It's not who you know, but what you know

May 18, 2001

The Commonwealth of Learning backs access to knowledge, explains Gajaraj Dhanarajan

While the Education and Training for All challenge, agreed to by the international community, is largely the same since the Commonwealth of Learning was established 12 years ago, there have been dramatic changes in the delivery mechanisms available to address it. New technologies and pedagogies are offering solutions for closing the gap between the demand for and supply of this vital social service.

Global discussions - the World Education Forum/Education for All (Dakar, 2000), the Global Knowledge II Forum (Kuala Lumpur, 2000), the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Durban, 1999), the International Congress on Technical and Vocational Education (Seoul, 1999), Unesco's World Conference on Higher Education (Paris, 1998) and others - have reaffirmed the promise afforded by learning technologies and distance and open-learning strategies, including commonplace small media such as radio. Founded in 1987, the Commonwealth of Learning was inspired by the vision that the peoples of the Commonwealth must have access to knowledge, regardless of location or economic status. Member governments have given the COL a mandate and have provided core funding to encourage the development and sharing of open-learning and distance-education knowledge, materials, expertise, technologies and other resources. Working with and providing services to hundreds of institutions throughout the 54-member Commonwealth, the COL is helping to raise the capacities of developing nations to meet the demands for improved access to education and training.

The COL's three-year plan 2000-03 was presented to and endorsed by Commonwealth ministers of education last November. Over the past decade, the COL has been active in higher education but has lately intensified its work with Commonwealth governments and institutions in areas such as literacy, basic education, gender-specific programmes, technical and vocational education, teacher training, and continuing and professional education. Often in partnership with international agencies and always in partnership with local agencies, the COL has added value to national efforts, contributing knowledge and providing information on distance and open learning.

The COL recognises knowledge as key to cultural, social and economic development, and it is committed to assisting Commonwealth member governments to take full advantage of open, distance and technology-mediated learning strategies to provide increased and equitable access to education and training for all citizens.

The COL embraces the internationalisation of education but does not endorse its over-commercialisation. As chief executive, my first responsibility is to the people of the developing countries of the Commonwealth, through their governments, and it is my strong belief that many offshore and online education programmes that have been launched in recent years do not serve the interests of the citizens of those countries, in terms of relevance, quality and cost. In many developing economies, higher education is seen as a key component of nation-building, but offshore curricula rarely address local human capital development needs. In fact, the increasing availability of offshore degrees will very likely provide an avenue for the privileged class - those who can pay the high fees - to find jobs away from home, exacerbating the brain drain that exists in certain countries. There is also a growing international recognition of the need to be mindful of the implications of this development and of the potential impact of calls to make education simply another tradable service. A failure to give primary importance to its nature as a public good risks affording less-than-scrupulous institutions, seeking to peddle second-rate education to the uninformed, a refuge in bodies such as the World Trade Organisation.

Development of local capacities must include making quality education accessible to those unable to attend formal classes for any number of reasons. Online education is not the only solution. There are several very good open universities in the developing world that are leaders in taking knowledge to learners through a variety of methods, including programmes that are supported at the village level by tutors or mentors. Many conventional universities have also now expanded to offer more flexibility. We should encourage all universities to become "dual-mode" institutions.

At the request of Commonwealth education ministers, the COL is also working on the establishment of a virtual university system to serve the numerous small states of the Commonwealth. Such an initiative would certainly involve consortia of local institutions. In the current three-year plan, the COL sets out four key roles for itself, which aim to improve locally accessible formal and non-formal education and facilitate the sharing of resources. The roles are:

  • A catalyst for collaboration that seeks to marshal the wealth of experience, talent and resources available for the Commonwealth's benefit. It pervades all of the COL's actions. Collaboration is secured through the COL's participation and/or initiation of regional and international forums to help build bridges among those governments, intergovernmental organisations, non-governmental organisations, business and professional bodies sharing a common purpose
  • A resource for training, focusing on developing national capabilities in distance and open learning
  • A capacity builder, designed to assist countries to use distance and open learning to develop capacity in other areas
  • An information and knowledge provider, with the COL taking full advantage of modern communications tools to facilitate the collection and dissemination of knowledge about open and distance learning and its practical application. The COL also continues to use conventional means of sharing such knowledge, information and advice to ensure that those not yet possessing reliable internet and related services are included.

The plan also outlines the COL's efforts to diversify funding sources and increase the leveraging of core funding. Our fee-for-service affiliate, COL International, plays a major role in this strategy as it secures contracts to which it can bring the same level of professionalism and engagement as the COL has traditionally brought to non-contractual work. With ministers of education endorsing these directions at their meeting in Halifax, Canada, late last year, they expressed their confidence that COL's next decade of service to the Commonwealth will be even more effective than its first, permitting it to enable the Commonwealth to draw on opportunities afforded by distance, open and technology-mediated learning to extend access to quality education, even to the remotest regions and the most disadvantaged populations (girls and women, marginalised males and those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder).

Gajaraj Dhanarajan is president of the Commonwealth of Learning.

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