Open and distance learning

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Open and distance learning (ODL) is often used as synonymous of e-learning

See also: Distance education and open educational resources

Open Distance Learning (ODL) is considered nowadays as the most viable means for broadening educational access while improving the quality of education, advocating peer-to-peer collaboration and giving the learners a greater sense of autonomy and responsibility for learning (Calvert, 2006).

ODL in developing countries

By Alain Senteni.

In developing countries, ODL is presented as a panacea that will allow in the long term a democratisation of education. The number of large-scale ODL projects proposed to developing countries is increasing every year, as ICT infrastructure and connectivity become more and more available to be used (among other purposes) as the mediating artifact of emerging networked educational systems. Major events were organised in Africa during the last two years to promote technology-enhanced education, e.g. the World Information Technology Forum (WITFOR) In Botswana (2005) and Ethiopia (2007), or the e-Learning Africa Conference, in Ethiopia (2006) and Kenya (2007). Both WITFOR and eLA were sponsored by the European Union and local governments; in 2005 and 2006, each of these conferences attracted around one thousand representatives from some fourty countries, mainly african and european.

Such initiatives activate developmental possibilities in which developing countries can expand and improve their educational systems. I would paraphrase Parkes and say that such ODL projects initiate proximal zones of development where developing countries enter in a strategic relationship with more capable ones, whose discursive regimes influence the new subjectivities being constructed. In this case, "more capable ones" are usually countries from the North, international/intergovernmental organisations and major NGOs whose agenda includes also implicit political and economic interests, such as opening new markets and expanding their influence. In this strategic relationship, Parkes' pedagogical synthesis of Vygotsky's ZPD and Foucault's knowledge-power relationship, will contribute to a better understanding of the issues at stake, resulting hopefully in the highly desirable development of strategies by which local communities in the developing world will be provided with conceptual tools for mastering their own educational transformations.

ODL communities as diasporas in progress

Etymologically, the term diaspora refers to a scattering of seeds, a good metaphor to talk about large scale ODL initiatives such as VUSSC. In this context, collective 'converging to better' OER, also known as social computing, appears as the scattered seeds from which knowledge and development should emerge. However, if these seeds are essential, the whole process (development of ownership, evolution of mindsets, knowledge creation and expansive learning) depends on care, based on systemic approaches and developmental work methodologies, seeking to understand what fosters or inhibits collaborative learning while developing pragmatically methods and learning environments to facilitate its emergence. We also need to understand how interlocking technical, institutional and educational structures can be designed to support the learning needed for adapting to rapid and unexpected demands from the environment (Engeström, 1987).

ODL approaches engage learners in a community building process, going from an individualistic vision of learning and knowledge to an instrument-mediated, socially distributed one. ODL policies, sustainability and expansion face the first chalenge of most distributed communities, which is to maintain informality and build trust across distance (the cement of all diasporas). The generalised use of ICT in ODL enables communities that span conventional boundaries of learning and doing, as well as space and time. Beyond ODL management, there is a need for knowledge-enabling and knowledge-creation involving shared understanding, shared values and shared belief systems and a few things that diasporas are very good at. There is also a need to share ideas and projects across different organisational units, to honor different national and organisational cultures and to build support allowing local variations, while linking to a larger structure.

A new generation of process-driven technology-enhanced education (TEE) is shyly emerging, using transformative pedagogy for grassroots level institutional learning and empowerment. By implicitly making learners more responsible of their own learning process, ODL is the priviledged vehicle for a social conception of learning mixing identity (who are we becoming?) community (where do we belong?) meaning (what is our experience, our culture?) and practice (what are we doing?), raising questions about how developing countries institutions and educators make sense of their new educational environment (what does it mean to teach in the new global knowledge environment?). Implicitly, the effective use and contextualisation of OER (i.e. re-processing) depends on social practices and existing educational systems in which team building, collaboration and sharing are new processes that cannot be taken for granted.

According to (Wenger, Mc Dermott and Snyder, 2002), activities encompassing a common interest and ongoing learning through shared practice and shared knowledge are the starting point for building that trust. Then comes joint enterprise as understood and continually renegotiated by its members, and sustainability based on mutual engagement binding members together into a social entity. In this respect, ODL fosters the emergence of innovative learning and knowledge-creating communities, considering working, learning and innovation as complementary forces for ensuring the long-term sustainability of these enterprising efforts. These communities are fundamentally self-organizing systems, structuring learning through the knowledge they develop at their core and through interactions at their boundaries. Expansion (i.e. learning, growth and development) occurs through the learning that people do together (lifelong learning through work, learning by doing, experiential learning) and so does the social ODL entity, learning about itself, about its emerging capacity and its potential.

Read on


  • Engeström, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit Oy.
  • Parkes, R. J. (2000a). On the Subject of Pedagogies : Contributions of Vygotskian Theory to Radical Pedagogy as a Postmodern Practice, proceedings of Annual Conference of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE), Sydney University, December 4-7, 2000
  • Wenger, E., McDermott, R., Snyder W.M. (2002) Cultivating Communities of Practice, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 284 p., ISBN 1-57851-330-8.