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C2C Digital Magazine (Fall 2021 / Winter 2022)

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Book review: Open higher education for global development (esp. in a pandemic)

By Shalin Hai-Jew, Kansas State University


Open Higher Education in the 21st Century
Ritimoni Bordoloi and Prasenjit Das, Co-Editors
Nova Science Publishers
351 pp.  

Human potential, if left untutored or unsupported, may never advance beyond a narrow range.  That is one of the value propositions of higher education.  The challenge for large swaths of the world is that higher education is not a low-cost proposition.  There are limited available seats for the best and the brightest, and the others are left to the wayside to fend for themselves in terms of development and learning.  In a globalized world with high competition, the lack of access to sophisticated learning can be constraining.  

Open higher education is conceptualized as a method to partially address that gap.  To that end, various governments, non-profit organizations, universities, and investors have stepped forward to contribute to that space by offering automated and instructor-led courses, sharing data, sharing learning objects, conducting research, and funding various endeavors.  For many learners, they could take courses for free or pay tuition for a credited track (enabling nonformal and formal learning).  For some, the crediting is through micro-credentialing, such as digital badging, to attest to various levels of knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs).  

Ritimoni Bordoloi and Prasenjit Das’ Open Higher Education in the 21st Century focuses on open higher education in South and Southeast Asia and further abroad [including the “UK, USA, Brazil, Turkey, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Ghana, the Philippines and India” (p. x)].  The locales include both developed and developing nations.  The included works involve assessments of the state of open higher education, the harnessed technologies, and directions for the future.  The co-editors have worked in an open university in N.E. India.  

Sustainable development for Asia through open universities?

If the main functions of open universities are to enable competitive advantage in globalized spaces, are they capable of delivering?  Sir John Daniel’s “Expanding Higher Education for Sustainable Development in Asia:  Are the Open Universities up to the Task?”  (Ch. 1) offers a mixed answer.  “Forecasts suggest that tens of millions of additional students will want to undertake higher education in the next 20 years” (p. 6). This author observes that there are over 50 open universities in the world today, ranging from highly active ones (several with millions of students) to some which are apparently defunct (and even some which have failed to launch, others which have failed to update to more relevant technologies).  In general, he describes a sense that “at the end of the second decade of the 21st century, it appears that many open universities are losing strength and impact” (p. 4).  This is happening at a time when, based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, higher education is a critical part of human development.  Does open education enable graduates to compete for high-level jobs or only second and third-tier ones?  Are there better ways to meet the moment?

Daniel suggests that open education tends to attract more of the non-traditional learners, such as adult learners with full-time jobs already, who attend online courses in the evenings or nonwork hours. The UK’s Open University started in 1969 with values of being “open” regarding “people…places…methods…ideas” (Daniel, 2021, p. 5).  [For a point of contrast:  The Internet originated in 1983, and the Web in 1989.]  This endeavor was backed up by the prestige of the institutions of higher education, with focuses on teaching, research, and public service.  Besides the social benefits, there were other university interests at play:  the benefits of training faculty on online learning, the building out of online learning technologies and available data, the opportunity to identify global-scale talent (and recruit employees), the extension of the university brand, and others.  There is also the reputation of government behind the endeavor, given government support, and the extension of soft power in the world.  Such educational ties, given the youthful influence-ability of youth, may extend global community building and the sharing of a global culture.  

To continue, open universities “need to effect reforms in most aspects of their operations, from strengthening their institutional commitment to openness, through curriculum and pedagogy to the use of technology” (p. 7).  Such institutions often engage in heavy use of part-time teachers and tutors, albeit with courses created by star professors with high reputations and charisma and star power.  Such schools apparently are “financially comfortable” with support based on “tuition fees” but which do not generally engage in research (p. 9).  Their top three priorities are listed as “strengthening student support and the eLearning infrastructure; the development of skills program; and quality assurance” (p. 9).  This research is from a roundtable of open university executives held in 2017 and a review of the literature.  

