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Introduction to Open Schooling

Regardless of the country or its stage of development, various factors are combining to encourage policy-makers and senior bureaucrats throughout the world to examine or, in some cases to re-examine the contribution that open schooling (OS) could be making to the attainment of their jurisdiction’s secondary schooling objectives. Nowhere is this more evident than in the developing world, where past successes and major new challenges are giving rise to the examination and development of the OS model such that open schools become an integral vehicle for the achievement of public educational policy.

Open schooling is defined by the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) as the physical separation of the school-level learner from the teacher, and the use of unconventional teaching methodologies, and information and communications technologies (ICTs) to bridge the separation and provide the education and training (Phillips 2006, p. 9).

In reviewing for COL the performance of two major open schools, Rumble and Koul (2007, pp. 234 & 236) introduced two complementary concepts to the definition of OS: the market or target group being addressed (youth, in school or out, adult) and the nature of the curriculum (conventional or alternative). The authors concluded that there were two different approaches to OS: one complementary to the conventional system (and that replicated its curriculum); and the other alternative to the conventional system (and that presented a more adult-relevant curriculum).

There is little doubt that OS can assist in dramatically improving access both by school- age children and by adults to high quality secondary schooling, just as open and distance learning (ODL) has already done at the tertiary level for secondary school leavers and adults. By the start of this millennium (and in contrast to the situation in primary education), there were sufficient examples of successful secondary OS both in the developing and the developed world to allow researchers (e.g., Dodds 2003 Perraton 2004) to refer to solid records of achievement and claims of potential. What remains missing, however, is extensive documented investigation and research with which to counter the inadequately or ill-informed prejudices of highly influential stakeholders who may consider OS to be a second-rate alternative to conventional schooling. At issue then, and what the case studies in this volume seek to elucidate and inform policy about, is the form that OS needs to take if it is to succeed at the secondary level.

Secondary Schooling Core Issues and Open Schooling

Though different in scope and relative importance, the issues facing the individuals and others responsible for secondary schooling throughout the developing world and the issues that some are seeking to partially address through OS are remarkably similar in all jurisdictions. Those issues include:

  • 1. Increasing the breadth and equality of access;
  • 2. Ensuring openness of access;
  • 3. Ensuring that the curriculum provided to secondary school learners is relevant to the needs of their various constituencies;
  • 4. Improving the quality of teaching and learning; and maximising the cost-effectiveness, cost-efficiency and sustainability of the educational system.

Degrees of Openness

Openness of access is critical to the development of OS policy, just as it is becoming increasingly important in some conventional schooling systems that seek to either expand or better serve their audience.

This is exemplified by the fact that COL considers openness and flexibility to be more important features of OS than the distance between student and teacher, since specially designed independent study materials are generally coupled with regular meetings of learners and facilitators. The complementary role often played by face-to-face sessions in ODL takes on an added importance in OS, as the educational model must take into account the younger age of the learners. Consequently, COL uses the term open schooling rather than open and distance schooling because openness and flexibility are more important features than physical separation. As one of COL’s publications expresses it, Usually there are no rules dictating student ages, prerequisites, content of courses or numbers of courses in which learners must enroll. As a result, open schooling meets the needs of a broad range of learners (Commonwealth of Learning 2008).

Open learning, of which OS is a subsidiary, represents an approach that can both:

  • Reduce barriers that may result from prior educational, financial, geographic, time or disability-related constraints; and
  • Recognise and accommodate a learner’s preferred learning objectives (programmatic or course- or module-specific), his or her selected means for accomplishing the learning and demonstrating its attainment, and his or her need for student services that will maximise the individual’s chances of success.

Open Schooling Policy Formulation:

To be effective, a policy document for OS should include the following elements:

  • Background It is important to outline the context in which the document has been developed. This means including a description of the current situation with respect to conventional and ODL programmes, an analysis of the problems that exist, the rationale for developing the policy and a description of its intended outcomes. As open schools must operate within the wider framework of the education system as a whole, this section should also include references to existing policy documents and define relationships with established bodies, such as an examinations council or standard-setting authority.
  • Definition of terms Like many specialised fields, ODL is permeated with jargon, so the policy document should provide short explanations of key terminology. This will help to ensure that both those responsible for making policy decisions and those charged with implementing them share a common understanding.
  • Statement of principles To provide guidance on how government should respond to situations as they arise, the policy document should outline a set of general values, goals or principles.
  • Application and scope The policy document should make clear who is likely to be affected by the policy. This is particularly important when the policy will be restricted to a particular target group in order to avoid unintended consequences.
  • Date of commencement The policy document should specify the date from which the new or revised policy will come into effect.
  • Responsibilities The policy document should include details of who is responsible for providing ongoing governance and direction, implementing the policy and monitoring its impact.
  • Funding Arguably, the most important means at a government’s disposal to facilitate the development and expansion of OS are the financial arrangements adopted for supporting the sub-sector. For this reason, the policy document should outline these arrangements clearly.

Relevant curriculum:

School jurisdictions throughout the world, particularly starting with the secondary school level, are increasingly conscious of the need to ensure that programme completers are properly prepared for what comes next, be it further education, employment, or self-employment.

These challenges notwithstanding, open schools must determine upfront whether they want to be complementary to the conventional schooling system (and deliver the same curriculum using open learning methods) or alternative to it (and also apply the open learning philosophy to the design of innovative curriculum and programmes).

