Chapter One

The concept of 'Open Learning'


As reflective practitioners we never allow our work to become a matter of routine. We remain alive to new issues, new theories, new knowledge, new technologies, new controversies that touch upon our field. We expect to go on learning and developing new approaches of our own as long as we practice.

Derek Rowntree[1]

 Contested terminology 

The term ‘open learning’ does not invite easy definition. As Mackenzie et al pointed out in 1975:

Open Learning is an imprecise phrase to which a range of meanings can be, and is, attached. It eludes definition. But as an inscription to be carried in procession on a banner, gathering adherents and enthusiasms, it has great potential.[2]

Thus, open learning describes a concept that is complex and yet invigorating educationally. Herein, however, lies a great danger, namely that the term ‘open learning’ can be used by educationists and politicians as an ‘inspirational’ title, which allows for the perpetuation of outdated modes of educational practice under the guise of something new and exciting. If the term is not simply to be used as a smokescreen for such a phenomenon, it is vital to understand the full implications of making use of the concept. This problem is compounded by growing use of the term internationally – as well as the emergence of hybrid terms such as open and distance learning – which is leading to further divergence in definitions of the term.    

This raises an obvious question: if the term carries these problems and complexities, why bother to integrate it into policy discourse in South Africa? Such a question is particularly topical in South African educational policy-making, where proliferation of terms and concepts at the policy level has, in many ways, created more problems than it has solved by obfuscating simple educational concepts, often leaving educators, administrators, and learners bewildered and disillusioned. This has also compounded many educational problems by adding growing layers of complexity to policy implementation, which becomes particularly problematic as large-scale policy implementation needs to be made as simple as possible if it is to maximize its potential for positive impact. 

In this, however, lies the answer to the question. In this research report, we hope to demonstrate that – if rigorously applied – the concept of open learning creates the conceptual space to resolve these problems rather than compounding them. Of course, like any concept, the term can easily be misappropriated by people seeking to justify poor practice, but we believe that this risk should not deflect from efforts to understand how it can be used constructively. In any event, the term is already an important conceptual pillar of most major government policy position, which suggests a need at least to understand better its potential contribution to building an effective policy environment for South African education and training.  

Consequently, our intention in this report is not to debate the relative merits of different interpretations of the concept. Doubtless, each of these interpretations has validity and relevance to the context in which it is used. Instead, we will construct our own interpretation of the concept, drawing on international literature, analysis of national educational policy, and our own practical experience of education and training in South Africa. From these two sources, we will extrapolate what we consider to be the most relevant working definition of open learning to the South African education and training context. This working definition will then provide a conceptual platform for the remainder of this report. To start, however, we believe it is important to clear up some common misconceptions about open learning.  

 Misconceptions about open learning 

Much of what has been written about open learning have led to the formation of certain misconceptions about it, which are reinforced by several uses of the term in practice. Clearing up these misconceptions is essential in attempting to define the concept. Three primary misconceptions are therefore outlined below.

Open Learning and Distance Education are Synonymous Terms

Rowntree points out that, ‘for most people, open learning implies that the learner’s work is based around self-study materials’.[3] For example, Hilary Temple, when describing a training programme that was introduced at British Telecom, made the observation that ‘it is now company policy for distance learning to be the first choice for delivery unless the cost-effectiveness of alternative forms can be demonstrated’. She then goes on to describe this as a ‘victory for open learning’,[4] thus equating distance education with open learning. In this example, though, there is nothing to suggest that the application of distance education had any intrinsic link to efforts to increase openness; rather it was simply a tactical switch of teaching methods by the company concerned for financial purposes.  

This conflation of terms becomes most apparent in discussions on the costs of ‘open learning’. David Bosworth, for example, makes the following comment; ‘costing open learning is complicated, since a number of savings can be made, but initial costs of packages, equipment, software and so on can be high’.[5] It is clear that he is actually describing a costing process for distance education, as do many other people (for example, Derek Rowntree) when considering cost factors for ‘open learning’.  

