July 20, 2018

Book review: Open and Distance Non-formal Education in Developing Countries

A mobile school for Delhi street children run by Butterflies. Click to see video

Latchem, C. (2018) Open and Distance Non-formal Education in Developing Countries Springer: Singapore

The author

I was about to review this book when I was informed of the death of Colin Latchem, its author.

Colin was an Australian consultant, researcher and writer in the field of open and distance learning.  In the 1970s, he was a pioneer in the UK in the development of educational television and learning resources for universities.

He emigrated to Australia in 1982 to become head of the Teaching Learning Group at Curtin University, Perth, a centre responsible for academic staff development, educational technology and open and distance learning. Over the years he became the ‘go-to’ person about open and distance education in South East Asia. He received the Charles A Wedemeyer award in 2002 for best book of the year on open and distance education. He was also co-editor of the SpringerBriefs series on Open and Distance Education. He was formerly the Asia-Pacific Corresponding Editor of The British Journal of Educational Technology.

Colin was a good friend and colleague whom I have known for over 40 years. I cannot think of a more appropriate way to celebrate a true scholar and gentleman than to review his final work.

Definition of open and distance non-formal education (ODL NFE)

Latchem does not provide a precise definition of non-formal education, but distinguishes non-formal learning from informal learning (the spontaneous, incidental acquisition of knowledge) and formal learning provided by schools, colleges and universities. Non-formal learning sits somewhere in between, concerned with providing lifelong learning in support of social equality, employment and development for those denied formal education. It may be provided through NGOs, international or government agencies, employers or social organisations such as community groups.

In open and distance education most of the teaching is conducted by some provider removed in time and space from the learner, using content and approaches that are openly accessible, enabling learners to learn individually or collaboratively at the time and place of their choosing.

The importance of open and distance education for non-formal education

 Some of the figures Latchem provides about the need for non-formal education are staggering: 

  • 263 million children and youth did not have access to schools in 2014
  • 130 million girls are denied the right to formal education, and are four times more likely to be denied education than boys of the same socio-economic group
  • 758 million adults aged 15 years and older remain illiterate, of which two-thirds are women 
  • there are 60 million refugees or displaced persons without access to formal education
  • it would take an extra US$40 billion to provide 12 years of education for all in the developing world, but international aid today is 4% lower than it was in 2010.

Other groups outside the formal education system in developing countries include people with disabilities and people imprisoned. It is of course still the poorest socio-economic groups who have the least access to formal education in developing countries, despite often heroic efforts by national governments.

Latchem argues that conventional face-to-face methods can never meet the scale and extent of the knowledge and skills building and social and behavioural change needed to meet the United Nations’ Millenium Development Goals. Open and distance education non-formal education (ODL NFE) is the only way to meet these needs until formal educational provision becomes globally available to all, and even then ODL NFE will still be needed on a large scale.

However, Latchem claims that there has been little prior research into the effectiveness of ODL NFE in developing countries. What little prior research that has been done indicates that previous attempts to use open and distance learning for non-formal education in developing countries were piecemeal and ineffective, mainly consisting of short-term pilots lacking sustainable funding.  

Latchem concluded that a review of current practice and progress in this field was long overdue and hence the central concern of the book is about identifying ways in which open and flexible forms of lifelong learning have increased social equality, employment and development for those denied formal education.

The structure of the book

There are four parts to the book:

  1. Background to the study, which examines the Global Development Agenda, and introduces the reader to prior research, and the main elements of ODL NFE.
  2. A fairly brief description of the main technologies and media currently in use in ODL NFE, including radio, television, mobile learning, OERs and MOOCs, telecentres, and traditional and performing arts.
  3. A more extensive review of areas in which ODL NFE has been mostly successfully used. These include:
    • out-of-school children and youth
    • adult literacy, ESL
    • gender equity
    • disabled, refugees, prisoners
    • health care, safe water, sanitation and hygiene
    • agriculture and agribusiness
    • small and medium-sized enterprises
    • education for sustainable development
  4. A conclusion, including actions needed

My main takeaways

Firstly, the size of the challenge in providing education for all. I agree with Latchem that although the long-term goal should be formal education for all, in the short-term this will be impossible for many years in many developing countries, and that non-formal education will continue to be critically important in helping to fill the gap, and that open and distance learning is a valuable, cost-effective means to provide this. (It is also cost-effective means to provide formal education, as well, but that is another book).