Distance learning models for access, equity, and quality

Using open universities to provide tertiary education is often seen as offering access and equity, but perhaps at the expense of quality.  Erik Jon Byker’s “Pursuing the Elusive Triangle of Access, Equity, and Quality Learning:  Distance Learning Models in the Higher Education of Southeast Asia” (Ch. 2) focuses on open universities as a distance learning model.  He suggests that all three aims—access, equity, and quality—are necessary, even as there are limits to achieve all three altogether.  With the rise of Asia, the “young, mobile, and well-educated” (p. 26) of that region will play important roles in shaping the world.  The interest here is on the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  ASEAN, founded in 1967, is structured around their motto:   “One Vision, One Identity, One Community.”  Their 10 member countries include the following:  Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.  The author cites a table showing various open universities, starting with the University of South Africa or UNISA (1946) through the Open University of China (2012), with enrollments ranging from a “low” of 200,000 at The Open University of the United Kingdom to 2.7 million at the Open University of China (p. 34).  The challenge is to massify education while maintaining quality while understanding these endeavors as an extension of societies and cultures:  

…higher education systems reflect the cultural values, economic goals, historical background, linguistic identities, political pursuits, religious beliefs (or plurality of religions), technological achievements, and the social norms of the society where the higher education system is situated. (Byker, 2021, p. 40)  

One interesting difference is that massive online courses are offered not only by universities but by companies, who ostensibly have interest in recruiting for their workforces.  This work provides some generalist data and could benefit from more incisive observations.  

Anticipating how distance education develops into the future

Ormond Simpson’s “Distance Education Futures:  What Are the Factors that will Affect How Distance Education Develops in the Future?” (Ch. 3) opens with the line:  “Attempts to predict how distance education should develop in the future are likely to end in reputational damage” (p. 48).  This work takes a “deficit” view of distance education. His assertion is that the high student dropout rate from distance education degrees is too expensive to bear at present rates.  If a fifth of the UK population lack broadband access at home (p. 52), it is much worse in less developed societies “such as those in Asia, Brazil and China” with just over 30% of the population with such access (p. 52).  How a population can pursue distance education does depend on the infrastructure but also factors like the strength of the economy, the strength of government, and other factors.  

Full-time students in the UK graduate at 82%, part-time students at 39%, as compared distance programs at the following rates respectively:  15.7%, 22%, 5.3%, 2.5%, 0.5%, 14,%, and 6%, from the London International Program-Distance, UK Open University, Athabasca University, OU of Netherlands, Tele-university of Quebec, Dr. Ambedkar University of India, and the University of South Africa (Simpson, 2021, p. 53).  If graduation rates are only between 0 – 20%, it is hard to make a value argument for open education.  

For learners, they will not benefit if they do not complete the degree and attain a paying job.  [On a regular campus, there are many support services, and there is also the power of cohort learning.]  Simpson writes, perhaps with a touch of sarcasm:  “Access—whilst distance institutions can still claim higher levels of access for its students, that access is of little help to students if the open door to their education is often a revolving door that whisks them round and out again, with nothing to show for their experience, except enhanced chances of increased depression and indebtedness” (2021, p. 57).  The fix here is would be to enable more customized learning and a sense of a caring person on the other end (Simpson, 2021, p. 62).  It is not helpful to blame non-retention on a sense of the person’s capabilities or on outside factors beyond their control; rather, “proactive support” may be the positive difference (p. 63).  The author does not see value in partial learning if that learning is not codified in a formal degree, apparently.  

A separate argument is whether this sort of degree channels people to vocations instead of further higher education pursuits, like research, or other paths.  Where formal universities are feeder schools for a nation’s industries, perhaps massive open universities with global learners are more about raising knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) for local work in most cases, wherever local is.  

Open and Distance Learning (ODL) processes

The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 / COVID-19 resulted in many institutions of higher education setting up remote learning globally, including ways to support learners.  Serap Ugur and Gulsun Kurubacak’s “An Evaluation of the Components of ODL Processes, Smart Technologies and Technological Singularity” (Ch. 4) begins with the sense of spectacular promise of a technological singularity—in which humanity advances suddenly with the help of AI and other technologies.  This seems to be a conversation starter.  From there, it moves to the general sense of how Open and Distance Learning (ODL) processes are set up, from programme development to programme audit (p. 72). The coauthors offer a general reverse-extracted narrative of the works needed to set up educational programs based on understood needs. They highlight the importance of setting up a student registration system and process for certification.  The learners experience the various online courses and learning contents.  For content creation, the coauthors share a flow which includes the following elements:  “human resources, content creation software, visual libraries, image processing programs, server computers, Internet infrastructure, online storage areas, video studios, hardware needs, synchronous and asynchronous service programs, (and) learning management systems” (p. 83).  This work reads like a thought experiment of what the researchers imagine happened to set up ODL, but the ideas are not sufficiently applied to really enable a pop-up ODL university, so to speak.  In an aside, they mentioned how Anadolu University adjusted to the pandemic, which might have offered more engaging and direct research materials.  

