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Education & Development
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OU 40th anniversary lectures: Learning sans frontieres

Updated Friday, 19th June 2009

In the second part of the 40th anniversary lectures, David Puttnam asserts that underachievement, born of lack of expectation, is still with us as we face the challenge of digital technology.

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… and of course that race that H G Wells was referring to has been thrown into very sharp relief in ways that could – that certainly he could never have predicted by the economic crisis that’s now taken hold right across the globe.

I think it's become crystal clear to most of us that we are ultimately going to have to get out of this recession in a very old fashioned way by digging deep inside ourselves and re-addressing the basics; by seeking ways to improve our creativity and our productivity; by saving more and by studying harder and by doing all those things that we always knew that we had to do but were either too ill informed, too complacent or simply just to stupid to remember.

The clip I just showed pretty well sums up my reasons for spending the past dozen years increasingly involved in helping to promote a greater level of interest in reassessing the role of education in this very rapidly changing world.

Underachievement, on the part of the individual or the system, is a problem that’s probably as old as mankind itself. It stunts lives everywhere and its impact is equally damaging at a personal, community and national or indeed a global level. In my judgement, unlike its bedfellows ambition and imagination, underachievement most frequently stems from a lack of expectation principally in response to the judgement of others. And one of the early drivers in the creation of the Open University was an attack on what was seen as a uniquely disabling working class acceptance that revealed itself as just this – a lack of expectation.

Sir Walter Perry, the OU’s first Vice Chancellor, was, I think, reflecting on this when he wrote “The gap in adult education provision … its failure to attract those very members of the adult community for whom much of it had been originally designed.” Those who, at the initial stage of their education, had been underprivileged and deprived. They were the drop outs of the education system and yet amongst them there were many who were highly intelligent and who would undoubtedly have benefited from the experience of higher education if given the chance, at least on a part time basis. Whether such an opportunity would be welcomed by the educationally deprived or would once again be seized only by the middle class aspirant remains open to question.

Even earlier, in the introduction to the White Paper, published on the 25th February – interestingly enough my twenty fifth birthday – Jenny Lee wrote this: “An estimate of the potential audience can only be guesswork and it can be assumed that a relatively small proportion of students would actually complete a full degree course. But completion of only part of a course and the gaining of an intermediate qualification could be of great benefit to the individual and to the community.”

And she finished by saying: “If the present state of technological and cultural advance is to be sustained it would depend not only on those who have reached the highest educational level but on a population that is generally literate and well informed.” She couldn’t possibly have envisioned a digital world in which the very concept of what it was to be literate had forever changed. At the same time she could not have been more prescient regarding our need for a well-informed and skilled community.

Just over forty years later, the white heat of technological revolution that was envisaged by Harold Wilson and his government has genuinely taken hold. Thanks to digital technology ,in a single week, the OU records an average of around 70,000 downloads on to iTunes U, a source of higher education podcasts and videos that’s freely available on the web. As a recent article in the Guardian noted, about 87 per cent of these downloads are from outside of the UK. “I'm betting that most of them have been downloaded by US students, studying at American Universities”, says Peter Scott, our Director of the OU’s Knowledge Media Institute. He predicts that students will soon be mixing their higher education experiences from resources all over the world: choosing to study at Harvard whilst listening to lectures from Oxford, taking part in discussion groups at the University of Mumbai and quite possibly sitting their exams somewhere entirely different.

That surprising statistic, surprising to me at least, of 87 per cent of downloads from outside the UK is, I believe, given additional resonance when you consider that only 8 per cent of all UK online visits are made to UK sites, including the BBC’s. And that figure probably drops to around five per cent when you're simply looking at younger web users. Now for those of us brought up on public service broadcasting in this country the implications of that statistic alone are fairly mind boggling and probably well worth a lecture all of their own.

So how do I see the OU meeting the challenges of the next ten years in this broadband-dominated environment? Well, I'd like us to hit our fiftieth anniversary confident that we remain the finest distance learning organisation in the world, secure in the knowledge that we've left everyone else eating the dust thrown up by the trail we've continued to blaze. That we've influenced the pedagogy and the practice of eLearning to a point at which we are once again out there on our own. My vision suggests that anyone who wants to do anything about how to use distance learning in the Twenty First Century comes to the OU and sits at our feet while we show them just how it's done.