This is, however, a distortion. In brief, the term ‘distance education’ describes a collection of methods for the provision of structured learning. Its object is to avoid the necessity for learners to discover the curriculum by attending classes frequently and for very long periods in order to listen to it being spoken about. This does not mean that there is no face-to-face contact, but that most communication between learners and educators is not face-to-face. Instead, it makes use of different media as necessary. Distance education, therefore, provides techniques of educational design and provision that – under certain circumstances – can bring better chances of educational success to vastly more people at greatly reduced costs. Nevertheless, the provision of distance education does not automatically equate with openness in education. As Rumble points out, for example,

the technological basis of distance education may...lead to a closed system if undue emphasis is placed on ‘programmed’ media such as texts, broadcasts, audio- and video-cassettes, computer-based instruction, etc, where the content is pre-determined and communication is one way (from the teacher to the student).[6]

Both in South Africa and internationally, a vast amount of distance education provision is closed in many respects. Consequently, although distance education is a collection of educational practices that has demonstrated great potential for increasing openness in learning, the terms should not be confused.  

Unfortunately, this confusion has been taken to great lengths in some circles, leading, in its most explicit manifestation, to growing use of the conflated term ‘open and distance learning’. The conceptual integration of open learning and distance education in the United Kingdom and Australia into ‘open and distance learning’ has created a real misperception that distance education is intrinsically ‘open’, and regretfully the term has a growing currency in South Africa. This is a problem not only because poor distance education practice can easily close off opportunities of actually learning, but equally because it contains an implicit assumption that only those educational strategies clustered under the banner of distance education have the potential to create openness in educational systems. This is a fundamental distortion of the conditions necessary to create more open education and training systems. It appears as often as not to have had its origins in attempts by distance educators to market their offerings. 

Critically, then, we wish to stress our opinion that open learning has no conceptual value as a synonym for distance education.

Open Learning is for Adults

Emerging from the tendency to regard open learning as synonymous with distance education is the perception that open learning is applicable to adults only. This has come about primarily because most – but certainly not all – attempts to open learning have occurred at the tertiary and vocational levels. This is demonstrated quite clearly in the stated aims of the Open Learning Agency of Australia, which was established ‘to put Open Learning on a firmer footing’ in Australia.

The Broad aims of Open Learning...are:

(a)  to widen and facilitate access to tertiary education through the provision of off-campus courses in a wide range of subjects in high demand at a cost to each participant broadly equivalent to the students’ Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS);

(b)  to increase flexibility and innovation in the provision of high quality tertiary education programs.

(c)  to build on the experience, expertise, range of course offerings and infrastructure of distance education, the pilot Television Open Learning Project, and open learning initiatives in TAFE [technical and further education].[7]

These provide a clear example of an institution that has conceptualized ‘Open Learning’ as a concept applicable to adult learning only. Two comments, however, demonstrate the dangers inherent in this type of compartmentalization. Lewis Elton notes, in reference to adult learners, the ‘well known educational paradox that students have to be led to autonomy’.[8] This would imply that adult learners have not been encouraged to develop as independent, critical thinkers throughout their primary and secondary education (where they have completed these levels of education). Building on this, Temple observes the following:

It is difficult for those who do not work with adult learners to comprehend the extent and severity of the revulsion which they can feel about returning to learning...Thus any system which removes the more obvious barriers and embarrassments associated with a formal learning experience is bound to be seen as meritorious.[9] 

This again implies the existence of unpleasant learning experiences at primary and secondary levels. Thus, these two comments carry with them the implication that adults learners, who are not autonomous in their learning habits, have been through a primary and secondary education not infused with principles of openness, principles which aim to make learning as accessible and learner-centred as possible. In order to reverse this trend, it is vital not to regard open learning as something aimed at adults only. It is, rather, essential to start regarding open learning as a concept relevant to all fields of educations, including educare,[10] primary education, secondary education, adult basic education, higher education, further education, general education, special education, and teacher training. This approach can have the result of developing adult learners who do not suffer from the types of problems mentioned by Elton and Temple.

Open Learning is an Achievable Systemic Goal

In addition to confusing the terms open learning and distance education, there has been a further tendency to regard open learning as something that can find final expression through individual projects, initiatives, institutions, or other educational systems. This is expressed quite clearly in the names of several organizations, for example, the Open Learning Agency in Canada, the Open Learning Institute of Hong Kong (now also renamed as an Open University) or the Open University in the United Kingdom.[11] The idea is also contained in opinions such as the following: ‘ A sensible use of educational technology theories and technological devices can provide a truly open system’.[12] This notion is, however, misleading, as Rumble makes clear:

There is, I believe, an attempt to highjack [sic] the descriptive adjective ‘open’ and apply it to learning systems to form a compound noun ‘open-learning-systems’, which is then used in sentences such as ‘the [institution’s name] is an open learning system’. Such sentences are then used to define the particular system in a way which is attractive politically, given the political and financial advantages which may accrue from claiming status as an open learning-system. In practice the systems so described may be anything but open.[13] 