Using role-playing games (RPGs) in online and distance education

Traditional role-playing games (RPGs) do not require a lot of setup.  There just have to be a game master who spins out scenarios and decision junctures, and willing players.  These game types are flexible and can be used for a variety of scenarios and learning.  Alfredo Eurico Rodrigues Matta, Ramesh C. Sharma, and Francisca de Paula Santos da Silva’s “Learning with Educational Digital RPG Games for Online and Distance Education:  Implications for Southeast Asia” (Ch. 5) explores how useful these games may be for socio-constructivist learning online.  RPGs can be used for students 8 years old and older because of the need for some complex thinking.  They write: “The challenge is to prepare the scripts for the players to experience problem solving, and build decision making, around the content points that are desired to be mastered by the learners” (p. 118). They explain ways to be engaging and ways to contextualize the learning via game scripts, which include those based on history but also “mathematics, literature, art” and others (pp. 110 – 111).  They describe the sequence of work:  “Once you have mastered the Research-Application methodology and the basic concepts of the RPG game, developing new proposals and pedagogical solutions with this type of gamification, is relatively simple and recommended” (p. 119). Their approach focuses on the importance of relevant research in seeding the respective games.  

Learning from each other:  ODL for lifelong learning in S. Korea and India

Ritimoni Bordoloi’s “Life Long Learning through ODL:  An Inter-Institutional Study with Special Reference to Kkosu, India and Knou, Korea” (Ch. 6) consciously compares Korea National Open University (KNOU), Korea, and Krishna Kanta Handiqui State Open University (KKHSOU), India, in an inter-institutional case study.  A core rationale for open higher education is to lessen the social rifts between urban and rural peoples, and the so-called haves and have-nots.  The author sets the context for the work by comparing both countries through an education and development lens, a historical one, and a cultural one.  The researcher writes:  

…it seems that still in India, only 5% of the population within the age group of 19 – 24 acquired some sort of skills through vocational education while the corresponding figure for the country like Korea is as high as 96%. (World Development Report, 2018, as cited in Bordoloi, 2021, p. 129)

Those numbers are affected by the relative differences in population size as well (the denominator).  This work explores how ODLs can be harnessed to provide lifelong quality education with equity to a country’s peoples.  It also purposefully identifies ways that KNOU’s educational programmes may inform educational practice at KKHSOU, the first founded in 1972, and the latter in 2006.  KNOU bears the status as “one of the top ten mega open universities in the world” (p. 137).  One insight is that KKHSOU needs to become much more digital (p. 142).  

Skill-based higher education in India

Open education is harnessed in different ways in different countries and regions.  Moumita Das and Prabir K. Biswas’ “Skill Based Higher Education:  Prospects and Challenges in the Context of India” (Ch. 7) offers a focus on providing training programs to the masses in India, to raise the employability skills of the peoples there.  The coauthors highlight some unique aspects of the Indian case, noting that a percentage of those employed work nationally and internationally (p. 150) and since the government funds entrepreneurial endeavors (p. 151).  

A study conducted by the British Council and published in 2016 found the following:  “out of the 150 million workforces (sic) in India between the ages of 20 – 35, 31.5 million were illiterate, 63 million were under matriculation, and 37.5 million were below graduate.  Only 1.5 million had a technical diploma or certificate, 13.5 million were graduates and only 3 million had a postgraduate degree” (Das & Biswas, 2021, p. 153).  A list of skills in demand in India include the following:  “English comprehension, deductive reasoning…, inductive reasoning…, agreeableness…, information gathering and synthesis, extraversion…, ability to remain stable and balanced, (and) quantitative ability” (p. 154).  Four general areas of requisite skills include  agriculture and forestry skills, construction, manufacturing, and “tertiary services” in reference to “teaching, physician, scribe (writer), hospitality and transport, the fine arts and entertainers” (p. 155).  The researchers then offer a gaps analysis to identify where open higher education may provide more salutary effects on the labor market, given the destabilizing risks to the society of the unemployed, long-term and short-term.  

