Reimagining Open and Distance Learning

 by Jon Gregson, CDE Visiting Fellow.  March 2012.

Several years ago, I was involved in a CDE funded project looking at the potential for use of mobile phones in the context of the postgraduate distance learning programme run at the time by Imperial College London, which now forms part of the SOAS CeDEP programme.  This research project was carried out in partnership with University of Pretoria, who at the time were establishing a reputation for innovative use of SMS on phones to provide logistical and administrative support to distance learners.  Text messages were sent to encourage students to submit assignments by the due date, to notify them when materials have been despatched to them, and remind them of examination registration deadlines.

The project I was involved in tried to take this a stage further, by exploring the potential of small screen Nokia N70 phones for enhancing provision of tutoring and content.  Short audio files, and videos of tutors talking about the course were put on the SD card storage that the phones had, and students were also encouraged to make use the audio and photographic capabilities of the phones within their assignments.  At the time cost and infrastructure realistically constrained uptake, but we deliberately worked with a phone model with functionality that we thought would be more widespread and affordable within a few years.  Our focus was on students who lived and worked in developing countries and who often travelled into field areas, and could not easily transport computers or lots of books.

Since that time, the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure in Africa has been changing dramatically, and the ideas we were exploring then seem outdated now, with all sorts of applications now possible on mobile devices.   Use of mobile phones has also spread dramatically, with 3G services now quite widespread across the continent.  Submarine cables providing fast global internet connections with Africa have run a ring around the coastline, and are now rapidly spreading their links inland.  Perhaps however it will be the use of internet on mobile phones and mobile devices like tablet PCs and iPads that will make the biggest difference, as new ‘apps’ are developed with the local context in mind.  ‘Digital inclusion’ remains a major challenge, and this includes the need to address both literacy and ‘information literacy’ which can be considered to be the skills needed to find and make use of relevant information and knowledge services.

 Fast forward to 2012, and it is interesting that phrases such as ‘tomorrow today’ and ‘reimagining development’ and words like ‘disruptive’ are taking on new importance nuances.  What does the future hold and what could we do better and differently, that we should prepare for now ?  With such questions in mind, on behalf of CDE i attended the recent ‘Learning without frontiers, 2012 conference’.  The focus of the conference was not on ODL as such, but this conference has always had a ‘disruptive’ stance, and put forward people willing to innovate and challenge the norms.

 In terms of motivational speakers Ellen McCarthur, the record breaking round the world yachtswoman was particularly impressive, challenging the idea of a linear economy, and encouraging conference participants to think about resource limitation as a systemic problem, requiring a redesigned circular economy that does things differently from the design stage, rather than focus on recycling.  The implications of this thinking for distance learning are not entirely clear, though perhaps course content and the way we produce and deliver courses need to be thought about in new ways, with the resources we draw on taken more into the equation.  There is a strong case for ODL being marketed as a very green approach to education, but this also needs to be thought about more in relation to the technologies we use.

 The buzz as it has been for some years was on the power of the new mobile devices, and how best to prepare materials for different mobile platforms (Android, iphone, blackberry and the web, with HTML5 just around the corner) and address the ongoing instructional design challenges of small screen.  Various user friendly authoring tools for multiple platforms were on show that could interface with learning environments like MOODLE (for example ‘Gomo’ produced by Epic).  Alongside these current developments, the potential for 3D and holographic TV and 3D printers and education got my mind thinking about what kind of ODL tutor avatars and 3D materials might be traversing future internets and walking and residing in distant living rooms in ten years time!  Exciting times ahead maybe for interactive learner centred approaches for remote and mobile learners.  How soon will this type of future reach us I wonder?

 Other interesting insights on trends came from Lord Martin Rees (cosmologist) who highlighted the increasing importance of simulations in learning, and of the role of data mining and mashing in providing new routes to discoveries, with an emerging role for ‘citizen science’.  Elsewhere the news that Stanford University had recently streamed a free examined open access course live, with 150,000 signing up and 20,000 completing it.

 Whatever the future holds, there is much that can be done now to revitalise the approaches we take.  I was particularly impressed by a presentation given by Jesse Schell (a former Creative Director of the Disney Imagineering Virtual Reality Studio) which stressed what most people want but don’t often get in their education environments – an authentic experience that is beautiful, customised, shared and real.  The implications of this are that more effort is needed in the way we design materials in print, online and for mobile devices.  We need to design our courses in ways which are customisable to different learners, that engage students in a way that enables them to find relevance for their learning in their context, and encourages them to share this more widely.  Back in 2008, one of the main things that excited me from have distance learning students using mobile technologies, was the potential role they could play in capturing and sharing insights from their context, and contributing this contextual knowledge into the knowledge repositories in a way that would support development of more interesting and up to date collaborative learning activities.  University of London International Programmes, with their truly global community of ODL students are uniquely well placed to lead the way in transforming the ways in which we learn.

Useful links from Learning Without Frontiers ( 

Conrad Wolfram, Mathematician & Founder, Wolfram Research Europe:  

Ellen MacCarthur, Sailor and Founder of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation:  

Jesse Schell, Chief Executive & Creative DIrector, Schell Games:

Mitchel Rensink, Director, Lifelong Kindergarten, MIT Media Lab:  

Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal:  

Paul Howard-Jones, Neuroscientist & Senior Lecturer, Bristol University:

Ray Kurzweil, Inventor and Futurist:

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