There is a great danger in labelling individual initiatives in this way, because it implies the creation of a separate ‘open learning’ system alongside conventional education and training, running parallel to it through various ‘open learning projects’. Such thinking, for example, led to a proposal in the ANC’s Policy Framework for Education and Training that a National Open Learning Agency should ‘conduct an analysis of the capacity of existing institutions which might form part of the national open learning system’.[14] Such a tendency robs open learning of its strengths as a concept. This is because it suggests that open learning is a perceptible method of educational provision that is to be offered alongside conventional education. Such educational provision will inevitably be regarded as inferior and marginal to mainstream education, as the history of distance education has clearly demonstrated. In addition, this conceptualization can be used by existing educational providers as an excuse for doing nothing to open their own mainstream provision.  

More importantly, though, we believe that open learning is not something that can be contained in individual educational projects, initiatives, institutions, or indeed any educational system, each of which is subject to too many constraints to offer truly ‘open’ learning. Further, we believe that attempts to describe systems or institutions as ‘open’ is contradictory and unhelpful. All systems and institutions depend on sets of rules of operation that necessarily create closure at different points within them. These points of closure are not intrinsically problematic, as all social systems require understood and agreed rules of operation to function effectively and within the boundaries of financial constraints. Indeed, any educational system or institution that strives for complete openness sets itself a final goal of anarchy, in which all learning will become impossible.  

Rather, then, we understand open learning as an approach to education the principles of which can continually inform all educational practices with the aim of improving them. For us, this is most easily expressed in a simple grammatical switch, from understanding ‘open’ not as an adjective – which then describes a particular kind of learning – but rather as a verb, creating an impetus for action. Thus, we believe the strength of the concept lies in its capacity to lead to action focused on systematically opening learning. This it is able to do because open learning brings together key educational principles, all of which focus in one form or another on opening learning. These principles do not amount to a coherent doctrine or philosophy; indeed, often they exist in tension with one another. This tension is important, because can help educational planners to understand where closure in their educational systems is required and where it is unhelpful. Thus, the principles of open learning provide a set of benchmarks against which all aspects of any educational system (international, national, provincial, or institutional) can be measured. This process can lead to improvements in the underlying design of such system, because it can remove unnecessary closure and consolidate closure where it is important to the efficient and financially viable functioning of the system.  

In order to become effective in South Africa, these principles need to suffuse the education and training system as a whole in order to allow for its effective transformation. Openness in education can only start to be translated into practice when large numbers of projects, initiatives, and institutions use the principles of open learning to rethink and redesign all aspects of their educational systems on an ongoing basis and coordinate their efforts to offer as wide a range of learning opportunities and methodologies to individual learners as possible.  

 What is open learning? 

In considering various misconceptions about open learning, we have given some negative descriptions of open learning, that is we have outlined what we believe open learning does not describe. It is necessary now to consolidate this into a description of ‘open learning’. Given the nature of this report, it is possibly most appropriate to begin developing a locally relevant definition of open learning by offering a definition taken from government policy:

Open learning is an approach which combines the principles of learner centredness, lifelong learning, flexibility of learning provision, the removal of barriers to access learning, the recognition for credit of prior learning experience, the provision of learner support, the construction of learning programmes in the expectation that learners can succeed, and the maintenance of rigorous quality assurance over the design of learning materials and support systems. South Africa is able to gain from world-wide experience over several decades in the development of innovative methods of education, including the use of guided self-study, and the appropriate use of a variety of media, which give practical expression to open learning principles.[15]

We believe that this definition effectively helps to sort through differing international interpretations of the concept in moving towards a locally relevant understanding. Using this as a starting point, therefore, we understand open learning as an approach to education which seeks to remove all unnecessary barriers to learning, while aiming to provide learners with a reasonable chance of success in an education and training system centred on their specific needs and located in multiple arenas of learning. 

The concept of open learning is built around and defined by certain key principles, each of which is aimed at opening up particular features or aspects of learning for learners. They are principles that can effectively inform and transform educational practice, and they can be grouped into the following categories. As has been pointed out above, these principles do not constitute a coherent doctrine. Rather, they provide a mechanism for testing the openness of any educational system, with a view to effecting changes that focus explicitly on opening learning itself.  

