Titian's the Fall of Man: but who's the snake? Online learning?

Daniel, J. (2011)  20 Years of Distance Education in the Garden of EDEN: Good News and Bad News EDEN 20th Anniversary Conference: Learning and Sustainability: The New Ecosystem of Innovation and Knowledge, Dublin, 20 June

This keynote raises some interesting issues about distance education and online learning in particular. After congratulating EDEN, quite rightly, on creating an organization that bridges Eastern and Western Europe, John Daniel, the President of the Commonwealth of Learning, launches into a critique of the conservatism of the higher education system, in particular for not fully exploiting the potential of technology to reduce the costs or improve the effectiveness of learning. He argues a point he has made previously that higher education risks splitting into two camps: research universities that are publicly funded and teaching universities that are for-profit institutions, with the latter fully exploiting technology.

More interestingly, he launches into a criticism of more recent opposition to online learning and distance education at a governmental level. In particular he singles out Ethiopia, India and the United States for introducing government regulations that unduly restrict the potential for open and distance learning. He argues that because of some bad apples, some governments are throwing out the whole barrel. His response:

  • open and distance learning are essential if countries are to rapidly expand opportunities for learning; expanding the existing system (four new universities every week to meet the identified demand) is just not going to cut it
  • self-directed learning is an essential 21st century skill and open and distance learning strongly facilitate this
  • ODL is an effective mechanism for integrating ICTs into higher learning. Governments need to be reminded that ODL institutions have the muscle to innovate cost-effectively at scale
  • maintain strong and independent quality assurance agencies that have all higher education under their purview, public and private, classroom and distance. What matters is the quality of the output of higher education, not how it was offered or under what corporate structure.


It’s hard to argue against any of these points. However, the challenge still remains to demonstrate clearly that technology indeed can break the triangle of cost, quality and access. We will not get better quality and increased access with the same or less cost unless we radically change the dominant paradigm of classroom-based teaching so that the full potential of technology can be exploited. Specialized distance education institutions is one possible model, but we need other models as well that still remain to be invented.

Nevertheless it is refreshing to see a leader of an international, inter-governmental organization so strongly challenging in public mistaken policies at a governmental level.




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