AUCOIN, ROBERT. 2007. “COL AND VUSSC.” AVANT LEARNING.
We take education for granted in Canada. We take it so much for granted that educators and parents worry that it isn’t even respected anymore. That education and teachers are seen more as glorified babysitters than the means to provide our citizens with the tools towards happiness and flourishing. This, of course, refers to the common notions of education as schooling rather than education as a higher purpose. This is not the case in the typical developing country. On the contrary, education in developing countries is absolutely seen, not just as a route to happiness, but the only route to happiness. Usually this is at least partially through the alleviation of poverty. Like in Canada, however, (perhaps more so) these educational ideals are usually confused with those of schooling.
In this article I describe a new venture that The Commonwealth of Learning (COL) has recently embarked on called The Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth (VUSSC). To do this I will use a variety of COL materials but will primarily draw upon their VUSSC business plan and, in particular, the first and final thirds of the document which speak to the needs and challenges of education in small states and how COL envisions meeting these challenges. I will also use a variety of articles from some prominent educational thinkers as well as other sources to explore whether COL’s plans speak to the educational ideals of flourishing and the good life. Further, the article will explore what the philosophical framework should be and will finish with some suggestions for COL as to challenges they need to be aware of as they develop the VUSSC. All of these discussions will be framed within my own ideas of the importance of educational access.
THE COMMONWEALTH OF LEARNING AND SMALL STATES OF THE COMMONWEALTH
“The Commonwealth of Learning is an international intergovernmental organization created by Commonwealth Heads of Government to encourage the development and sharing of open learning/distance education knowledge, resources and technologies. COL is helping developing nations improve access to quality education and training.”
Their mission is “Recognizing knowledge as key to cultural, social and economic development, the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) is committed to assisting Commonwealth member governments to take full advantage of open, distance and technology-mediated learning strategies to provide increased and equitable access to education and training for all their citizens.”.
In the nearly 20 years that COL has been fulfilling this mission they have discovered that perhaps the single largest challenge in using education in the development of nations are the issues surrounding access to educational materials, access to teachers and access to other learners. This challenge is particularly exacerbated in small states. Small states are typically defined more by their small populations and relative isolation than their geographic size. Hence, Botswana is considered to be a small state while Andorra is not in this context. The educational challenges faced by small states are many but similar.
“A small territory means that natural resources are limited in quantity and variety. A small population makes it difficult for a country to have skilled and qualified people in all the many occupations and trades that underpin a modern economy. Then there is the tyranny of transport. Small landlocked states face difficulty and expense in getting their traded goods to and from ports in neighbouring countries. Island states face the challenges of distance from markets and the cost of sea and air links.
Lastly, small states face special environmental challenges. Recent examples of the effect of the environment on small states includes the hurricane in Grenada, the tsunami in the Maldives, and the floods in Guyana, which serve as a reminder that small states are both particularly prone to natural calamities and especially vulnerable to their effects. Big countries like India and the United States of America have the resources and people to help the very small proportion of their total populations that suffer from such calamities. The effect of such on small societies and their economies is thus relatively much greater.”
The hope is that by working together these small states can recognise economies of scale in terms of educational content, access to expertise and access to learners that was previously only available in larger nations like Canada. By creating a virtual university specifically aimed at developing nations, COL is speaking to the idea of near universal access in the hopes that providing education to citizens of these states will help alleviate poverty and hence allow these same people to flourish and have good lives. By extension, it is hoped, this will create the good life in their nations as a whole in the same way that a rising tide floats all boats. This speaks to my own notions about distance education as a way to alleviate poverty by bringing education to the people rather than insisting on people coming to education.
THE PURPOSE OF EDUCATION GENERALLY
Since the time of Plato, thinkers and philosophers have expounded and debated on what education is and what it is for. Notions of education in these contexts have ranged from education as training for a job to education for good citizenship to education for the higher purposes of the greater good, the good life and a flourishing life. My own views on education are rather more prosaic. I believe that education can and should be about all of these things. What education is (or is not) depends on the person, on the time and the context the person finds themselves in. Ultimately I suppose it could be argued that this speaks mostly to the idea that education is for the good life, in which case the definition becomes less useful when we try to apply it to educational contexts, as we must here when working with developing countries. As Burbules notes “To say that one is educated already implies the judgment that one is made better by it: it would be incoherent on this view to say, “I was educated, but I am worse off as a result.”