But if we are to achieve anything like that status in an increasingly competitive environment we need to prepare ourselves for what's likely to be a pretty hairy ride. This is certainly no time to be resting on our laurels. After all can we honestly claim to have anticipated the full extent of the changes that have already taken place? Are we certain that we’re presently ahead of the curve or slipping behind it?

As Eric Hobsbourne put it earlier this month, “the Twentieth Century is well behind us but we have not yet learned to live in the Twenty First or at least to think in a way that fits it.” Serious opportunity clearly lies in the long term and we need to be thinking through the impact of digital technology and the impact it's going to have on its users, on delivery ten, twenty, maybe even fifty years from now.

Now, predicting the future as Aneka says in the film, is always hazardous. But we owe it to ourselves to at least plan for change or maybe even plan for transformation. And that requires our being prepared to interrogate many of our most cherished assumptions about how learning happens and about how it may best come to be distributed and to be shared and even to be re-used.

And, with that in mind, we need to develop solutions which are adaptable enough to become fit for purpose over the longer time frame. Not just a series of quick fixes which are likely to amount to a little more than another set of messy compromises or too easily eclipsed by the next technological or pedagogical breakthrough for which we find ourselves somehow unprepared.

So how are we going to achieve that vision? Well we definitely, we in the UK significantly need more commitment and imagination in developing what I'll call our digital infrastructure. I'm very fortunate in being able to visit Singapore at least a couple of times a year in my capacity as an advisor to their media development agency. There, I sit and listen to advanced plans to ensure that two gigabytes of productivity are available business to business by 2015 at the latest. Meanwhile we in this country are giving very serious thought to making two megabytes generally available with a long-term ambition to increase this to fifty megabytes by 2020. Now, I make that about one fortieth of the ambition of Singapore and clearly one or other of these options is mistaken. I've a very nasty feeling that our ingrained British instinct to make do and mend will encourage us towards the soft option. And I am more than a little uncomfortable at being asked to bet my state pension on the outcome.

Let me offer a very short quote. “Above all we need a greater level of dialogue and understanding between the education service and the broadband industries that are developing this New World so that the needs of education can be identified and fully taken into account.” Was that taken from the UK government’s recent report on digital Britain? or from a recent European Commission Policy document on the knowledge economy?

The answer, I am sad to say, is neither. It comes from a document entitled Superhighways for Education: the Way Forward which was launched by the then Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine in November 1995.

Now surely I am not alone in thinking that we urgently need to rediscover the same levels of courage and progressive thinking that were responsible for the creation of the OU in the first place. For, as I have learned as Chairman of FutureLab, an organisation tasked with developing innovative resources and practices that support new approaches to learning, the way in which people learn is changing.

It's changing very radically and it's changing very fast. We’re seeing increasing numbers of people engaging with learning in on-line communities; taking on the role of the teacher, the expert, the mentor or just plain advisor to other people irrespective of their age and their experience. And, by embracing the potential of these new and ever more extraordinary learning processes - many of them facilitated by digital technology - and then taking ownership of the ethos that drives them, will we produce a generation of creative learners with a breadth and a depth of understanding that’s capable of dealing with what's likely to prove, certainly in my judgement, a very, very difficult century.

By way of example: the ability to harness the … power of multiplayer online games to nurture, encourage and reward skills such as collaboration, problem solving, resilience, creativity, allows us to develop a whole range of abilities that are likely to become ever more valuable in the next twenty to thirty years. And it's my belief that we have only just begun to explore the possibilities offered by the online world. And if I'm right then the opportunities in all of this for the future of teaching and learning are quite immense.

More broadly, the online world offers by means of simulations and augmented reality opportunities for different - and I'd argue far more authentic -learning than could be achieved with traditional teaching tools, including a deeper and possibly even a richer understanding of sometimes quite difficult concepts.





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