Development of formal classroom study setups are now in a saturated situation. In most places further development of infrastructure for conventional classroom learning, especially for higher education, is quite difficult. On the administrative side reasons are many like constraints of space, resources, etc. On the learners' and parents' side, nowadays, a majority of people do not have the financial health to spend a lifetime for education alone. In these tightening economic circumstances, work and study is the only principle that can keep higher education accessible to all who seek it.
In the present educational set up, universities and educational institutions require very large amounts of money for planning and providing quality education. We are living in an age where complete State funding of universities and educational institutions is simply not possible. Therefore, private universities, for-profit as well as not-for-profit educational institutions etc are being promoted generally throughout the world. But this strategy, coupled with other factors that lead to inflation, in turn makes education a high cost commodity.
Nowadays, worsening individual/family budgets have alarmingly reduced the buying power of learners. This situation prevails everywhere in the world including in the developed countries. An ABC News report which appeared online on Sept. 20, 2008 says that the average cost of a private university in the USA is $23,000 annually per student, while the median yearly income is $50,000 for the American household. This situation is unlikely to change as long as the imparting of education is not considered as a selfless contribution of the past generation to the present, and the present generation to the future generation. The foundation of every civilization is built with free exchange of knowledge. Those who buy knowledge may not impart it free and so civilizations might be weakened. It is the point at which we require alternate systems for low cost delivery of quality education and acceptance of qualifications across the globe.
The only alternative option currently before us that has the competence to tackle the above situation is Online Open Distance Learning.
Serious thoughts about virtual learning environments can be traced back to the 19th century. However, interestingly, a clear imagination of audio/video communication networks being used to deliver a lecture on Australian music to a remote audience can be seen in the short science fiction story "The Machine Stops", written by E.M Forster and published in 1909. In 1953 the University of Houston offered the first televised college credit classes via KUHT, the first public television station in the US. These attempts were all part of the efforts to use modern technologies to meet the ever increasing need for education in a cost effective manner. Virtual learning activities got amazing pace in the 1990s with the advent of the Internet. Internet based online education originally began through various business houses using online training courses to prepare their newly recruited employees. Subsequently this method gained popularity among universities and other academic bodies.
Many universities and organizations have already identified the need for Online Open Distance Learning. United Nations University, Open University UK, Virtual Campus of The Robert Gordon University UK and the VUSSC project of Commonwealth of Learning are a few examples. Now it is time for universities all over the world to think seriously about running online open distance courses based on a mutually agreed Transnational Qualification Framework, so that qualifications are easily approved in the labour market throughout the world and the interests of the learners are safeguarded.
Innovations in communication sectors make virtual classrooms and virtual communities more reliable and lively. The time is not far off wherein we will have plenty of Online Open Universities that are connected to a Transnational Qualifications Framework across the world and providing quality education. The Virtual University for Small States in the Commonwealth (VUSSC) project of the Commonwealth of Learning can be considered as a great step ahead in this context. There are also other budding online initiatives like WikiEducator project.
Online Open Distance Learning can be considered as the most environmentally friendly way of education in the current world situation. For instance, it will directly reduce journeys and the use of stationery including paper during the learning and teaching process. Both these will save the environment as well as reduce the cost of education.
Online Open Distance Learning can also be effectively used in technical as well as professional education sectors. Technology is now competent enough to provide simulated labs, virtual conferences, etc. Unavoidable hands-on-experience can be arranged through accredited centres near to the learners or through learn-by-working arrangements.
The basic tool we require is the greatest challenge in this context: a Transnational Qualifications Framework including Quality Assurance and Control that is generally agreed by governments, universities, other academic bodies and labour markets. Based on such a TQF, online courses can be framed and freely available content linked to each curriculum through collaborative efforts along with promoting the development of free and open content. Till that time individual universities may be encouraged to contribute to this effort by starting online open distance courses and highlighting the greatest ethic of education, that imparting education is a selfless contribution of the past generation to the present, and the present generation to the future.