Second, though, I was blown away by the many cases Latchem provides of successful ODL NFE projects. The book is filled with over 180 cases and urls to video links which demonstrate the applications. I was particularly impressed by the extent and value of telecentres, and the criteria needed for them to succeed. There are lessons here for developed as well as developing countries.

Third, while cost and access remain a major barrier, I was impressed by the extent to which the Internet and ICTs (particularly mobile learning) are being successfully used in many developing countries. I was also impressed with the use of more traditional media, such as puppets, theatre, song and dance, highlighting the importance of cultural adaptation to local needs. Again I believe there are lessons here for developed as well as developing countries.

Nevertheless, while these success stories are encouraging, there are often systemic difficulties that hinder the implementation of ODL NFE. Latchem identifies the following:

  • over-dependence on international aid agencies/NGOs
  • lack of sustainability due to overuse of short-term, small scale pilots and insufficient funding
  • lack of learning pathways from informal to non-formal to formal education
  • the need for a systematic approach/a national strategy for non-formal education
  • lack of reliable broadband connection in rural areas where NFE is most needed
  • lack of content in local languages
  • lack of research and evaluation of projects in terms of outcomes.

Latchem then ends with a set of nine action steps that are needed to advance the ODL NFE agenda.

In summary

This book benefits enormously from being written by a single author, rather than a series of articles by different writers. This provides the book with a coherent and consistent message.

I cannot say how thrilled I was to see so many wonderful projects attempting under great difficulty to make the world a better place. Most of these were firmly community-based, and locally designed and maintained, if often with some international assistance. It is one of the most optimistic books I have read for a long while.

It also highlights the naïvity and wrong-headedness of many Western approaches to the use of technology in developing countries, such as believing the importation of American MOOCs (or whatever is the latest technology) is a sustainable solution to education for all. There is a role for MOOCs, but are best developed locally in local languages, for instance, and more importantly, embedded in a local organisation and infrastructure that makes the material likely to be used effectively.

Some of the early content will be familiar to most readers of this blog, but the real target for this book are policy-makers in developing countries trying to tackle the challenge of education for all. This book provides powerful evidence of the role that open and distance education non-formal education can play in making education for all a reality. This is a fitting end to a wonderful career – thank you, Colin.

Five old educational technologies

Etherington, C. (2018) Five educational technologies, circa 1918 ELearning inside news, January 1

Despite rumours, I was not around in 1918, but this article is a very nice reminder of what was happening 100 years ago with educational technologies. The five technologies are:

  • magic lanterns
  • chalkboards
  • ink pens
  • abacuses
  • radio

When I started teaching, in 1965, in my school it was still compulsory for students to use ink pens (not ‘nasty Biros’, which were available then). This was a real problem for left-handed pupils, who tended to drag their hand across the wet ink when writing from left to right. I fought hard to get an exemption but my headmistress was adamant – no exceptions were allowed. We have made at least some advances since then regarding accessibility and accommodation to the needs of minorities.

As the article points out, radio was still a couple of years away from actually being used for instructional purposes, although it was increasingly available by 1918. The first BBC adult educational radio program was broadcast in 1924 and was about fleas: a talk on Insects in Relation to Man.

Nevertheless, these old technologies also illustrate how little has changed in many classrooms in terms of pedagogy. PowerPoint is nothing more than a merger of a magic lantern and a chalkboard, but the form of teaching remains the same.

It is much easier to identify technology changes then over 100 years but far less progress has been made on improving teaching methods –  or do you disagree?

French version of ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ now available

French version 2

The French version of ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’, L’enseignement a l’ère numerique‘, is now available from here.

