Papua New Guinea Association of Distance Education
10 April 2006

Learning for Development: The Role of Distance Education

Presented by:

Sir John Daniel
President & CEO
Commonwealth of Learning




It is a great pleasure to be with you and I am honoured by the presence of the Minister of Education and the Minister of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology. This is my first visit to Papua New Guinea and I am delighted that it coincides with this meeting of the Papua New Guinea Association for Distance Education. Thank you for the very warm welcome that you have given to me. I am most impressed by the preparation that has gone into this meeting and the thoughtfulness behind the topics outlined in the abstracts.

Few countries have a greater need to develop open and distance learning than Papua New Guinea. You have significant distances and the sheer beauty and topography of your country makes communication and travel difficult. Moreover you lead the world in linguistic diversity. Distance learning can play a role in preserving and reinforcing that diversity.

How can distance education serve the development of Papua New Guinea? That is what I want to explore with you today. My title is Learning for Development: The Role of Distance Education.

I shall start by asking what we mean by development. We use the word often, but what do we imagine when we pronounce it? I shall suggest that development simply means increasing freedom. There are many sorts of freedom and many sorts of development. I shall suggest that three important sets of development aims for PNG are to be found in three sets of goals.

First there are the eight Millennium Development Goals that were proclaimed by the world's Heads of Government when they met at the United Nations in the year 2000. Second there are the six goals for education that were agreed at the World Forum on Education for All, also in the Millennium Year. Third, there are the goals espoused by the Commonwealth, the free association of 53 countries of which Papua New Guinea is a proud member. I shall then show you how COL simplifies these goals and groups them in its Plan of work for 2006-09.

Many things are needed for development to happen, but one common factor that unites efforts to achieve development goals is the need for learning - learning on a massive scale. But the challenge of learning is so huge that traditional methods of teaching are not sufficient to address it. Technology has helped us to improve the quantity and quality of products and services in other areas of human life so we must now apply technology to learning. That is the only way we can meet the learning challenge. The technology of open and distance learning has proved particularly successful.

I shall conclude my talk by showing how educational technology and distance learning is being used by COL to promote learning for development in various areas. I shall focus particularly on identifying models for using technology, models that allow us to scale up learning in such a sustainable way that they are widely adopted - what I shall call self replication. A key element of sustainability and self replication is for people to be able to do it themselves, with minimal outside involvement. The aim is for people to take charge of their own development - to aim for development without donors.

Development requires learning. What types of learning are we talking about? People need to learn many different things. The Delors Report summed them up well as: learning to be, learning to know, learning to do, and learning to live together. Those types of learning are as important in PNG as they are in Canada where I live.

What is Development?

So let me start at the beginning. What is development?

We need look no farther for a definition than the title of Amartya Sen's inspiring bookDevelopment as Freedom. He says that development and human rights are two sides of the same coin. Development means simply expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. Sen also points out that freedom is also what makes development happen. It is primarily through the free agency of people that development is achieved. Free people devote more energy to the development of their families, their communities and their countries than those who are not free.

So according to Sen, the expansion of freedom is both the primary purpose and the principal means of development. What kinds of freedom are we talking about? We can distinguish between freedom from and freedom to. The first 'freedom from' is freedom from hunger. You cannot concentrate on much else if you worry constantly where your next meal is coming from. Hunger is a direct manifestation of poverty. Taking people out of abject poverty helps to free them from hunger and gives them other freedoms as well, notably some freedom from being pushed around by others and from having most of life's decisions made for them. The second 'freedom from' is freedom from disease. It is hard for people to fulfil their potential is they are constantly sick. It is hard to develop a community if its members are constantly sick.

