Gajaraj Dhanarajan (left) argues that though the Commonwealth of Learning venture has its risks, not taking part is not an option
When Commonwealth education ministers met in Gaborone, Botswana, a year ago, they very warmly complimented a modestly sized and financed Commonwealth agency located in Vancouver for its "work and accomplishments".
Recognising the "cost-effectiveness and efficiencies of distance education", ministers "expressed a desire to see the Commonwealth of Learning play a significant role in their use of technology to enhance access to education for their peoples". Later the same year in Edinburgh heads of governments of the Commonwealth endorsed the sentiments of their education ministers and confirmed a desire to provide continuing support for the agency to develop Commonwealth capacity in distance, open and technologically mediated education.
Tony Blair, UK prime minister, announced a special grant of Pounds 500,000 for the agency to study the use of learning technologies in improving reading and literacy skills. Quietly and with determination the agency has been helping Commonwealth governments and many of their institutions to change the educational landscape in terms of delivery methods, making distance education a mainstream instead of a side-stream provision as it was at COL's birth some ten years ago.
COL continues to support member states in their desire to use the newer digital technologies as well as older, time-tested open and distance learning methods of delivering education in most of the developing parts of the Commonwealth. While the organisation is especially focused on the 34 small, mostly island, nations of the Commonwealth, its impact as a change agent has also been felt in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, South Africa and many others. For the bigger as well as the smaller nations, travelling the technological highway promises to be full of opportunities but at the same time loaded with threats.
The opportunities include increasing educational access quickly and even cheaply, tapping into global intellectual resources, improving the quality of the academic environment and putting the learner in control of learning for the first time ever. Threats, on the other hand, come in the form of competition from mature and sophisticated players, when the field is not level in so many aspects; the angst of academic staff at the perceived loss of academic freedom and autonomy; commoditisation of knowledge into another consumer product and a fear of yet another essential and necessary social service becoming a victim of globalisation.
There is also the high cost of up-front capital investment in people, appliances and connections. Despite these threats, not being participants in the world of the learning technologies is no longer an option, as education ministers recognised in Botswana. Agencies such as COL are therefore seen as necessities to keep countries informed, help build partnerships and alliances, and provide training and other knowledge resources.
One of COL's most cherished assets has been the enormously rich experience of many Commonwealth open universities and external studies departments in taking learning outside of campus walls. It is this asset that COL has tapped into in its efforts to help those other Commonwealth nations increase access, improve equity and bring about a culture of good practice as they embarked on designing and delivering academic courses and programmes using distance education methods.
Encouraged and facilitated by COL, technologists from many parts of the Commonwealth met recently in Vancouver to establish the Commonwealth Electronic Network for School Education. Cense (www.col.org/cense) envisages the development of separate national Internet grids that can carry a full range of information, teaching and learning resources and facilities for teachers, students, educational administrators and others to share and participate in a digital and borderless world of learning. It will be a framework for a supranational grid that will enable a Commonwealth-wide sharing of intellectual resources.
With a similar aim of encouraging collaboration but working in print rather than a digital environment, COL and seven southern African ministries of education have embarked on an in service teacher training programme. The plan is to upgrade the qualifications of upper primary and lower secondary science, technology and mathematics teachers using printed self-instruction materials. Teacher trainers from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana are designing a curriculum to transform these into multimedia products. Once completed, the products of this project will be available for use in most of sub-Saharan Commonwealth Africa.
Training teachers in Africa is one side of the story, while training business and public administrators in the South Asian subcontinent, using distance education, is another. The national open universities of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have embarked on a collaborative programme to train managers in the public and private sector domains at masters level.
The ultimate intention of this project is to have a Commonwealth master of business administration or master of public administration available to students from anywhere in the Commonwealth at an affordable cost.
Over the past ten years COL has gained considerable experience in arranging partnerships and alliances to deliver courses and programmes such as these. Some 60 students from 18 Commonwealth nations have completed or are near to completing their masters degree in distance education. The courses originate at the Indira Gandhi National Open University of India, and support for learners is provided by tutors from local institutions, trained by COL. Three Canadian universities are working in collaboration with the University of the West Indies to upgrade certificate and diploma holders in hospitality management, information technology and education in three Caribbean nations under the Canada Caribbean Distance Education Scholarship Programme. A professional development programme in legislative drafting for lawyers has been in operation for the past two years with students from a number of Commonwealth countries participating, while discussions to train junior surgeons using digital and video technologies are in progress.
Besides brokering courses and programmes, COL also trains distance educators in the Commonwealth - some 700 of them in the past ten years. It sets up and demonstrates innovative applications of technology, from a suitcase-sized radio transmitting station to streaming video on the Internet. It provides information on all aspects of distance and open learning through a highly sophisticated web-based information centre (www. col.org/irc). And it brings together practitioners in the field of distance and open learning fairly regularly at national and regional forums, to update and exchange knowledge and enable nations to develop policy frameworks for the orderly development of distance and open education in their communities. But more needs to be done, if all of us truly wish to see all forms of equality, but especially equality of educational access, becoming the credo of the next decade.
To celebrate ten years since establishment and to bind educational innovators of the Commonwealth into an even stronger network, COL, in association with the University of Brunei Darussalam and the education ministry of Brunei, will organise the first Pan Commonwealth Forum on Distance and Open Learning in Bandar Seri Begawan in March next year (www.col.org/forum). Britain's secretary of state for international development,Clare Short, will be one of a number of keynote presenters at the meeting.
Dato' Professor Gajaraj Dhanarajan is president and chief executive officer of the Commonwealth of Learning. For further information on COL you can visit its website at www.col.org