Universities will need to grasp the nettle of open learning if they are to survive. Tim Greenhalgh reports.
Corporation campuses, the global academies, learning cultures, mutual profit were some of the buzzwords helping to focus the minds of academic and business delegates at the World Opening Learning conference in London.
The conference last month touched an academic nerve or two with its emphasis on the rapid evolution of learning cultures that needed to address supranational training needs of business - including that of Higher Education UK plc. It also served to underline the creative tensions of a closer coincidence of interest between academic institutions and corporate business. Played alongside were the often unresolved sub-texts of course ownership and intellectual property rights, quality control, payment mechanisms and appropriate technologies.
The Wembley venue served to point up the competitive spirit of the age with the need for cooperation between players for the successful transition to a new culture that better serves the needs of citizens in a global economy. The icons for the three-day event were learning organisations and learning cultures and their place in the knowledge society. Much was said about delivery mechanisms for the downsizing age: servicing companies that were lean, fit, cost-conscious, and with distributed structures. Open learning, according to this script, is essential if societies are to embrace change and people are to be employable.
But it was not all employer-led. Speakers and delegates returned time and again to the perspective and experience of the student/learner/user. The main theme was the need for close tutorial support and other devices to sustain the individual outside the traditional structure.
Andrina McCormack, programme director at Northern College, brought an experienced educational psychologist's point of view in a session on "How universities and colleges can market open learning to businesses for mutual profit".
Students' comments on seven distance-learning postgraduate courses have revealed potential structural weakspots in systems that address needs of full-time professionals seeking advancement. Email and conferencing that strengthened peer-group support is backed by a learning network that offers Telnet access to library catalogues and resources from the World Wide Web.
Motivation is reduced by pressure of work and financial difficulties but can be strengthened by support from colleagues, well-planned study time and tutors who have received in-service training for the role.
For Dr McCormack, the mutual profit is measured less in terms of the bottom line than by the changes in knowledge, attitudes and values of employers and staff involved in the programmes.
The ever-narrowing gap between the needs and visions of business and those in education was highlighted by Sir John Daniel, vice chancellor of The Open University, in his keynote speech. He shared the platform as co-sponsor with Adair Turner, director general of the Confederation of British Industry and (by ISDN link to Paris) with Keith Todd, chief executive officer of ICL and honorary treasurer of the OU.
Sir John reminded delegates that the OU was launched in the week the Apollo astronauts returned from the first moon landing in 1969 and that the first chancellor Lord Crowther had identified its distinctive mission: "Open as to people, open as to places, open as to methods, and open as to ideas".
"The Open University, as Britain's largest educational and training institution, is also a substantial business as well as an asset to British industry in the era of the knowledge society." Sir John said that the example of the OU was relevant to business as it offered quality, scale and economy based on "the tripod" of first-rate materials, close personal support and slick logistics. The university offered excellence in abundance evidenced by the national assessment of quality in teaching. "We have 150,000 students this year. That means there are more students taking excellent-rated courses in the OU than in dozens of other universities put together."
With quality went scale and economy. "Depending on the subject, OU students cost the taxpayer between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of the average in the rest of higher education. That result carries over into open learning for business. Coopers and Lybrand did a study that showed open learning costs 40 per cent less than the conventional approaches companies use for training."
"Knowledge media is the name we use at the OU for the new technologies that result from the convergence of computing, telecommunications and the learning sciences. My colleague Marc Eisenstadt invented the term because he and others are convinced that these technologies have the potential to change fundamentally the relationship between knowledge and people." Universities and business should develop strategies for using technologies in open learning. Among those technologies, one killer application stood out. "It reflects the fact that the greatest contribution to computing in the past decade has not been human-to-machine communication but human-to-human communication. Computer-mediated conferencing is really turning OU students on.
"We have 17,000 students networked from home, up from 5,000 last year. Completion rates seem to have increased and even the face-to-face sessions are better because students know each other through the computer conferences."
This technology is among those planned for the next World Open Learning Conference that will link and interact with a sister event in Chicago next year, according to Mel Stride, managing director of CII, the conference organisers. The aim is to allow a fuller exchange between people with differing perspectives - the United States techno-driven model and the use-analysis model of the United Kingdom, for example. Satellite links, Internet real-time and asynchronous discussion groups and videoconferencing are also scheduled.