The next freedom is the freedom to live with a minimum of dirt, smoke and germs. There seems to be a paradox here. In rich parts of the world individual people consume more than their share of the earth's resources but live in nice clean environments with fresh water in the taps, clean air to breathe, and no piles of garbage to trip over. In developing countries individuals make fewer demands on resources but often have to live besides heaps of garbage, breathe foul air and make do with dirty water. I'm sure that you can think of other 'freedoms from', but there are also 'freedoms to'. The freedom to be treated as an equal to other members of society, especially the freedom for men and women to be treated as equals. There is the freedom to be educated, the freedom to choose who governs you, the freedom to express yourself, and the freedom to practice your religion. No doubt you can think of more 'freedoms to' as well, but this list of freedoms from and freedoms to begins to define what we mean by 'development'.

Goals of Development

The challenge is to express these freedoms as concrete aims that we can work towards. At the Commonwealth of Learning we do this by bringing together three frameworks of goals. First, there are the Millennium Development Goals, which set targets for progress towards freedom from hunger and poverty, freedom from disease, freedom from pollution, the freedom to be equal and the freedom to be educated. Defining the freedom to be educated was taken further in the Dakar Goals of Education for All, or EFA.

There are six goals for EFA, which cover all levels of education from early childhood to adult learning and skills training. Finally, a number of the other 'freedoms to' are embraced in the key goals espoused by the Commonwealth: the freedom to live in peace, the freedom of democracy, the freedom of equality before the law, and the freedoms that flow from good governance. COL defines its work by combining these three frameworks. In our Plan for 2006-09 we boil these sets of goals down into three sectors of activity to guide our work. The three sectors are Education, Learning for Livelihoods, and Human Environment. I shall take them in reverse order. In each case I shall explain what development goals each sector covers and why mass learning is crucial to achieving those goals. Then I shall give one example of how technology, notably the techniques and approaches of distance learning, can help to provide learning opportunities on the scale required.

Human Environment

In the human environment sector we include the Commonwealth goal of equality and the MDG on gender parity and gender equity. When I was at UNESCO gender equity meant primarily getting girls into school. That is still important. However in various parts of the Commonwealth, notably the Caribbean, the Pacific and parts of Africa, there is a serious problem of male underachievement, which COL intends to try and address in partnership with the Commonwealth Secretariat.

The human environment sector also includes governance, where we are helping to scale up public sector training both generally and in specific areas like legislative drafting, where a course the COL helped to develop is used here in PNG. This sector also includes our work in environmental education, which is mainly focused in India at the moment but will soon spread around the Commonwealth through the distance learning Green Teacher diploma that we have developed and tested with India's Centre for Environmental Education.

The last element in this sector, which I now explain in greater detail, is health. Three MDGs are concerned with freedom from disease: freedom from dying in infancy; freedom from dying while giving birth; and freedom from avoidable diseases like AIDS, malaria and polio. Freedom from abject poverty is a start towards achieving the health freedoms. The freedom to be educated and trained also helps in attaining the freedom of better health. Clearly, improving health services is important for reaching these goals. But achieving them also depends on people learning how to avoid disease and keep themselves and their children healthy. They must have information that they can understand: not just because it is presented in their own language, but because it is rooted in their culture - even if it challenges some of the habits of that culture.

This is the basis of COL's Media Empowerment programme, but before I explain the details, let me say a word about the general approach that COL tries to use in harnessing the power of technology to learning.

Models for using Technology for Learning

COL works with its partners to find ways of using technology that meet at least three criteria. First, we look for, or develop applications of technology that are scaleable. For us the whole point of using technology is to create learning opportunities for many more people. Nearly all development goals require very large numbers of people to learn new things. Conventional face-to-face teaching cannot be scaled up to meet the challenge. Technology is only useful if it can be scaled up.

Second, we want models for using technology that are sustainable. That means the technology must be robust, it must be suited to the environment, and its maintenance and updating must not have to rely on external funding. Third, it must be locally organised. To begin with, this helps to achieve the goals of scalability and sustainability. Anything that depends on outsiders will be limited in impact and inherently fragile. Local people must take responsibility. This also ensures that the use of technology and the messages and learning that it transmits, will be culturally and linguistically appropriate.