In the case of the VUSSC the aims of education are quite clear. The aims of developing a virtual university are to provide learners access to educational materials, teachers and other learners so that they might better themselves and their nations through what Egan would characterise as literacy and the development of the individual. In this case literacy would be more concerned with information technology literacy and the development of the individual as a capacity building exercise rather than general literacies (which most virtual universities assume learners already have) and the development of a child into a functioning adult (as learners will already have achieved secondary education). VUSSC also has implicit aims that speak to communities of practice and learning communities (see later in this paper for more information on this). Ultimately VUSSC wants to create an environment where nation states can realise the economies of scale found in larger states without violating their own notions of education and their own principles around development and the good life.
There is some concern within the VUSSC that current educational institutions within VUSSC member-states are wholly focussed on subjects that are far too academic in nature. There is always a danger in these contexts that those of us in “developed” countries will make value judgments about those of us in “developing” countries. This smacks of neo-colonialism and is exemplified in Burbules’Ways of thinking about educational quality where he refers to an “us” and “them” complex in education whereby “we” educate but “they” indoctrinate. This is also exemplified by Noddingswhere he worries about education being reduced merely to academics or where the educational needs and desires of the individual are superseded by the needs of the state.
This is of concern to VUSSC and the solution has been to simply work within the already existing philosophies of the member states. To this end they have secured government and academic membership from all VUSSC member countries. In this way the members of VUSSC influence each other rather than being overly influenced by the lead country, Canada. The other solution to this dilemma is to simply provide a wide variety of educational opportunities to learners. Allow them to learn in face to face settings or at a distance using a variety of media, allow them the time to expound on their own notions of education but also provide them with the requisite skills and training they need to get good jobs and feed their families. I submit that this speaks directly to Noddings’ notion of education for happiness.
THE GOOD LIFE AND FLOURISHING
One of the stated aims of education by many authors is that education should allow one to lead the good life and flourish. Education is both a means and an end to the good life. It is the means by which people achieve the good life and it is, in and of itself, a good life. Of course, definitions of the good life are sketchy at best and often revolve around the good life looking very much like the particular author writing about it. To that end I am more comfortable with the notion of education having at its root the intent to allow people to flourish. The VUSSC document does not speak to these ideas directly but I raise them here both because I find them intriguing concepts and because of the personal experiences I have had in developing countries. Without exception the people I have known from what we characterise as developing countries have been concerned with ideas about the good life. They would characterise it more closely with getting ahead and getting out from under the poverty blanket that saps so many individuals of their ability to get ahead. And also without exception, each of these individuals saw education as the answer to their life’s challenges. This is in stark contrast to what I see in Canada where education (schooling) is seen as something to get through. Merely a hurdle to jump on the path to a better job, a better life, a family. In other words, in developing nations education is more clearly seen as a means and an end to the good life whereas in Canada, it is merely seen as a means to an end.
The VUSSC document clearly recognises this character in developing small states as they develop their guidelines toward alleviating poverty and providing access to education for all:
In developing small states, where large segments of the population are living in extreme poverty, it is often asked whether it is reasonable to invest money in technology for the education system, instead of using the same money to improve the living conditions of those in dire need. In response to such questions, Osin (1998) states, ‘I believe that these interests are not contradictory and that the only way to reach a long-term solution for the economic problems of the population is to raise the educational level, particularly for the low socio-economic groups’”. 
An examination of the initial course offerings by the VUSSC does speak implicitly to the notions of education as the good life. Programmes will include: Teacher Education; Information and Communications Technology; Information Systems; Tourism and Hospitality; Nursing and Health Care; Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET); Life Skills; Management and Public Administration; and Agriculture and Fisheries. These offerings are clearly a mix of the good life and more immediate notions of education in that they will meet the needs and desires of both the state and the individual.
Brighouse expands on these ideas by relating them more to flourishing and happiness than some sense of the greater good. He cites Richard Layards enumeration of what influences our happiness. Namely: finances, family, work, community and friends, health, personal freedom and personal values. Moreover, Brighouse argues that learning should be fun and that schools should offer things that no one else will offer. Clearly these are all dynamic and overlapping influences but they are useful in trying to conceive a curriculum that will work across a broad spectrum of environments as the VUSSC business plan attempts to do. The VUSSC plan attempts to make learning fun and meaningful by offering educational options not available to learners in the member states including tourism and entrepreneurship. It also aims to do this in a fun (or at least novel) way through distance learning, information technologies and mixed media approaches.