This should not be taken to imply that all changes effected through such analysis necessarily imply making learning easier. In many instances, meaningful learning requires learners to progress through difficult processes as they grapple with new concepts or skills, and these processes remain a critical component of effective learning. Removing these difficult educational processes can easily close off opportunities to learn. The principles do, however, provide a framework for enabling educational planners to assess the extent to which processes that are making learning more difficult open or close learning opportunities. Many processes create unnecessary barriers to learning, and the goal of open learning analysis should be to systematically remove these.  

To explain this further, it is necessary to outline those educational principles that can be clustered around the concept of open learning.


This notion is a primary prerequisite of openness. The principle of learner-centredness, in essence, acknowledges that the learner should be the focus of the educational process and should be regarded as an active participant in an interactive process. Education should not be viewed as a transmission procedure, where there is a one-way flow of information from the source of knowledge (whether it be an educator or an educational course made up of one or more media) to a passive learner. Rather, education should encourage independent and critical thinking. This is facilitated by regarding the learner as an active participant in the educational process, and can be further enhanced by offering learners choices, possibilities, and contesting viewpoints within that process. In addition, the principle of learner-centredness implies that education should develop problem-solving skills and competencies. This, in combination with efforts to encourage independent and critical thinking, empowers learners to be able to interact confidently and effectively with society. Put differently, one essential aim of education is ‘the development of the whole person, especially the continuing capacity to make sense of oneself and the world in which one lives’.[16] 

Finally, learner-centred education should also build on learners’ own experiences, using these as the starting point and basis for any learning process. Laurillard makes this clear:

The idea is to recognize that learning must be situated, in the sense that the learner is located in a situation and what is known from that experience is known in relation to the particular context...Knowledge has a contextualized character, which means that we cannot separate knowledge from the situations in which it is to be used.[17] 

Thus, an understanding of the various contexts in which learning takes place is essential for this to be possible. In South Africa, these contexts exist on different levels:

    The South African context: it is now commonly understood that education has, in the past, been very deliberately used to entrench minority interests in South Africa. As educational reconstruction takes place, there has been a growing awareness that millions of people have not received any education or have received education of very poor quality. These people are, therefore, functioning well below their potential and are unable to participate effectively in the economic and political life of the country.[18] Thus, in order to be effective, educational providers should have a concrete awareness of the current state of South African education in general. This would include a thorough understanding of the negative effects which apartheid education has had on the majority of the population.

    Regional and local contexts: in education, what works in one context is often inappropriate in another. For example, an educational course developed with urban learners in mind might be completely unsuitable for rural people, while some courses suitable for use in the Western Cape might be completely unsuited to the Northern Province. It is, therefore, essential to take into account the specific needs of various regional and local learning constituencies.  

    The circumstances of individual learners: each learner lives within a unique set of circumstances and has personal preferences which will affect the way in which s/he learns. Consequently, each learner will have different preferences in respect of what they learn and the methods which they employ in order to learn. Thus, as Temple suggest;

Personal reactions to learning materials diverse even within a population where members have many characteristics in com­mon...Material highly suited to one learner can frustrate another and...the differences are not entirely attributable to background knowledge, previous study experience or intellec­tual ability.[19]

As Entwistle suggests, however, the understanding of individual circumstances should not stop at this:

The tendency to adopt a certain approach, or to prefer a certain style of learning, may be a useful way of describ­ing differences between students. But a more complete explanation would also involve a recognition of the way an individual student’s strategy may vary from task to task.[20] 

An understanding of these contexts is an essential aspect of learner-centredness. Any efforts to open learning should take these various contexts into account and should attempt, through the planning and development of educational provision, to cater as far as possible for the needs of individual learners within these contexts. This would creating opportunities for integration of indigenous knowledge into curriculum frameworks.

