New head will extend learning body's reach

June 25, 2004

One of Sir John Daniel's first acts when he took over the presidency of the Vancouver-based Commonwealth of Learning this month was to ditch the reference on his business cards to the open and distance-learning organisation's capacity-building role.

His determination to have a strong focus on development is apparent in this rejection of the standard strapline, "building capacity in open and distance learning".

Sir John said the average person has no idea what "capacity-building" means, and it also sounded as though open and distance learning is the end rather than the means.

Col's governing board has in the past accused it of having "too many projects all over the map", but Sir John believes it now has a solid agenda for its work while retaining the capacity to cope with new needs and opportunities.

He has just received letters from other agencies - the World Health Organisation and the UN High Commission on Refugees.

"They say: 'We have worked with Col and find it highly effective and switched on. It delivers and understands the world', which for a tiny organisation I was rather pleased to read."

Sir John has no intention of producing a blueprint for Col's future work.

"I've always taken the view that unless you inherit a complete disaster, which luckily I never have, it's sensible to flow with what's happening for a bit before you start talking grandly about visions and new directions.

"I've changed it to 'open and distance learning for development'. I think that symbolises as well as anything that it's open and distance learning for something. I think we should always look at things through the lens of development.

"Let's face it, the open universities of the world can perfectly well get on and collaborate without having to have Col in the middle. But India and Pakistan may need a bit more help to get their rural education going."

Sir John stressed that, while India may need help to deal with illiteracy problems, it is a world leader in open and distance learning, and he believes it will be a key country in supporting south-south cooperation:

"We've been taking courses from India and using them in Africa on the theory that the chances are they're better fitted to the African environment than what might come out of Britain or Canada, plus they're a lot cheaper," he said.

Open and distance learning schemes have so far achieved their greatest successes in higher education, but Sir John sees them as crucial in training the number of teachers needed to achieve education for all. He said: "I feel very strongly that distance learning is a different approach rather than a different technology. You don't need to have any flashing lights or screens."

"It's very easy for developing countries to get hypnotised by what they read of broadband technologies and the internet, to believe that they are going to be left behind and that they can't really do anything unless they have all this fancy stuff.

"A very important role of ours is to show that this is nonsense, and they can actually be perfectly effective if they use the infrastructures and capabilities they have intelligently, rather than wait for Bill Gates to come along and equip them with computers wall to wall."

Sir John helped establish the Télé-université in Quebec in the 1970s before he became president of Ontario's Laurentian University, which runs both traditional and distance courses. He was appointed vice-chancellor of the UK's Open University in 1990.

He comes to Col from Unesco, where he has been assistant director-general for education, but he chaired Col's planning committee in 1988.

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