Biesta appears to take a stand against educational notions like COL’s Virtual University. In his article he refers consistently to LearnDirect, an outfit set up by the British Government to provide access to education for all. An examination of LearnDirect would be far beyond the scope of this paper, but I would argue that Biesta has not identified educational language issues as he claims or even distance learning issues as is implied. Biesta has identified education issues that have existed for decades if not centuries. I would agree with Biesta that placing the learner at the centre of learning at the cost of educational ideals is a dangerous place to be. The problem, as he has correctly identified, is that learners frequently don’t know that they don’t know. However, that doesn’t mean that learners do not have a stake in their own learning. Moreover, if LearnDirect has corrupted the notion of learner-centred education to the idea that learners will dictate their own learning then they should be taken to task. The idea of learner-centred education was always about two simple notions: One that the learner would take control of his learning in so much is that to be educated, he or she must make personal meaning with what he or she is learning. The second notion that learner-centred education aims to make educational opportunities available to people wherever and whenever it is convenient to the learner. The concern from Biesta’s piece is that education will remain an elitist activity accessible only to those with the resources to attend universities in the larger urban centres. Similarly, Martha Nussbaum calls for a return to liberal arts education. In one sense I agree with her for the same reasons as above; namely that learners frequently don’t know what they don’t know. A liberal arts education is certainly capable of providing learners with the broad view so that they can learn a little bit about everything. Liberal arts and the humanities are also very successful at providing learners with the requisite critical thinking, reading, writing and problem solving skills we all say we espouse. However, the danger here is that a strictly liberal arts education will create generations of elites. As always there is a continuum of beliefs in play here. If we stick to the notions of schooling (as opposed to education) than university schooling is, by definition, elitist. The question is how elitist we want our institutions to be and how elitist do we want education to appear.
Once again I believe that the VUSSC Business Plan speaks to these notions. It allows learners to learn when and where it is convenient for them and it also provides the space (through technology) for them to make meaning of what they are learning. It does not make any pretence about learning being elitist. Moreover it tries to facilitate education by whoever wants to learn and where they want to learn. The hope with the curriculum in the VUSSC (and I am in a position to influence this as I will be one of the designers) is that we can incorporate liberal arts principles into each course offered in the curriculum. As outlined by Burbules, this will include critical thinking, being a member of a heterogeneous society, empathy and education through fine arts. To this list I would add: problem solving abilities, notions of good global citizenship, learning how to learn and the pursuit of happiness.
THE VIRTUAL UNIVERSITY AS A PRACTICE
I have been very interested for some time now about the notion of communities of practice and learning communities. So it was fortuitous that I read The VUSSC Business Plan so closely to reading Dunne’s piece on understanding the rationality of practice. In the case of The Commonwealth of Learning, their Virtual University is both a means and an end toward a community of practice as well as a learning community. The development of the virtual university (in particular the development of the educational materials which is the part with which I am most familiar) is itself a community of practice. Its aim is to create new communities of practice. Dunne defines a practice as “a coherent, complex set of activities that has evolved cooperatively and cumulatively over time, that is alive in the community who are its practitioners, and that remains alive only so long as they remain committed to sustaining – and creatively developing and extending – its internal goods and its proper standards of excellence.” I would submit that VUSSC meets this definition of a community of practice as it developed quite organically out of work being conducted by all 28 small states and COL over nearly 20 years. The VUSSC has brought together educational professionals from throughout the world, committed to the ideas of education for all and education as a way of relieving poverty.
Dunne also outlines three characteristics of a practice which VUSSC espouses.
- The institutionalisation of the practice.
- The reproduction of the practice
- The articulation of the practice
The first characteristic is embodied in the very existence of the VUSSC and needs no elaboration here. The second characteristic is referred to as capacity building within the framework of the VUSSC. One of the stated aims of the VUSSC is to create educational capacity in its member nations through training of educational specialists and the development of professionals in the educational areas outlined on p.5 of this document.