Lifelong Learning

The concept of lifelong learning is central to openness. It argues that learning should continue throughout life, rather than being limited to childhood, and should be of direct relevance to the needs and life experience of learners. The concept of lifelong learning also implies an acknowledgement of the reality that learning is a process in which all people are inevitably involved from birth until death and a consequent attempt to make structured educational opportunities available to people throughout their lives. The following definition of lifelong learning puts forward this perspective quite clearly, thus suggesting a need to re-conceptualize what is meant by the process of ‘learning’:

Lifelong learning is not restricted to the kinds of learning which take place in schools, nor does it lead only to the acquisition of school-like information. It is a comprehensive phenomenon including traditional schooling and vocational learning, but going beyond learning as it is traditionally understood in formal education systems, and including learning leading to self-development or self-actualization. Such learning is affected by a whole spectrum of influences and not just by what happens in schools and related institutions. These influences range from the highly systematic and organized (such as conventional schools) to the unsystematic and unorganized (such as a parent playing with a child). Learning is thus something which lasts a lifetime (it is ‘lifelong’), and is also related to the whole range of influences people encounter in the course of living their lives.[21]

As Bosworth points out, therefore, ‘educationalists, in particular, should always remember that a great deal is learned from material that is not specifically designated as ‘learning’ or ‘training’’[22]. Thus, for example, watching, hearing, or reading an advertisement is as much an learning experience (teaching the learner to buy a product) as is attending a lecture or working through a training course. It is vital, in attempting to open learning opportunities, to re-conceptualize what constitutes a ‘learning experience’. 

The concept of lifelong learning is not, however, merely a philosophical concept about human rights, but a national necessity for economic survival. It is becoming clearly understood in South Africa that commitment to lifelong learning is an economic necessity. This commitment is seen in policy statements recently released in South Africa, which note, for example, that ‘the over-arching goal of policy must be to enable all individuals to value, have access to, and succeed in lifelong education and training of good quality’.[23]

Flexibility in Learning

The concept of open learning entails increasing the flexibility of learning provision to cater for the needs of learners. This includes allowing learners flexibility in determining the following: 

    What they want to learn: the concept of openness in learning implies that learners are given the opportunity to decide for themselves what they want to learn. Thus, learners should ideally be able to decide which courses or parts of courses they wish to follow, should be allowed to omit sections of a course which they feel to be of no use to them, should be able to develop their own pathways through educational programmes, and should be able to decide on their own learning objectives. It is worth noting a potential tension between this imperative and the principle of learner centredness. Learner centredness implies a requirement to development structured education that is focused on meeting learners’ particular needs within given contexts, which should not be confused with this principle of giving learners the opportunity to decide for themselves what they want to learn. Often, these mean the same, but in many instances learners themselves may not be clear about the full extent of their learning needs, which can create discrepancies between what they want to learn and their learning needs.  

     How they want to learn: as part of opening learning, learners should also be able to decide for themselves the learning methods most suited to their needs and to their style of learning. Thus, a learner should ideally be presented with a range of methods and techniques that would enable her or him to achieve the learning goals and objectives which s/he has set and should be able to combine these methods and techniques (and ignore those which s/he does not find useful) in order to develop a process of learning suited to her or his needs. Examples of different ways in which education could be provided to learners would include human interaction (either at a distance or face-to-face), practical work, interactive television classes,[24] drama-in-education, educational broadcasting, computer-based training, and a range of media materials (including printed materials, videos, and audio cassettes). Implicit in all of this is that learners will be given greater freedom to choose where they wish to learn, whether it be at home, in a classroom or learning centre, or at the workplace.  

     When they want to learn: learners should then also be given the opportunity to decide when they want to learn. Thus, they should be able to embark on a learning programme at a time of year that suits them rather than having to enrol at set times during the year. In addition, they should be able to dictate the times of day and week at which they wish to learn, rather than having to conform to the requirements of a timetable or broadcasting times. Finally, learners should also be able to learn at their own pace, rather than being forced to complete modules of work according to deadlines set by educational providers. Of course, there is a possibility that some learners would feel unable to complete these modules without being motivated by the pressure of deadlines; thus, as Greville Rumble states, ‘there is...a case for allowing students to make the choice as to whether they will follow a paced course or an unpaced course’.[25]  

All of the above, therefore, implies that learners will increasingly take control of and responsibility for their own learning.

Removal of Unnecessary Barriers to Access

Central to the process of opening learning is the principle of removing all unnecessary barriers to access to educational opportunities. Barriers that learners might face would include geographical isolation, discrimination on the basis of race, gender, home language or language of learning, age, or physical disability, the inability to take time off work for a course, lack of ‘appropriate’ qualifications, and lack of the funds required to enrol on particular courses and pay for the necessary resources. Any attempt to open learning would need to acknowledge the existence of such barriers and ensure their removal. In addition, a further barrier facing learners would be the use of educational approaches that restrict accessibility to learning and expertise. This might include approaches that, by favouring autocratic, teacher-centred transmission of information from teacher to learner, can demoralize and intimidate learners, making learning an unpleasant experience to be avoided wherever possible. This problem has unique dimensions in South Africa, because the influence of fundamental pedagogics remains so widespread and pervasive.[26]

