Flexible friend for when time is not on our side

October 26, 2001

When we set up the Advisory Centre for Education in a room in a Cambridge backstreet, I was naive enough to think that Cambridge University would be happy to foster the world's first Open University - a dual university teaching a second shift of students in the vacations. Talk about lead balloons! Instead, I was shunned as an impractical maverick.

We quickly decided that if there was to be an open university, it would have to be free standing, not part of an existing foundation. The best propaganda for it would be to show on a small scale how it might work. Hence the establishment of the National Extension College in 1963 as a "pilot project", teaching through correspondence courses, broadcasting and face-to-face tuition. Cambridge continues to avoid open learning, but the NEC is flourishing.

Tomorrow, Lady Blackstone will inaugurate the NEC's new campus near the centre of Cambridge. The site will also be the base for the International Extension College, the International Research Foundation for Open Learning and, in time, other educationally innovative bodies.

Why has open learning expanded so strongly throughout much of the world? In developing countries, there is often nothing else on offer for people in secondary and higher education. The kind of institution supported by the International Extension College in India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Zambia, has been the means for people getting a first chance at further education. In post-industrial countries, open learning has been a reaction and correction to societies stricken by hurry sickness.

The haunting danger for this century is the fragmentation of people's worlds by the accelerating proliferation of choice: dazzling choice in the supermarkets; of places to go; of men and women to be with; of TV and radio channels; and a dazzling choice of ideas. Dazzling but also disturbing to many individual people who are lost in the complexity. How can sense be made of it?

An adult intent on further education has to become a juggler, juggling time among choices that pull in many directions. It becomes ever more difficult to sustain attendance in a class at fixed times every day, week or month. Education needs more and more to be time-flexible if it is to hold students and encourage them to join in the understanding of a growing body of knowledge that separates but could unite.

New technologies have to be used for education to counter fragmentation, pulling together an intellectual universe that, like the universe itself, is flying apart as it expands. Open learning, as its skills increase, can be one of the means of bringing things together, running with the grain of modern technology to connect and unify.

Within the threat of fragmentation, there is a particular danger - that people whose development has been held back in their early years could fail to cope with the complexity and the choices that go with the "hundreds-and-thousands" society. They are the socially disabled. A prime task of open learning should be to help them.

Technology cannot walk alone. It needs the human touch. Students need as near as possible a companion, another human being who cares about them. Some learning is best done in groups or at least with one other person. It is not enough to have occasional counselling. It should be continuous and two-way.

Secondary schools have been generally the great disappointment of the 20th century. They have been too big, too demoralised, distanced from true learning by the national curriculum and the hurriedness and uniformity that it imparts, too restricting for young adults. The time will come when the compulsory school age is lowered to 14 and, building on the government's Connexions scheme, more teenagers averse to school will be coupled with an older person as their education companion to introduce them to learning.

Lifelong learning will use the resources of open learning around a core of human relationships. It will become more common to accompany ordinary marriages and partnerships with several long-term educational partnerships, across ages and genders, between two people who hit it off and who recognise each other as searchers in common. Education companions will be each other's motivation.

The NEC could follow the precedent of marriage bureaux and open the first bureau for education companions. I would add to the mantra of open learning - "open as to people, places, methods and ideas" - open to experiment, especially in anything that adds to its humanity.

Lord Young of Dartington is, with Brian Jackson, the joint founder of the NEC. The open learning campus in Cambridge is to be called the Michael Young Centre.

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