The corporate culture technologies of satellite link were used as an example of distance compression in an illuminating open session that once again demonstrated the first law of distance communication: "Things fall apart." Once the technical hitches were solved, delegates were able to question two leading open learning advocates from the US, Michael Marquardt, professor of human resource development at George Washington University, and Steven Lerman, director of the Center for Educational Computing Initiatives at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Perhaps the experience of a partial link failure reminded both speakers of the tentative nature of distance communication but both were sanguine about the uses of various technologies for open learning. Some delegates expressed serious concerns about the misuse of technology and the failure to appreciate the timeless means by which people learned: more by informal contacts and information exchange within groups. One suggested that 80 to 90 per cent of all technology-led teaching was not absorbed or applied by students. They teased out concerns and views on the need to configure culturally appropriate courseware to address a global audience and to develop methods to ensure quality. Universities may have to develop associations with "structural consultants" able to test the links in courseware, as Professor Lerman believes.
At George Washington University, according to Professor Marquardt, 75 per cent of students work full-time and 50 per cent will receive tuition by distance learning within five years. For delegate Keith Davies, founding president of the European Lifelong Learning Initiative, this is enough to promote the growth of new consortia to accelerate the construction of the knowledge society, "rather than the tried, trusted but maybe a little rusted institutions".
From Professor Lerman's perspective, universities will need to come to terms with the reality that supply-side economics are in operation in the sector. Universities will need to respond to the demands of business and the new technology developments are just the beginning of the most fundamental changes. Yet universities are often steeped in tradition and slow to change.
MIT's response has been to open a range of learning channels, including a masters programme for people in full-time work where three-quarters of the courseware is delivered by videoconferencing. "Corporations are much leaner now and cannot afford the luxury of employees going on courses."
Allied to this move is the development of strategic partnerships where MIT will construct degree programmes that suit more closely the needs of partner corporations. A full range of multimedia techniques will be employed, including the Internet, as a delivery mechanism. Payment mechanisms embrace corporate site licences for individual courses with a fixed fee for any number of students within the corporation.
Professor Lerman is also circumspect in his advocacy of cutting-edge distance learning methods for developing countries. "Remember, the earliest Christians got the best lions." His advice is to "keep it simple", perhaps exploiting established techniques such as videotape sessions with a facilitator.
The rapid acceleration of technological change and its attendant cultural shifts have prompted supranational responses, among them the European Lifelong Learning Initiative. Norman Longworth, its director of development, said in a later session that the agrarian and industrial revolution had spanned less than two centuries and the profound changes in the past 25 years had seen the rise of the information society.
Now we are witnessing the development of the knowledge economy. This will bring about immense cultural change. "Eighty per cent of jobs that will exist in ten years do not exist now. And a recent sample poll of 5,000 people showed that 37 per cent of them had no form of education or training post-school," he said.
There is an urgent need to allow people to acquire new skills to work, according to Mr Longworth. The speed of change means that courses are getting difficult to validate. The process is taking longer than the "shelf life" of the skills being validated. So "accredited learning" is itself open to question.
In long-term restructuring models such as the "learning cities" experiments, more open and socially connected approaches were being tested, he said. "Communities need cultural awareness and a learning regime to ensure that they fit into a knowledge economy and a learning society."
These learning communities will arise from a cooperative effort that ensures the transfer of skills and knowledge in ways that move beyond the simply vocational. Articles 126 and 1 of the Maastricht Treaty emphasised the different nature and needs of vocational and liberal learning. These could not be conflated and the challenge was to maintain this essential cultural difference, he said.
Proponents of open learning in the US emphasised the technologies employed, particularly the "information superhighway". But the European Union properly stressed the social issues rather than the technological, "the information society".
Higher education's flight from deficit to the pursuit of profit is marked by a growing faith in the idea of the "virtual university". For Andrew Wolfe, pro vice chancellor for development at Thames Valley University the cut in central government funding to universities "is not seen as a threat but as an opportunity". Developments in open learning at TVU, including the proto-virtual university in Project Hercules, had served to turn a deficit potential of Pounds 2.1 million into a profit of the same order.
Mr Wolfe's education material is a marketable commodity specifically to be sold to commercial consumers. There are queues for TVU's services in places such as Poland, South Africa, Malaysia and Chile. TVU's experience at the hard edge of competition is at odds with that of many other delegates but few would deny the revolutionary ideas and practice in education that they see and take part in.
Open Learning's Ten Commandments
* Partnership with business * Trained tutors * One-to-one communication * One-to-many communication * Quality content, accreditation and research * Peer work support * Employer support * Appropriate technology * Cultural awareness * Mutual profit.