Recognition of Prior Learning Experiences and Current Competencies

As mentioned above, one of the key barriers to access to courses in many educational institutions is the lack of ‘appropriate’ qualifications. Hence, related to the principle of opening access to learning opportunities is need for recognition of relevant prior learning experiences of learners and of the current competencies that they possess. Such experiences and competencies should also be accredited appropriately where applicable. They might include short courses that did not lead to formal qualifications, parts of courses completed (even if the full course was not finished), and relevant experiences in the workplace. 

Linked to the above is the principle that, as part of increasing openness in education and training, learners should be able to accumulate credits, earned in the same or different learning contexts, which can lead to the achievement of national qualifications. This would require, inter alia, that educational institutions should recognize credits earned at institutions other than their own and that a national framework for credit accumulation should be set up which could facilitate the creation of alternative pathways to achieving national qualifications.  

This principle receives its most obvious practical expression in South Africa in the establishment of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) and its implementing agency, the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA). The NQF is a central pillar of the government’s strategy for human resource development. The idea of a National Qualifications Framework for South Africa emerged in the early 1990s from the intention of transforming the nature and quality of education and training in South Africa. It is described as:

A human resource development system in which there is an integrated approach to education and training which meets the economic and social needs of the country and the developmental needs of the individual.[27]

This means that different forms of learning, whether they be full-time or part-time, distance learning, work-based learning, or life experience, will be recognized, accredited, and registered within this new framework. This integrated approach to education, training, and development is designed to enable individuals to learn regardless of age, circumstances, and level of education and training. That is, it will allow individuals to

integrate the full range of their knowledge, skills, understandings and abilities, providing them with a platform for further learning, should they so choose, and with the capacity to bring these integrated understandings to bear upon the improvement and development of their own lives and the lives of those around them..[28]

The South African Qualifications Authority Act of 1995 established SAQA as the organization responsible for overseeing the development and implementation of the NQF. These structures will be explored in more detail during this report. 

At this point, it is probably worth making a few additional comments about outcomes-based education, as this forms the philosophical cornerstone of South Africa’s efforts to systematize recognition of prior learning. Debates about the relative merits of Outcomes-based Education (OBE) have been rife as the implementation of SAQA starts to take effect, and have had the unfortunate consequence of creating polarity of opinion based on qualitative interpretations of OBE. In the public debate, new curriculum has often been reduced to either a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ concept, depending on one’s perspective. OBE is not, however, an intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad’ concept; its value depends on the way in which it is implemented and measurement of this value will shift significantly according to the context in which implementation is taking place. Nor does the articulation of learning outcomes constitute a measure of educational quality of any course or programme. Nevertheless, clear articulation of the intended outcomes of a course or programme does provide an essential initial tool that can be applied in measuring the quality of educational provision, and as such is an important step in establishing transparency in educational provision. It is also a critical practical step towards effective recognition of prior learning.

Learner Support

The process of opening educational opportunities cannot be effective unless educational providers ensure that it is accompanied by adequate support to learners. This involves the provision of counselling, advice, and relevant information prior to enrolment so that learners can know clearly what they are being offered and the implications of their learning choices. It also entails providing continuing support, advice, and counselling throughout the learning process. Several types of support should be made available to learners: support offered by educators of all kinds on a regular basis both through face-to-face contact and other forms of communication (including telephones, the post, and computer links); the encouragement of interaction between learners on both a group and a one-to-one basis; the provision of any necessary learner support in educational courses (although this should not be mistaken for ‘support’ which does nothing other than encourage learners to move through courses in a particular way prescribed by the providing institutions); and by providing access to the necessary facilities, including a space in which learning activities and interaction between learners can take place, as well as access to computers, laboratories, and other resources which might be a necessary requirement within the learning process. 

It is critical, however, to note that learner support does not, for us, suggest reference to an easily identified group of teaching and learning strategies. Regretfully, much distance education literature attempts to categorize teaching and learning strategies in precisely this way, creating a mistaken impression that the mere application of a particularly such strategy (for example, a small group tutorial) is in itself an indicator of learner support. For us, the issue is much simpler. Every teaching and learning strategy used in a course or programme has the potential either to support learners or not to support them, depending on how they are used and how relevant they are to achieving success with a course or programme. Thus, every teaching and learning strategy should be measured against the extent to which it support learners. Likewise, the way in which these teaching and learning strategies are combined and integrated should also be assessed against this measurement. This is the only meaningful way to determine how well learners are supported in any educational system.