I am very grateful to Contact North|Contact Nord for providing this professional translation.

There is now also a version in Vietnamese, ‘Dạy học trong kỷ nguyên số‘, translated by Lê Trung Nghĩa of the Ministry of Education in Vietnam, available through Dropbox here.

Spanish version, translated by staff in the Faculty of Engineering, Universidad de Buenos Aires, is almost complete and will be available from the BCcampus open textbook site (as will all the translations). I will provide an announcement containing the url when it is available.

A Chinese version, translated by staff at the Beijing Open University, will be available in August, 2016.

A Portuguese version, being translated by ABED, the Brazilian Association of Distance Education, will be available in time for its Annual Congress in September, 2016.

Turkish version is currently under consideration. I am awaiting more details.

Please note: under the Creative Commons license of the book, anyone is free to translate all or any part of the book, provided it is not used for commercial purposes and I am acknowledged as the author. I am sure that without this license, the book would not have become available so quickly in so many languages. However, if you do decide to translate the book, please let me know, so I can track its use and provide updates.


An excellent guide to multimedia course design

© University of Waterloo, 2016

© University of Waterloo, 2016

Centre for Extended Learning (2016) How do we create useful online learning experiences? Waterloo ON: University of Waterloo

The University of Waterloo’s Centre for Extended Learning has combined Peter Morville’s user experience (UX) honeycomb and Richard Mayer’s theory and research on the use of multimedia for learning, to create a well-designed set of guidelines for online course design. This should be compulsory reading/viewing for all instructors moving into online learning.

Thanks to Naza Djafarova, Director, Digital Education Strategies, The Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson University, for directing me to this invaluable resource.

Average speed 2


Some comments on synchronous online learning technologies

A typical Webex interface

A typical Webex interface

Last week was a week of synchronous online sessions for me. I did ‘virtual’ keynotes into conferences in Tehran, Iran, and Beirut, the Lebanon, as well as a Contact North webinar.

The presentations

The topics were as follows:

The technologies

Each was done using a different combination of technologies:

  • Contact North’s was done using Cisco’s Webex, involving Powerpoint slides with my voice over in real time, and questions and comments submitted as text through the Webex chat facility; in this case there were fifty students from 16 different countries scattered around the world attending live. In addition there were about another fifty signed up who could later access a recording of the webinar;
  • the Iranian conference used a YouTube recording of a session I gave face-to-face at York University in 2012, which staff at York had recorded and uploaded to YouTube. The video presentation in the lecture hall was followed by an audio question and answer session from people in the conference hall using VOIP (voice over the Internet) through an American telecommunications company, Webco;
  • the Beirut conference used Citrix’s GoToMeeting web conferencing. This time, I ran the Powerpoint slides on my own computer, which then used GoToMeeting’s shared screen facility to deliver the slides (and my voice) into the lecture theatre in Beirut. Questions and comments were both sent by audio over the Internet and as text through the GoToMeeting chat facility.

In all three cases, as a presenter I was dependent on using the technology solution chosen by the client.

The results: technology

I haven’t seen any formal evaluation yet from participants. I would really like to hear from any participants about what their experience was of the technology. I am conscious then that I can report only from my perspective.

Technically, the smoothest by far was the Contact North webinar, even though the webinar was delivered to many different locations around the world using standard desktop computing and the Internet. The sound quality in particular was excellent. It is not surprising that the technical quality was high, as Contact North has a long history and great experience in audio conferencing. I had the services of an exceptionally high quality moderator provided by Contact North with lots of experience of moderating webinars. This is important, as he was able to pick up the text-based questions and comments that were arriving via the chat facility while I was presenting, and thus he was able to choose the order of questions and comments. (Contact North prefers not to use the audio for comments from participants when there are as many as fifty online different locations.) Also if there were unanswered questions during the session I could answer them later by e-mail, which Contact North would then distribute to those that had signed up.