Those three goals are essential but we try to aim for a fourth, which is to create a model that is self-replicating. I mean that the application is so obviously effective and powerful that people copy it spontaneously. COL is a small agency that can only act in a very few places. But if people copy the models we put in place we can have a big multiplication effect. COL is not concerned with who gets the credit; we simply want to scale up learning for development.

The Media Empowerment Model

So I come back to our Media Empowerment programme. The idea is simple - most good models for using technology are! We believe that messages about avoiding disease and keeping well will be most effective if they are developed and put out by local people. The most powerful medium for this is a mass medium: TV or video. So the challenge is simply to equip a suitable local group with video equipment: camera, editing suite, projector and so on, and train them to use it in an effective and sustained way.

I can give a real example from PNG which has recently been started by my colleague David Walker. The aim is to help PNG tackle the challenge of HIV/AIDS, a development disaster that risks wiping out development gains already made. Infection rates in parts of this country are some of the highest in the world, up to 40%, and unless the spread of this disease can be arrested the viability of parts of your nation is threatened.

The first task is to find a suitable local group. To find it we consult the World Health Organisation, which knows the health situation in each country and the Non-Governmental Organisations that are already working to improve it.

In the Solomon Islands the WHO identified the Solomon Islands Development Trust and we have been working with them for a year. Here in PNG they identified Anglicare STOP AIDS as the people to work with. They are now fully equipped and trained and are producing videos of health messages with their drama troupe.

The Village Cinema Model

What about scalability? For that COL has developed a model that we call Village Cinema.Again, it is very simple. You go into a village, hang up a sheet between two trees, wait until it is dark and then project the videos using a small diesel generator if there is no other power.

We have most experience of using this model in The Gambia, a small country in West Africa. There almost 50% of the entire population of the country has seen village cinema presentations about AIDS and malaria produced by a local NGO. The Government of the Gambia believes that the effect of this initiative has been to arrest the increase of HIV infections and increase dramatically the number of families avoiding malaria by using insecticide treated bed nets.

I hope that we can achieve similar success here in PNG. You may not immediately think of this combination of Media Empowerment and Village Cinema as distance learning, but the name doesn't matter. It is an effective way of using technology to scale up learning in support of development. It is perhaps particularly appropriate in PNG where it can respond to your need to operate in many languages. Only you, the citizens of Papua New Guinea, can solve your desperate AIDS problem. Media empowerment, as its name implies, empowers you to address the challenge.

Another good technology is community radio. COL has set up an FM station in the premises of the Solomon Islands Development Trust and back in 2001 we put a solar powered community radio station in a remote community here in PNG called Mountain Brown in the Owen Stanley Range. We think that community radio has great potential, both here and in other countries and we hope that governments will come more and more to share that view.

Learning for Livelihoods

Let me now turn to the second of COL's development sectors and give an example from that. We call that sector learning for livelihoods and it tries to address the most crucial of all development goals, the elimination of poverty and hunger. That is the first of the Millennium Development Goals, to halve, between 2000 and 2015, the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day and those who are hungry.

That means that the first step in development is to increase the income of the poorest people, in other words to improve their livelihoods. Literacy training and most forms of education improve people's livelihoods but COL is always seeking the most direct link possible between learning and livelihoods. We believe that the place to start is with the farmers in the rural areas. If we can improve the livelihoods of the tens of millions of farmers and smallholders in the developing world we shall transform the rural economy and with it the prosperity of the whole world.

The model of Media Empowerment that I have just described can be useful here too and COL has equipped the agricultural extension departments of the governments of Jamaica and Grenada with video equipment just as we have done here for health. There are never enough extension workers and the videos multiply the impact of their work, as well as being more interesting for the farmers.


The Model of Lifelong Learning for Farmers

But I want to talk today about another model, which we call Lifelong Learning for Farmers, or L3Farmers for short. This takes a deeper look at the rural economy and involves more of its components. The initiative was based on the premise that a way must be found to give farmers, who are the heart of the rural economy, easier access to information and knowledge that could help them increase their livelihoods. Even where they exist, agricultural extension services are too understaffed to address the challenge. The result is that the wealth of information resulting from agricultural research and development fails to travel the last mile to where it is most needed, the villages of the developing world.