Expectations of Success

Holt and Bonnici note that ‘open learning is not just about opening up access alone, it is also about providing people with a fair chance of success’.[29] This necessitates offering learners the opportunity to complete learning programmes successfully, but also ensuring that the qualifications they earn will ultimately have value in the occupational marketplace. Educational providers can do this both by consulting employers and workers in their curriculum development processes. It can also be implemented via a National Qualifications Framework. Linked to this, therefore, is the notion that, ultimately, it is essential that the education offered should be of the highest possible quality. This ensures that educational providers can meet expectations of success created by opening learning opportunities.


Another critical principle of open learning, which draws together and expresses many of the tensions inherent in combining these principles, is the principle of cost-effectiveness. Cost-effectiveness is used here as a term distinct from cost-efficiency. To us, the latter is about ‘cheapness’ of educational provision – usually expressed in terms of per-student costs – while the former represents striking the optimal balance between cost, student numbers, and educational quality, a balance which will be entirely different for different educational contexts. In many ways, the concept of cost-effectiveness represents the balancing act that constitutes open learning. There is no magical formula that leads to cost-effective education; rather, cost-effectiveness needs to be measured on an ongoing basis in relation to changing contextual requirements. In this regard, we believe that the principles of open learning constitute important benchmarks for assessing the cost-effectiveness of different educational interventions.

Working with Legacy Systems

Linked to the issue of cost-effectiveness is a final principle that we believe is an essential component of open learning, and that is commitment to working with legacy systems. The whole concept of open learning is, in our opinion, significantly devalued, if it is not located within the practical context of systems that have already been established and are currently providing access to educational opportunities in South Africa. It is simply unrealistic to undertake any exploration of strategies to open learning – particularly at national level (but also at all other levels) – without understanding the nature of legacy systems and their impact on the relative openness of learning opportunities. Commitment to understanding and improving legacy systems is implied in many of the discussions above, but requires foregrounding as a separate principle if efforts to open learning are to be taken seriously. This commitment should not be confused with efforts to maintain the status quo. The central thrust of open learning as we have described it above is to effect ongoing changes and improvements to educational systems – based on clear guiding principles – not to entrench current systems. Nor should this be taken to mean that new systems cannot be considered as a possible strategy to open learning. Decisions to implement new systems, however, need to be taken with direct reference to their impact on existing systems (particularly where they might create space for existing systems to avoid processes of opening learning).


In considering open learning, Bosworth suggests that,

Open learning offers the range of artefacts that you need to become successful’.

And that is why it is virtually impossible to provide a neat definition or example of what will happen when you become a client of open learning. By its very nature, the learning opportunities offered will be unique to each enquirer.[30] 

Indeed, sketching out some of the principles on which open learning is based and some of the misconceptions around it indicates immediately its complexity. It becomes clear, therefore, that the translation of these principles into practice is by no means a simple procedure or, indeed, one that would ever be fully accomplished. Rowntree makes this clear when he states that ‘no learning system or programme is ever fully open’[31]. This requires a comprehension of the reality captured in the opening quotation of this chapter, namely that, the process of developing and improving approaches to educational practices is ongoing.  

Thus, as has been suggested above, open learning is an educational concept the principles of which can continually inform all educational practices with the aim of improving them. While, however, it may be possible to make concessions on the translation of these principles into practice in the face of a range of constraints, it is not appropriate to compromise on the principles themselves. Such compromise allows space for the assumption that an educational initiative or practice no longer requires improvement. It can, therefore, give educational providers the opportunity to stop thinking critically and reflectively about the nature of their provision and ways in which it can be improved. This is not a healthy state of affairs, particularly because good educational provision in the present will not necessarily be suitable for the future and because what is suitable for one context will not necessarily be suitable for another.  

It is necessary, above all, to debunk the myth that open learning is an absolute goal,   which can achieve full practical expression in individual initiatives. This can be regarded as both positive and challenging for educationists; positive because it does away with simplistic distinctions between ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ educational practices, moving instead towards a more relative approach when judging the merit of educational initiatives; challenging because it demands an ongoing process whereby educational aims and goals lead to actions which are evaluated and consequent feedback which contributes to the continual revision of the goals and amendment and improvement of educational practice.


