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

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

A student engaged in Home Based Learning
A student engaged in Home Based Learning

This article is a continuation of the interview held with Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) Vice Chancellor, Prof. Anbahan Ariadurai, that appeared in the Daily News on May 31 about Asian Association of Open Universities (AAOU), Open and Distance Learning (ODL), OUSL and its impact at a time when the OUSL is hosting AAOU 2021, the annual conference of the AAOU and Asia’s biggest and the most influential ODL forum, from June 1.

Q. Would you say that an online or a hybrid event would deliver the same experience as an on-site event? And what were the challenges of such an event? How did your staff meet that challenge?

A. When it comes to the dissemination of knowledge, I believe there is no difference between an online conference and an on-site conference. However, when it comes to reach, an online conference is at an advantage as anyone from any part of the world, who has a device and an internet connection, will be able to participate in the conference. Another advantage of the online conference is that it is economically cheaper for both the host and the participant. But the biggest drawback is the lack of interaction between the conference participants. This is a significant downside of an online conference as many a time partnerships and meaningful dialogues leading to groundbreaking initiatives are forged on the sidelines of any conference.

I believe to take advantage of the merits of both the online and on-site conferences. The AAOU Executive Committee has decided that from this year onwards the Annual Conference of the AAOU would be conducted in a hybrid mode, with a segment where the biggest challenge of an online conference is the technology and connectivity. We have overcome this by a novel idea of requesting all the delegates to send in their presentations in recorded form. The conference headquarters will transmit the presentations from one location thus overcoming any connectivity or other technology-related issues. The presenters and the delegates will be available online during the questions and answers time.

We have planned the online AAOU conference as an exact replicate of the regular on-site conference. Thus, we have included the inaugural ceremony and the closing ceremonies, including the traditional cultural shows, however, all of these will be in the online mode. We have taken great pains to see that the delegates would not miss out on anything when it comes to the actual conference presentations. Thus, keynote addresses, panel discussions and parallel sessions have all been included. However, obviously, we cannot compensate for the personal interaction and of course the various cultural events, food and sightseeing a delegate enjoys during an international conference.

Kudos to my staff who have planned very meticulously every aspect of the conference. More than 120 staff of the University was involved in the planning and staging of the conference led by Prof J.C.N. Rajendra, the Conference Co-Chairman. They have been working tirelessly over the last year or so to make this conference a great success. Our staff successfully conducted the Annual Open University Research Sessions of 2020 too as a fully online conference and the lessons learnt from that experience too played a major role in planning this conference online on short notice.

I should thank the team from our Event Manager, Aitken Spence Events and Conference led by Nadeeka Leeniyagoda who were very accommodative to all the changing scenarios of the conference due to the unpredictable pandemic situation.

Q. AAOU 2021 also addresses the concept of holistic and transformational education as defined by UNESCO. Please elaborate.

A. In any nation, education is a crucial sector which is making a major investment in human capital development, thus contributing to long-term productivity and growth at all levels. UNESCO considers education as a top priority as it is the foundation on which to build peace and drive sustainable development. UNESCO’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development clearly reflects the importance of an appropriate educational response with education explicitly formulated as a stand-alone goal. Numerous education-related targets and indicators are also contained within other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to UNESCO, education is both a goal and a means for attaining all the other SDGs. It is not only an integral part of sustainable development, but also a key enabler for it. That is why UNESCO considers education as an essential strategy in the pursuit of the SDGs.

This year’s AAOU Conference theme includes this aspect of sustainable future. Further, the core objective of the AAOU is distance education. The pedagogy and learning environments of distance education essentially focus on learner-centred teaching, enabling exploratory, action-oriented and transformative learning by empowering learners of any age, in any educational context, to transform themselves and the society they live in.

Two of the new concepts that are evolving within the context of Open and Distance Learning and beyond are the Open Educational Resources (OER) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which are also based on the concept of holistic and transformational education.

The main point of the OER is that knowledge should be made available to facilitate learning thus transform the landscape of teaching and learning, by increasing and widening engagement and participation in learning.

The MOOCs are regarded by many as an important tool to widen access to higher education for millions of people, including those in the developing world, and as a means to enhance their quality of life. The MOOCs may be regarded as contributing to the democratisation of higher education, not only locally or regionally but globally as well. The MOOCs can help democratise content and make knowledge reachable for everyone. Students are able to access complete courses offered by universities all over the world, something previously unattainable. With the availability of affordable technologies, the MOOCs increase access to an extraordinary number of courses offered by world-renowned institutions and teachers.

Q. Let’s say, there is a student from a rural area who is driven and motivated to learn. How could the OUSL help him? What would the AAOU mean to him?

A. As I have said earlier, the OUSL has demolished the barriers of access to higher education such as excessive costs, restrictive eligibility criteria, and historical elitism. The University provides largely unrestricted access to high-quality education for all, through a deliberate focus shift to inclusivity and affordability. We should continue to be highly proactive in contributing significantly to economic growth, the reduction of socioeconomic imbalances, and the production of socially-minded future business leaders, entrepreneurs, politicians and civic champions.

Distance education provides enormous potential for widening access to higher education and increasing the diversity of the student population, since online technologies provide opportunities to learn from anywhere, at any time, from anyone, at any pace.

The OUSL, through its past achievements, has amply demonstrated that with certain interventions from the State with reference to the upgrading of the infrastructure facilities and provision of human resources, we would be able to cater to a student population in the excess of 100,000, most of them being from the regions away from Colombo. Students are able to pursue study programmes while being employed and in locations near their own home. This will allow them to contribute to the economy as well as enjoy family lives. The amount of investment required for this expansion would be much less in comparison to expanding the conventional university system.

Modern day educational institutes cannot operate on their own. Entering into partnerships, such as what we have with the AAOU, and many other international institutes and agencies is critical to taking on the great challenge of buffeting our educational institutes today of preparing our new generation of students for tough competition for employment. Through these mutually beneficial partnerships, we are able to share knowledge, experiences, resources, courses and even whole programmes.

As Helen Adams Keller, an American author, political activist, and academic said ‘Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much’. The benefits which we gain from these partnerships, naturally are going to trickle down to our main stakeholders, our students.