center. And finally there are some journals in distance education, some of which you will know about, and certainly our publishing friends will be familiar with. But again, it is a short circuit route for you to gain a lot of knowledge quite quickly. Again, all the details are on the Internet site.

And finally, I'd mention one other. One of the things that we talked about yesterday--reference was made to by several speakers--was the dearth of good educational research in this and associated areas. Well, the pedagogy of distance education is important, and the Open University is one of the mentors of the European Associations for Research on Learning and Instruction. And within that there is a lot of activity that takes place, particularly focused on the problems, the pluses, the minuses, the difficulties, the ways forward which involve distance education. It trots around Europe, as you can see here, for laying on conferences. These may be conferences that some of you have attended. If you haven't or if your colleagues haven't, I would strongly recommend that they do.

If I have a worry at all about distance education with regard to my own institution, it is that we can't get there fast enough. I deploy progressively more and more resources into it, but the lead times are significant, and if there's anything we can do to shorten those lead times, it must help our own institutions. It must help the potential students. I dwelt upon many of the activities of the Open University simply to emphasize the fact that that is one of the ways which you may be able, or one of the resources you may be able, to draw upon to help you shorten your own lead times in what I think all of us judge--we wouldn't be here if we didn't judge that--all of us judge to be really a quite critically important educational development in the years that lie ahead. Thank you.



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Last modified: 26 January 1998