[1]Rowntree, D. 1992, Exploring Open and Distance Learning, London, Kogan Page, p. 2. 

[2]Mackenzie, N. et al, 1975, Open Learning: Systems and Problems in Post-Secondary Education, Paris, Unesco Press, p. 15. 

[3]Rowntree, D. 1992, Exploring Open and Distance Learning, p. 16. 

[4]Temple, H. 1991, Open Learning in Industry: Developing Flexibility and Competence in the Workforce, p. 86 (both quotations). 

[5]Bosworth, D.P. 1991, Open Learning, p. 29. 

[6]Rumble, G. 1989, ‘‘Open Learning’, ‘distance learning’, and the misuse of language’ in Open Learning, p. 31.

[7]Open Learning Agency of Australia, 1993, Open Learning - An Introduction and Overview, Melbourne, Open Learning Agency of Australia, p. 2 (both quotations - italicized comment is my addition). 

[8]Rowntree, D. 1992, Exploring Open and Distance Learning, p. 62.

[9]Temple, H. 1991, Open Learning in Industry: Developing Flexibility and Competence in the Workforce, p. 172.

[10]It might even be argued that educare, with its highly flexible structure, variety of choices, and alternative assessment procedures, combined with learning of vital life skills and competencies, comes closest to an ‘open’ learning environment. 

[11]Hilary Temple’s Open Learning in Industry: Developing Flexibility and Competence in the Workforce contains a number of case studies of training projects in British companies which are described as ‘open learning projects’ despite the fact that none of them are even close to being fully ‘open’.

[12]Bosworth, D.P. 1991, Open Learning, p. 8.

[13]Rumble, G. 1989, ‘‘Open Learning’, ‘distance learning’, and the misuse of language’ in Open Learning, p. 33. 

[14]ANC Education Department, 1994, A Policy Framework for Education and Training, p. 74. 

[15] Department of Education. 1995, White Paper on Education and Training, Notice 196 of 1995,

[16]Boot and Hodgson, quoted in Rowntree, D. 1992, Exploring Open and Distance Learning, p. 58. 

[17]Laurillard, D. 1993, Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology, London and New York, Routledge, pp. 16-17. 

[18]Adapted from, EME Forum, 1994, The Use of Broadcast and Non-Broadcast Electronic Media in South Africa’s Restructured Education and Training System, Johannesburg.  

[19]Temple, H. 1991, Open Learning in Industry: Developing Flexibility and Competence in the Workforce, Essex, Longman, pp. 112-13.

[20]Laurillard, D. 1993, Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology, p. 33. 

[21]Cropley, A.J. 1980, ‘Lifelong Learning and Systems of Education An Overview’, in Towards a System of Lifelong Education, Cropley, A.J. (Ed), Oxford, UNESCO Institute for Education & Pergamon Press, p. 2.

[22]Bosworth, D.P. 1991, Open Learning, p. 76.  

[23] Op cit.

[24]‘Interactive television classes’ are classes where an educator is able to transmit his or her lesson to multiple classrooms within a particular area through the use of televisual and satellite technology. The image and words of the educator, as well as any other visual material s/he chooses, are, therefore, transmitted to several locations simultaneously and learners are able to communicate with the educator through telephone link-ups or two-way video links. The technology has obvious limitations, particularly in terms of the level of communication that can take place between educator and learner. This would usually be limited to learners asking an ‘omniscient’ educator questions of clarity about comments s/he might just have said.

[25]Rumble, G. 1989, ‘‘Open Learning’, ‘distance learning’, and the misuse of language’ in Open Learning, vol 4 no 2, June 1989, p. 32. 

[26] Fundamental pedagogics is a pseudo-philosophy of education that was developed to underpin Christian National Education, which was in turn the architecture of the apartheid education system. The philosophy advocates highly authoritarian, teacher-centred approaches to education.

[27] Department of Education, 1997. Directorate: Adult Education and Training. A National Multi-Year Implementation Plan for Adult Education and Training: Provision and Accreditation.  Final Draft. Department of Education: Pretoria. p. 6.

[28] ibid., p.11.

[29]Quoted in Bosworth, D.P. 1991, Open Learning, p. 2. 

[30]Bosworth, D.P. 1991, Open Learning, p. 3. 

[31]Rowntree, D. 1992, Exploring Open and Distance Learning, p. 18.