In the last few years many villages in India have been equipped with ICT kiosks as a result of government interventions or commercial initiatives. Since each kiosk provides its village with internet and telephone connections COL asked itself whether these kiosks might help to carry useful information that last mile to the individual farmer.

We began by studying the impact of introducing ICT kiosks in four regions of India. The results were clear. The kiosks had not had as big an impact as hoped. The reason was that they had been introduced in a top-down manner without involving local communities. So the first principle we adopted was to mobilise the farmers, to get them to form an association and create a vision of development for their village.

Our role is then to help them achieve that vision. The vision includes their view of how their farming might yield better livelihoods. It might be acquiring better livestock, growing new crops, or simply improving the process of marketing their produce. That produces questions. They are often apparently simple questions. How do I identify a good cow? How do I keep wild boars off my land when they are a protected species?

The next step is to get the information providers to work together to answer these questions. In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, for example, we helped to create a consortium of the Agricultural University, the Open University, the Veterinary University, a large Engineering University and the University of Madras for questions with a social science element. These institutions had been used to operating separately and ineffectively in their relationships with farmers. Now they work together.

The ICT kiosks are used to link the farmers to the consortium. These are commercial ICT kiosks and we prefer it that way because it makes the operation sustainable and creates another stakeholder, the kiosk operator, who has an interest in providing information of value that the farmers are prepared to pay for, such as very local weather forecasts.

The fourth key element is to involve the commercial banks. In India the banks are under pressure from government to increase rural lending but the record of repayment has been poor. However, the banks felt that the L3 Farmers system gave them a better assurance of repayment and so they became thoroughly involved, not just in making loans, but in getting other businesses involved to improve the marketing of the produce.

So, to give a concrete example, the farmers in a village near the town of Theni in Tamil Nadu formed an association and decided that improving dairy production was their best route to greater prosperity. Their key question to the information providers was 'how do I tell a good milk cow from a poor milk cow?' The specialists worked together and came up with a check list with diagrams which the women of the village, who have learned some web programming, made into an instructional sequence on the computer in the ICT kiosk.

The bank loaned money to the farmers to improve their dairy cows, some $US 200,000 so far, and also brought in a diary company from the nearby town which agreed to buy a guaranteed quantity of milk and take it to market provided that the farmers agreed to meet certain quality standards.

The net result is a more prosperous and happy village; banks that are so pleased with the results that they are replicating the system in other villages without COL's involvement, and ICT kiosk operators who are making a living too.

This is not conventional open and distance learning, but it is a successful way of improving the rural economy. It is technology assisted learning for development.

I noted with interest in that in the abstracts for this symposium many authors are asking questions about the philosophical underpinnings of ODL and what it does to educational processes. These are good questions to ask, but I hope I am showing that ODL can take many forms. These two examples, Media Empowerment and L3 Farmers do not deliver old educational material in new ways: they put people, technology and knowledge together in new ways to create new learning processes.


Let me conclude with two more examples of powerful models that use technology to reconfigure relationships between people and institutions to create new forms of learning. I turn to COL's third and biggest sector, Education. Here you all know about the Millennium Development Goal of Universal Primary Education. The major bottleneck to the achievement of universal primary education is the training and retraining of tens of millions of teachers. In the Commonwealth, there are 20 million teachers. Many of them need further training to be effective.

Millions of new teachers must be recruited and trained as countries seek to expand education with a teaching force that is shrinking through retirement, migration and AIDS. Conventional methods of teacher education are not up to the scale of the challenge. ODL has already proven its effectiveness for training teachers in many countries. It happens here in PNG and it is vital to expand it.

However, I want to talk about two other models for harnessing technology to learning: Open Schooling and the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth.

