Open Learning-Its Potential and Limitations

Open Learning – Its Potential and Limitations in Contributing to the Skills Agenda

The advent of open learning systems (OLS) that utilise the advantages of the internet clearly offers many opportunities to widen participation in education and training and make a major contribution to lifelong learning. The associated technologies allow increased distribution and access opportunities to potential learners across the globe and reduce/remove many barriers that restrict participation for many individuals. This can provide no/low-cost access and use with little or no restrictions for the learner. A multitude of technologies and techniques have been developed to suit the learner’s situation and needs. Massive on-line learning programmes are available across a wide range of subjects many of which are freely downloadable. The quality of the teaching material can be superior to class room based teaching and learning especially when the local providing institutions are constrained by resources.

Clearly these positive statements need to be qualified and the issues are mainly associated with quality assurance for the programmes, access issues and the learning resources themselves. Obviously strict standards must be in place coupled with rigorous inspection and monitoring regimes in order that quality is assured and the programmes deliver what they say they will. It must be recognised that traditional quality assurance mechanisms that exist in more formal face to face environments cannot be applied to these emerging widely distributed and open on-line learning methods. New approaches have to be created and require organisations like OECD, EU, and other organisations and consortia who are offering provision to establish agreed international standards and inspection techniques. Networks and consortia of universities and colleges are now offering open learning programmes recognising the undoubted advantages of these approaches and that will enhance their provision.

Clearly the ultimate success of open learning depends on the availability of high quality broad band in terms of geographical coverage and band width. There are still areas in Europe that have poor coverage and inadequate band width.

Clearly from my perspective and interest in the teaching of technical and practically based subjects is the ability of these technologies to play their part in improving and delivering a relevant pedagogical experience. For successful teaching of practical and manual skills the learning environment must be as realistic as possible. The technologies can obviously complement and add value to the traditional formal methods where the learners have access to laboratories and workshops in colleges and training providers. The visual and audio on-line material can provide a much richer detail and resultant experience that might not be available in the more formal setting of the classroom, laboratories and workshops because of resource limitations. The technologies can offer a range of techniques that will engage and enhance the learning experience including interactive visual/audio presentations and practical demonstrations that will complement the essential local hands on approach of the learner, information and work sheets, tests and assessment material and an increasing number of specialised apps (applications). The material can be downloaded and will complement book based/lecture material.

However real challenges still exist for the lone and isolated learner who might not have access to laboratories and workshops and hence not have the benefit of an essential realistic working environment. The development of more sophisticated modes of online interactivity will create more realistic working environments (RWEs) which would greatly enhance the learning experience in this mode in the future. I still have some reservations, albeit minor, that these technologies will never create the real hands on experience that I feel should still be realised for learners in gaining technical and practical skills.

Open educational resources (OERs) and open educational practices (OEPs) will increasingly make a major contribution to the teaching and learning of theoretical and practical skills in the future.

The Chartered Institute for Plumbing and Heating Engineering (CIPHE) have created an excellent e-learning portal for its members. It provides high quality learning material for plumbers and students and shows the potential of Open Learning. Modules are ten to sixty minutes duration and many are created and sponsored by manufacturers. The address is www.ciphepd.org.uk and is well worth looking at.

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