Quality teaching and learning:

Regardless of the educational model being exploited, policy-makers, bureaucrats, boards, administrators, teachers and learners are all concerned about the quality of teaching and learning. However, whereas these different stakeholders may share a common view of quality inputs in the traditional school system (e.g., class size, teaching qualifications, accessible resources, physical and virtual infrastructure), such is not the case in their view of OS. The fact that these stakeholders seldom have any experience of the OS model or of the century of positive results of its predecessor, correspondence schooling may not only lead them to question whether quality OS is even possible, but also to apply inappropriate traditional schooling quality inputs to the OS environment. Ironically, as traditional schools and jurisdictions themselves start to engage in OS practices, the reputation of OS may well increase without a commensurate improvement in its quality. Consequently, it is all the more important to ensure that quality inputs and quality assurance measures for OS be developed and shared. Significant aspects of OS systems that impact quality and quality assessment include:

  • 1. Barriers to access
  • 2. Degree of student-centeredness and open learning
  • 3. Relevance of curriculum
  • 4. Learning materials and their presentation
  • 5. Degree of personalised academic support
  • 6. Secondary materials (and how accessed)
  • 7. Formative and collective assessment
  • 8. Student success rates
  • 9. Student advising and other support services
  • 10. Distribution of learning materials
  • 11. Accessibility to other administrative functions
  • 12. Institutional marketing and promotion
  • 13. Use of ICT’s in teaching, learning, support and administration
  • 14. Service culture

The target groups to be served by an open school must be the first preoccupation of policy-makers. In most cases, ODL programmes at pre-tertiary level are designed to benefit those who are not being served adequately, or at all, by the existing education system. Such marginalisation is usually the result of very real challenges or systemic failures that are not amenable to simple solutions. Typically, those who are experiencing educational disadvantage are materially disadvantaged as well. The structural issues surrounding poverty make it difficult for those affected to overcome social, economic, physical and psychological conditions.

Frequently, the intended beneficiaries will be suspicious (perhaps for good reasons) that this new OS system is second class an afterthought or to appease people who have in fact been denied the right to equal education. Convincing arguments can be made that education programmes for the poor actually need to be better resourced and of higher quality than those for other strata in society if they are to succeed in ensuring equity and reducing poverty. Poor people do not need poor programmes. Therefore, open schools must demonstrate that the education they provide is equivalent to or better than that available in conventional institutions. In addition to providing quality programmes, open schools are under pressure to produce quick results, and both cost money.

Choices must be made about the media that will be used to deliver OS programmes, though the general tendency is to use as many different channels of communication as practicable. New technologies can be used on their own, but they can also enhance and support old technologies such as print and audio. However, ODL cannot succeed as a technology-driven enterprise. People and institutions are still much more important. As noted above, the first concern must be with the learner, especially the disadvantaged or marginalised learner. Ironically, the advantage brought by new technology may come more from its capacity to enable greater efficiency in the organisation and administration of education rather than to achieve improved communication between tutors and learners, though that will come later.

To be useful, electronic media must be accessible to students. Access to the Internet and e-mail remains a problem in many Commonwealth countries, but we need to explore how far this technology can be exploited and to prepare the ground for more extensive access. Open schools should, in the meantime, be geared up to use information and communication technology (ICT) for those learners who do find ways of gaining access.

In fact, together with others actors in both the public and the private sectors, open schools have a responsibility to increase access to the Internet, for instance through community- level centres of various kinds. Again, if one thinks about an education system as an integrated whole, then the roll-out of computers and Internet facilities to schools, libraries and community centres need not benefit only full-time learners in conventional schools.

A range of other technologies radio and television broadcasts, pre-recorded audio- and video content, mobile/cell phones also have a role to play in delivering educational content as well as in improving communication between open schools and their learners.

Although it is new ICTs that give ODL its cachet and, hopefully, a competitive advantage over conventional education, policy-makers also need to consider how much face-to-face interaction is possible (and affordable) to organise. Learners at the pre-tertiary level may not have the motivation or basic skills (reading levels, language ability or study skills) to progress in their studies without a substantial amount of support from a parent, facilitator or tutor. The lower the educational level and the younger the target learners, the more face-to-face or other interactive support is needed, and this will have significant implications for the cost of provision. A parent can play this facilitating role in some circumstances, as has been shown in home schooling models. This does not mean, however, that the tutor (or whatever he or she may be called) should resort to traditional talk-and-chalk teaching an approach that is likely to be disastrous. Rather, it is important to inculcate the role of a facilitator who helps learners make best use of the learning opportunities that have been developed in other media. Bringing about such cultural change in traditionally trained teachers is not always easy.

Print on paper is still the most widely used technology for conveying the bulk of what needs to be learned, though it may now be more costly than electronic forms of content delivery. Most open schools, we can hope, have moved away from traditional textbooks towards interactive learning guides. These take longer to produce than textbooks do and thus incur additional costs. However, with low-entry subjects where learner numbers do not justify expenditure for developing self-contained materials, it may be necessary to resort to study guides that wrap around an existing textbook. Adaptation of materials from other countries is also an option, but few OS do so, for reasons that are not clear. Perhaps the time required to adapt generic materials to the local context makes this approach less cost-effective, but there is also a tendency for academics to reject teaching resources if they are not invented here.