Open Distance Learning: Promise of Enhanced Learning for the Future - I | Daily News

Open Distance Learning: Promise of Enhanced Learning for the Future - I

An OUSL graduate with his family
An OUSL graduate with his family

The Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) is about to host a historic event in the education sector of Sri Lanka: AAOU 2021, the annual conference of the Asian Association of Open Universities (AAOU), which is Asia’s biggest and the most influential Open and Distance Learning (ODL) forum.

With three days of debates, deliberation and reflections on ODL and its future about to ignite from June 1 to 3, the time was ripe to ask some pertinent questions from OUSL Vice Chancellor, Prof. Anbahan Ariadurai about ODL, OUSL and its impact on Sri Lankan people for 40 years and most importantly, how AAOU would translate into something perceptible for Sri Lanka.

Q: In the midst of a pandemic, the OUSL is hosting a conference whose central concerns might offer us a way to manage teaching and learning in Sri Lanka. Could you elaborate?

A. When the decision was made in 2018, to host this prestigious conference in Sri Lanka there was no pandemic. In fact, we were to have the conference last October in one of the five-star hotels in Colombo. We were expecting to host about 300 international delegates. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we postponed it to June this year, hoping that the pandemic would subside, and we would be able to bring international delegates to Sri Lanka. However, this was not to be, and thus we decided to convert the conference to be fully online.

OUSL Vice Chancellor Prof. Anbahan Ariadurai

In fact, when we decided on the theme of the conference two years ago, “Opening Minds for a Sustainable Future: Re-orienting the ODL to Surmount Challenges”, we never imagined how it would be appropriate for the current times. Today, not only the traditional Open and Distance Learning (ODL) institutes such as the Open University of Sri Lanka, but every educational facility around the globe, whether they are primary schools, higher secondary schools, universities or even individual tuition teachers are talking about online and distance teaching. However, honestly speaking, many a time the context of online or distance learning that is being talked about is very restrictive. We, the practitioners of ODL, believe that the online learning or distance teaching that is being spoken about now is what we term as Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) which is only a small component of distance education. That is why this conference, where researchers from various parts of Asia, who have been practising open and distance learning for many years under specific local contexts, sharing experiences through the papers presented is an important learning opportunity for all of us.

Q: In the light of what you said, could you now introduce us to AAOU?

A. The AAOU or the Asian Association of Open Universities is a non-profit association of more than 45 higher education institutes from Asia as full-members and nearly 20 institutes from Europe, Canada, and Australia as associate members. The organisation was started in 1987, with seven founder members, including the OUSL and is one of the leading organisations in the world, dedicated to Open and Distance Learning (ODL). The AAOU is primarily concerned with education at a distance and strives to widen the educational opportunities available to all people in Asia and to improve the quality of the institutions in terms of their educational management, teaching, and research. The AAOU promotes education by distance teaching systems, as well as professional and ethical standards; develops potentialities of open and distance education; cooperates with official bodies and others directly or indirectly interested in education at a distance, and facilitates cooperation with other similar regional and international bodies.

Q: According to you, the AAOU is an important event for teaching and learning in Sri Lanka, and even the world. Why is OUSL the host?

A. As I have already mentioned, the OUSL is one of the seven founder members of the association. We hosted the fourth conference of the AAOU, 30 years ago in Colombo in 1991. With the membership of the association expanding the annual conference has been hosted across many countries in Asia. About three years ago, at the OUSL, we thought it is time for us to bring the conference back to Sri Lanka. So, we decided to bid for hosting the conference in Colombo in 2020 coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the OUSL. We were fortunate enough to win the bid and now we have the 34th Annual Conference of the AAOU being hosted in Sri Lanka.

I believe it is also very timely, since the President and the Government of Sri Lanka have put greater emphasis on Distance Education and are seriously considering ODL as an important mode for expanding the higher education sector in Sri Lanka. In fact, the Government has dedicated a separate state ministry to expand the Open Universities and Distance Education.

Based on many studies, it is a well-established fact that increasing demand for higher education especially in sub-Sahara Africa and South Asian countries cannot be addressed by building or expanding new brick and mortar universities. In Sri Lanka, if we are to absorb all the students qualifying for university entrance, as of today, we need to build at least 140 more universities of the size of Uva-Wellassa University. However, this expansion is not at all possible due to scarcity of resources, with a very limited pool of intellectual and physical resources and lack of funds. This is where we believe the OUSL and distance education can play a telling role.

In economic terms, the impact the OUSL can make in providing quality educational opportunities to the increased number of students must be very attractive to policy planners. This is because, the amount of investment required to expand the service of the OUSL to impact a higher number of students is much lesser when compared to that is required for a conventional university.

Q: The OUSL is 40 years old. Could you elaborate on the contribution made by the OUSL to the nation?

A. Without any doubt the OUSL has immensely contributed to the higher education sector of this country during its existence over the last 40 years. This university has made significant inroads into the higher education field by providing alternative pathways for education to working adults and young adults who had chosen the opportunity we have provided. Further, the OUSL has democratised the higher education sector in the country, which was limited to a privileged few due to the scarcity of places in the conventional universities, by opening our doors to every citizen of this country who is 18 years and above. With the establishment of our Regional and Study Centres in every district of this country, we have taken learning opportunities to all our students almost to their doorsteps.

As all the programmes offered by us undergo the same vigorous processes that are adopted by other conventional universities in Sri Lanka, when it comes to quality, our programmes are comparable to any course or programme offered by the conventional universities. According to our statistics, 80 percent of the graduates of the OUSL continue to be gainfully employed. At the OUSL, students are given a ladder of opportunity to advance their education and achieve their educational and career advancement goals to become responsible citizens who could contribute towards national development. We have heard many positive remarks from employers of our graduates, especially with reference to the auxiliary skills such as self-motivation, independence in problem solving, etc. Many of our graduates have excelled in their chosen fields and have made significant contributions to their communities and the world around them. We have numerous stories of our students going on to excel in their postgraduate studies at top universities of the world. These stories prove that the OUSL has achieved its mission of providing access to high quality, affordable and relevant education through ODL methodologies and ensuring life-long learning opportunities for our citizens to face challenges in a knowledge society.