Open and distance learning is the future. David Hardy explains how Europe is overcoming the hurdles
Higher education announces revolution more often than it achieves it. This is hardly surprising given its position as, in effect, one of the last nationalised industries.
Unfortunately, in the absence of any coherent policy, this anomalous position has led to a succession of ill-conceived, short-term funding projects - with open and distance learning particularly hard hit. The profile of open and distance learning has been raised, but in a way that has caused fragmentation rather than coherence, rendering progress unsustainable.
The potential benefits of technology and e-learning are too important to be thwarted by shortsighted public policies and inappropriate funding mechanisms. Demand is rising for open and distance learning, supported by the increasing use of communication and information technology.
All the open universities and 150 traditional universities across Europe, represented by the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities, demonstrate the need for a coherent strategy rather than ad hoc approaches, and for sustainable investment in new opportunities. They are responding to a customer-led agenda and, rather than relying on government funding, are actively engaging with the private sector.
But the reality is that most still struggle. A massive amount of internal change is needed, which is not addressed solely by funding and certainly not by rhetoric.
Ideas presented at the EADTU's millennium conference in Paris, hosted by the major French distance-learning institutions, responded to these issues. Members are engaged in building a Europe-wide knowledge base of operational questions that range from technology through to subject-specific elements such as how best to support distance learners. Without open and distance learning, the dream of a European area of higher education, set out in the original Sorbonne declaration of May 1998 and the Bologna declaration of June 1999, will remain just that - a dream.
So, to reaffirm their central role in the process of pursuing that dream, the universities all signed up to the EADTU's Sorbonne 2000 declaration.
In its response to the declaration, it was refreshing to hear the European Commission reaffirm that public/private partnerships are a key ingredient for success. Many in North America and Australia, and indeed the United Kingdom's own Open Learning Foundation, have seen the value in enabling the private sector to invest. The OLF's commercial offshoot, OLC The Open Learning Co Ltd, has already proved the worth of the approach by opening new opportunities for the foundation's 40 members through e-enhanced learning in Latin America and Southeast Asia.
EADTU members represent an enormous capacity for lifelong learning - already about 1 million students. New developments challenge the universities: the still-growing demand for higher education and training, the growth of knowledge, the advent of more and better information and communication technologies, and the likely harmonisation of national higher education structures across Europe.
The technologies are a lever in the further development of higher education. But their potential will be realised only if their use is based on sound educational concepts. Bill Gates has said that the best educational software he can produce is but a tool in the hands of a good teacher.
Relatively few people have experience of implementing open and distance learning institution-wide. Materials are expensive to develop and need large (or rich) markets to bring in sufficient returns to finance updates and further development. Few European universities are large enough to do this alone. They recognise that the loss of a degree of institutional sovereignty over materials development, buying from elsewhere, enables them to place more emphasis on what is really distinctive - staff/student interaction.
Technology is even more expensive than materials development, with even less available expertise. This is where the need for a clear division of duties between a university and other strategic partners manifests itself. It is where partnership moves from the typical peer-to-peer approach so beloved of universities, to one where complementary knowledge and skills count.
Because of shortsighted funding policies, open and distance learning is still marginal in most universities - a cottage industry run by a few enthusiasts. The answer to these challenges is to place the learner and the learning process at the centre of institutional strategy and for institutions to be confident in their roles and to take the debate on teaching and learning to their governments and to the European Commission. It is where membership organisations such as the EADTU provide invaluable assistance.
David Hardy is president of the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities and of the UK's Open Learning Foundation.