Open Eye: A Commonwealth of Distance Learning

From The Vice-Chancellor
Last month delegates from nearly all of its 50-plus countries came together for the Commonwealth's celebration of the tenth anniversary of its open learning agency, the Commonwealth of Learning (COL). The event was held in Bandar Seri Begawan, capital of Brunei Darussalam. The Sultan of Brunei has given staunch financial support to COL from its inception although paradoxically, as the locals pointed out, the Government of Brunei does not yet recognise degrees earned through distance education.

Notwithstanding this small contradiction I celebrated COL's tenth birthday party with feelings of parental pride. The decision to create COL was taken at a meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Vancouver in 1987. Shortly afterwards I was asked to chair a committee to develop the concept for COL so that governments could sign a Memorandum of Understanding and commit funds to it. At the time I was President of Laurentian University in Ontario and I had previously been involved in the establishment of two of Canada's open universities, the Quebec Tele-universite and Alberta's Athabasca University.

Chairing the COL planning committee was a challenging assignment because of the diversity of views within the group and the tensions between humanitarian ideals and political realities. There was disagreement about the starting point.

The thinking behind the Commonwealth of Learning grew out of the work of the Commonwealth's group on student mobility. The economic trends of the 1970s and 1980s had made developing countries less wealthy and industrialised countries more self-absorbed. The mobility of students between Commonwealth countries declined.

Worried by this trend, with its inevitable consequences for the long- term weakening of the human glue that holds the Commonwealth together, the Commonwealth Secretariat began to explore a simple idea. If it could not move students to courses, why not move courses to students? A group explored this idea and its report, Towards a Commonwealth of Learning, was a key input to my committee. Its thrust was the creation of an open university of the Commonwealth making intensive use of satellite technology. My committee grappled with the tensions inherent in that concept.

First, should this project be hi-tech or low-tech? Second, was the aim to provide distance learning programmes for Commonwealth countries or to help them generate such programmes themselves? In terms of the old Chinese proverb, were we trying to provide people with fish or to teach them to fish? The international development agencies of Australia, Britain and Canada were clear about their answer.

They had seen too many examples of the failure of western technological solutions in the developing world. They believed that COL's most useful function would be to help Commonwealth countries develop an indigenous capacity for distance teaching.

A third tension was between multilateralism and bilateralism, or national interests and international collaboration. The industrialised Commonwealth countries did not wish to reduce their latitude for bilateral development deals. This had knock-on effects on India and Nigeria. Both countries had agreed to put hard currency into COL because they believed in its aims. However, given that the concept of COL was moving toward the generation of indigenous capacity and also that the industrialised Commonwealth was half-hearted about multilateralism, India and Nigeria began to urge that COL use their funds to create infrastructures in their countries.

We grappled with these choices and in 1989 Commonwealth governments signed up to the Memorandum of Understanding we proposed. But the tensions did not go away and COL's early years were not easy. Ten years on it was very gratifying to see that COL had come good under the current leadership of Malaysia's Raj Dhanarajan. At the tenth anniversary forum I dropped in on a well-attended and lively session that summed up the progress that COL had stimulated. I was the only person from the industrialised Commonwealth in the room. The subject was the use of distance learning to teach members of the security forces about human rights. Ten years ago I could not have imagined such a group discussing such a topic.

I also take particular pride in the contribution that the Open University has made to COL's development by providing an information service that enables people and institutions quickly to discover who else in the world is providing distance learning on a particular topic.