Dunne also makes special mention of collaboration as a key characteristic to a community of practice. In the case of the development of educational content for the VUSSC it is all collaboratively driven. The content is developed organically using open source software called WIKI educator. Within the WIKI educator each member state has an account and can add, delete or edit materials as it suits their needs. The licensing agreements on the WIKI are open so that everyone owns the materials and can use or alter them as needed; hence this becomes a democratising approach to education. It is in some sense the truest form of collaboration. The danger of course is that this will lead to chaos, but experience has shown that this does not happen and the members are respectful of each other and have a keen sense of the greater good of the project. This is not always the case outside educational circles. Like most things, this form of collaboration can be subverted when taken to extremes. In the case of establishing the framework for the WIKI it was possible to create a set of guidelines and frameworks so severe that creativity would have been stifled. Fortunately COL resisted any attempt to do this.
The key notion to the VUSSC being a community of practice lies in Dunne’s idea that a practice must have a critical mass of practitioners who engage in reflection, articulation and judgement. The members of VUSSC did not have this critical mass and they recognised this gap. In fact it was this very gap that led to the creation of the VUSSC which is rather an exciting development I think. And the VUSSC is also staying true to the other side of that coin which is that the internal goods of their practice will be measured against the needs of their clients.
CONCLUSION AND SUGGESTIONS FOR CAUTION
It is clear from this paper that The Commonwealth of Learning’s new initiative The Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth is one of the more exciting endeavours in distance education in recent memory. It is exciting for what it does as much as how it does it. As a collaborative centre it espouses the principles of openness, good governance and collaboration. It also practices what it preaches in terms of access to educational materials and using education both as a means and an end to flourishing and the good life.
There are some cautions VUSSC needs to be wary of, some of which have already been alluded to in this paper. These are not areas where I believe VUSSC is necessarily lacking. On the contrary, I know that COL has the experience and expertise to speak to all of these cautions. However, it is important to lay these concerns on the table so that they can be dealt with appropriately. These concerns are:
- VUSSC must be wary of imposing structure on educators that restricts their freedom to choose, act and establish their own educational norms.
- VUSSC be aware that “aims of education impose a dominant set of cultural norms and values that direct the learning of “others” into acceptable pathways.”
- VUSSC needs to be aware of the tensions between nation-based and cosmopolitan values. As Burbules points out some aims and ideals, while purporting to be global, are actually strongly national in character.
- No educational aim exists in isolation. They all carry unintended effects. Identifying an educational aim always defines a deficiency. Establishing certain knowledge as valuable, for example, automatically creates a group that lacks it.
Finally, I would like to again refer to Burbules (p.8) and his notion that the ultimate aim of all education should be the capacity and willingness to question critically ones own education. I believe that the VUSSC is willing and able to do this.
 Please see:http://www.col.org/colweb/webdav/site/myjahiasite/shared/docs/VUSSC_Business_Plan_20070220.docfor the entire document. From this point forward this document will simply be referred to as The VUSSC Business Plan
 The VUSSC Business Plan p.30
 ibid p.30
 ibid p.3
 Burbules, N. (2004). Ways of thinking about educational quality. Educational Researcher, 33 (6), 4-10.
 Egan, K. (2001). Why education is so difficult and contentious. Teachers College Record, 103 (6), 923-941.
 The VUSSC Business Plan p.4
 Burbules, N. (2004). Ways of thinking about educational quality. Educational Researcher, 33 (6), 4-10.
 Noddings, N. (2003). The aims of education. Happiness and Education (pp74-91). New York: Cambridge.
 Toulouse, P.R. (2001). Chapter one: Comprehending the Anishinabek ourstory. In Bimaadziwin (The Goodlife); Sharing the teachings of Sagamok Anishnawbek: Implications for education (pp 1-40). & Burbules, N. (2004). Ways of thinking about educational quality. Educational Researcher, 33 (6), 4-10. & Noddings, N. (2003). The aims of education. Happiness and Education (pp74-91). New York: Cambridge.
 The VUSSC Business Plan p.8
 Brighouse, H. (2006). Educating for flourishing. On education (pp 42-61). New York: Routledge.
 Biesta, G.J.J. (2006). Reclaiming a language for education in an age of learning. Beyond learning: Democratic education for a human future (pp 13-32). London: Paradigm.
 Nussbaum, M. (2006). Tagore, Dewey and the imminent demise of liberal education. Kalkata: Paper prepared for conference on Tagore’s philosophy of education.
 Dunne, J. (2005). An intricate fabric: Understanding the rationality of practice. Pedagogy, Culture and Society, 13 (3), 367-390.
 Ibid. p.368.
 Please see http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/editorials/la-wiki-splash,0,1349109.story for more information
 Burbules, N. (2004). Ways of thinking about educational quality. Educational Researcher, 33 (6), 4-10.