Wei, Runfang (2008) China’s Radio and TV Universities and the British Open University: A Comparative Study Nanjing China: Yilin Press

This has been sitting on my desk for a long time, waiting for me to review it. That was a mistake. I should have read it thoroughly when I first received it.

First it is an extremely accurate account of the philosophical, social and economic context in which both these institutions have developed. The book shows remarkable scholarship and some very interesting comparisons between and perceptions about not only the two distance teaching universities, but also the major philosophical and ideological thinking that underpins higher education in general in these two very different countries. As an example, consider this extract (p.329), which follows a detailed examination of the changing philosophies and ideologies of higher education from earliest times to the modern day in both China and Britain:

‘”The essential difference between capital and socialist societies with respect to economic growth and development is the extent to which national policies and individual behaviour are centrally planned and controlled by the state.” (Fagerlind and Saha, 1989). As the proportion of stakeholders in the higher education system grows, the centrality of the system to the society and its basic institutions increases, to the point where the system becomes a quasi-public utility. At that point, boundaries between higher education and the political system blur as higher education becomes a central venue for the achievement of public policy goals, and the faculty becomes the servant of a new academic order with new rules, new opportunities, and new dangers (Trow, 1973). No matter whether it is in socialist China or in capitalist UK, their only difference is the degree to which each higher education system is centrally controlled.’ [My emphasis]

I was also fascinated by her discussion of the differences between Western and Chinese ‘theories’ of distance education. Now I have never been a great fan of distance education ‘theory.’ For me, distance education is just another way of delivering education. It can be behaviourist, constructivist, individual, social, interactive or passive, with or without teacher presence. (Now ‘good’ distance education is another matter, but that is driven by theories of teaching and learning, not by theories of distance education). If there is an underlying construct behind distance education, it is that distance education changes and develops according to the media and technologies available at the time.

Runfung Wei though argues that there is also a cultural dimension to distance education theory:

‘Practice and theory of distance education are Western phenomena, and when they are transplanted into another culture, they are bound to cause conflict between the eastern and western educational systems. The job of distance education researchers is not to dodge the alienation caused by the collision, but to face it and find out the reason why, so as to improve and enrich the theory of distance education.’

However, for me the real conflict is not in the theory of distance education, but in cultural differences in teaching and learning. Nevertheless Runfang Wei challenges us all to rethink our conceptions of distance education, open learning (another interesting discussion in her book), educational technology, and different approaches to teaching and learning, within a multicultural but globalised world.

This book will be of value to anyone wishing to understand in depth either the British Open University or the profoundly different Chinese Radio and Television Universities, the historical and philosophical development of higher education in both countries, and the cultural and social similarities and differences between the two systems.

David Brigham, State University of New York, Empire State College has also reviewed this book for IRRODL.

Brigham, D. (2009) Book Review: IRRODL, Vol. 10, No. 4

Books on DE theory in waste paper basket
I have never been a great fan of distance education 'theory.'


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