With the Iranian conference, the use of a pre-existing video of one of my keynotes enabled a high quality technical presentation via local video and sound. However, the big problem for me was the quality of the sound coming back from the lecture theatre in Tehran when it came to the Q and A session. While I was responding to questions, I could hear my voice coming back from the lecture theatre speakers (with about a half second delay), even though I was using a headset and microphone, which meant I had to focus really hard on what I was saying. Also it was impossible for me to hear the questions being asked in Tehran, due to the poor quality of the audio by the time it reached me. I think this had more to do with the acoustics of a traditional lecture theatre and the use of hand-held microphones than the quality of the audio link over the Internet. However, the questions were converted into text via the chat facility, so I was able to respond to them verbally. Nevertheless, given that the presentation and the Q and A session was delivered in a foreign language, I suspect that it must have been difficult for many of the participants.

Language would not have been such a problem at the American University of Beirut, where the teaching is mainly in English. I can’t comment on the quality of the video and sound at the other end. Again, though, it was difficult for me to hear the questions from Beirut and again the chat facility was essential. However, in this case there was not much time for questions in any case.

Overall, audio quality is often the weakest link, especially if people are in an open lecture theatre. The technical problems interfered a little but not enough to prevent my getting across the main points of what I wanted to talk about. The Q and A sessions were not as smooth though as I would like on the conference presentations.

The results: pedagogical

This is more difficult to assess. The issues are general to all keynotes or presentations. Even though some technology systems allow the presenter to see at least a small group of the audience via video, I feel I am always talking into a vacuum when doing webinars or online presentations. Provided the technology is working this is not usually a major problem, but I have in the past been in a situation where I was talking for 15 minutes or more after a connection had been dropped before I became aware that I was talking to myself. Over time, though, the technology has become more reliable, although the basic design (a space for slides with voice over, and chat for questions and comments) has changed very little over the last 20 years.

The bigger issue is that it’s still a lecture and although I do my best to break it up with a few questions or opportunities for comment every ten minutes or so, I am deeply conscious that I am working in a way that is contrary to the message I am usually trying to get across.

Another limitation is that while there is plenty of opportunity for questions and comment, it is very difficult to get a genuine discussion going amongst the participants in the way that you can with an asynchronous discussion forum.

The real benefits

The real benefits of web conferencing are really to do with convenience, economics and ecology.

For participants, the advantage of being able to log on from home or the office rather than travel long distances to a conference or lecture theatre is considerable. For those in a conference, being able to access speakers at a distance enables a wider range of perspectives and approaches to be covered within the conference than would otherwise have been possible. This was particularly important for the people in Tehran who are really anxious to establish better contact with other specialists in online learning now that sanctions are being removed.

For presenters such as myself, the convenience is enormous. I get increasingly jet lagged by international travel, and being able to work from home is also very nice. (However, time differences can be a problem: my presentation into Beirut at 10.00 am their time meant I had to do the presentation between midnight and 1.00 am my time in Vancouver. It was not helped by having a dinner party that ended just before the presentation.) If I had travelled to Beirut or Tehran, it would have been a week out of my life, just for 40 minutes to one hour. Indeed, it wouldn’t have happened because I just don’t want to do that any more (when I was younger, it was different).

And of course there is the cost. Even without a speaker fee and flying economy, you are looking at something like $3,000 to bring a speaker from North America to the Middle East, by the time you have covered meals, hotel, taxis and air fare.

And lastly, there is the environment. The cost in greenhouse gases in flying such long distances is huge. Anything we can do to lower greenhouse gases these days is really worthwhile.

Nevertheless, there is a loss. I was in Tehran many years ago, but I would like to visit Beirut one day. You don’t get the close social interaction and networking that physical presence at a conference can provide, and these are often the most valuable parts of a conference for me. The technology is still a little awkward and clumsy and could be designed better to encourage more interaction. But the advantages so much outweigh the disadvantages.

Now I’m off to Toronto for the ChangTalks at Ryerson. This time I will be talking about building an effective teaching environment. It’s more about gardening though than technology. I’ll explain later.