The Open Schooling Model

Open Schooling is the application of ODL at the school level; particularly the secondary school level, and is a very important activity for COL. The Millennium Development Goal focuses on Universal Primary Education but the Dakar Goals of Education for All and COL's interest go much wider. In COL's Education Sector we attempt not only to promote the achievement of Universal Primary Education through the training of teachers by ODL but also to address the consequence of achieving Universal Primary Education, which will be to send a tidal wave of children towards secondary school.

The countries that struggle to achieve primary education will certainly not be able to satisfy the growing demand for secondary education by conventional means and building schools, which is where open schooling comes in. Open schools go back much longer than open universities. Countries like New Zealand, Australia and Canada had open schools more than fifty years ago. However, it was the creation of the National Open School in India in the 1970s that began the modern era of open schooling. Today India's National Institute for Open Schooling has over a million children on its rolls and countries in Africa, as well as the states of India now seek to emulate its success.

What is the model? As you will have gathered by now, I am particularly interested in identifying the underlying models in the applications of technology to education. So how does the open school model differ from the open-university model?

First, secondary schoolchildren require more personal contact with tutors and facilitators than do university students, so there is greater emphasis on local centres. Second, open schools are directed as much at youngsters beyond school age who want to complete their school diplomas as they are at school-age children who cannot find a conventional school. Third, many of their pupils are disadvantaged in various ways: some have part-time employment, some have disabilities, some are homeless, and so on.

This means that when open schools say they use open and distance learning, they must emphasise the 'open' even more than the 'distance'. Pupils must be able to come in and out, fitting their studies with their often difficult lives. From this has developed a fourth feature of open schools, namely that their study centres are often run by the NGOs that take a special interest in disadvantaged children. This creates a win-win situation. The open school has a ready made network of study centres run by organisations and people that really care about the children, and the NGOs, through the open school materials, have a way of giving the children they serve a much richer educational experience.

Many countries are now interested in creating or re-invigorating open schools, so this is a model of learning for development that will keep COL busy in the years ahead.

A New Model: The Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth

Finally, I must say a word about a very topical and exciting initiative, the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth. It is topical because, as I speak, the second working meeting of representatives from the 22 participating small states of the Commonwealth is getting under way in Singapore. It is exciting because it allows the smaller states of the Commonwealth to develop expertise in cutting edge educational methods and serve their young people with livelihood related courses.

Papua New Guinea was one of the countries that originally signed up for the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth but lately the trail has gone cold and you have not sent people to the planning meetings. We hope that you will get on board again now that the train is leaving the station. The Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth was an initiative of the Ministers of Education of the 33 small states of the Commonwealth when they met for their triennial conference in Canada in 2000. That was the year of the dotcom frenzy and all the hype about how the Internet was changing everything alarmed the small states, which feared that they did not have the critical mass to compete in this new world.

However, they thought that they might participate effectively by working together and that is what the Virtual University is all about. It is not a new institution, but a collaborative network through which small states can work together to create useful courses for their people, courses that are mostly directly related to livelihoods and professional development. Another important feature is that the countries will collaborate electronically and courses will be developed in electronic format as Open Educational Resources even if, for reasons of poor connectivity, those courses will often be offered in more traditional ODL formats. Here too is a 21st century model for the application of technology to learning and I hope that PNG will soon join in.


So there it is. Learning for Development: The Role of Distance Education. I hope I have shown you that distance education has a huge role to play in progressing the development agenda and that there are many manifestations of open and distance learning. I have given you just a few of the models that COL is using.

The kind of development we are seeking is development that increases human freedom in many dimensions. The condition for developing those freedoms is a massive increase in human learning. Conventional methods of teaching are not up to the task. Commonwealth nations have the opportunity to harness the potential of ODL to advance development. Learning is the common wealth of humankind. Our task is both to increase that wealth and to ensure that is not the private preserve of favoured individuals or institutions but indeed the common wealth of humankind. I wish the Papua New Guinea Association for Distance Education and its members every success as they take up the challenge.