Malaysia and ODL

Phalachandra Bhandigadi, Ooi Li Hsien, and Chew Bee Leng’s “ODL in Malaysia:  Current Perspectives and Challenges” (Ch. 8) highlights the importance of centralized government leadership on this area of open and distance learning.  Here, the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) is focused on the measurable outcomes of the learning, accreditation, and various forms of quality in the education.  This chapter summarizes Malaysia’s history in higher education, its distance education offerings, the known challenges about student retention, and offers ideas on how to meet the challenges.  Malaysia has four open universities with enrollments of 241,000 working adults (Bhandigadi, Hsien, & Leng, 2021, p. 177).  One interesting feature is the crediting of prior experiential learning (pp. 180 – 181), sometimes referred to as CPEL.  To enable credit transfer for MOOCs, the MQA has five criteria:  “authenticity, coverage/sufficiency/adequacy, relevancy of the learning acquired through MOOC to the programme being enrolled, currency, and fairness and equity” (pp. 183 – 184).  This chapter is one of the more in-depth and structured ones.  Student support systems are learner-centric, involving the learning materials, the availability of tutors, the digital library, the learning management system (LMS), the locational regional study centres, peer study groups, and the setup for assessments and exams (pp. 190-191).

ODL in the Philippine

Cecilia Junio-Sabio’s “Open and Distance Learning (ODL) in the Philippines:  Development, Policies and Challenges” (Ch. 9) contextualizes the state of distance education first in Asia, which involves massive scale: 

Across the region, more than 70 universities now deliver instruction exclusively through DE (ADB, 2011).  Some of these initiatives are extremely large.  In China, the Central Radio and Television University directly serves about 2.6 million active students and, indirectly, another 3.5 million through its network of Provincial Open Universities (ADB, 2011). The Universitas Terbuka Indonesia serves nearly 650,000 students, most of whom are teachers enrolled in in-service training programmes.  (Zuhairi, 2010, as cited in Junio-Sabio, 2021, p. 203)

Some 3 million students are enrolled in Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) and 2 million each in Bangladesh Open University and Anadolu University, which gives something of the sense of size of the open universities.  The Philippines, of course, is comprised of 7,000 islands.   It has 17 higher education institutions which offer distance education programs.  The pandemic deeply affected school enrollments globally, and the Philippines is no exception:  

This year’s figure in basic education is 6M+ short of the adjusted target of 80% of last year’s enrollment (27.7M) submitted by the Department of Education to the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA).  Meanwhile, in higher education, the government officials have warned that enrolment in private as well as state universities and colleges (SUCs) is expected to plunge by as much as 70 percent this coming school year due to economic hardships faced by students and their families caused by the COVID-19 crisis. (Junio-Sabio, 2021, p. 205)

Even in the absence of a pandemic, local on-ground conditions are challenging.  The researcher writes:  “The students in far-flung areas in the country do not even have roads or electricity, let alone access to computers and the internet.  Moreover, given the current internet infrastructure, even students in urban areas have limited internet access” resulting in serious digital divides (Junio-Sabio, 2021, p. 217).  In terms of challenges, the author observes:  “connectivity, infrastructure, access, content, teachers’ training and capability build-up in the use of technology-enabled teaching-learning processes…” (p. 218) and some gaps in government policies to “fully support the implementation of a full distance education system” (p. 219).  

Mobile learning in Bangladesh Open University

Kazi Sharmin Pamela and Md. Mizanoor Rahman’s “Exploring Learners’ Behavioural Intention towards Mobile Learning: A Case of Certificate Program of Bangladesh Open University” (Ch. 10) begins with the sense of promise for mobile learning given mobile phone prevalence and high mobile network connectivity throughout Bangladesh.  These researchers apply the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) in order to understand how viable mobile learning may be.  Learner readiness for mobile learning may be inferred based on the following variables:  self-efficacy, social factors, major relevancy, perceived usefulness, perceived ease of use, attitude, and behavioral intention (p. 228).  While they found a fair amount of smartphone usage and mobile network access, they found that only 2.1% of respondents used their mobile device for Bangladesh Open University (BOU) educational materials.  Further, they found that the survey respondents used their mobile devices to communicate (38%), and then to learn (22%).  The co-researchers used a Structural Equation Model (SEM) approach to better understand readiness to engage in mobile learning.  

Survey of ODL in Tanzania

Kezia H. Mkwizu and Harrieth G. Mtae’s “Community and ODL Institutions:  Experiences from Tanzania” (Ch. 11) uses social network analysis (SNA) to understand open and distance learning; they break down community into three groups:  “individuals, institutions and government” (p. 255).  In general, SNA suggests that social networks are comprised of egos (individuals) and entities (groups) [expressed as “nodes”], and they interact with each other, resulting in various mutual influences.  Relationships are affirmed by the types of interactions between the respective nodes [expressed as “links”].  ODL requires both sufficient advances in technologies and an interest in developing population skills, they write.  

Tanzania has nine ODL institutions.  In a review of the extant literature, the co-researchers observe:  

Individuals engaged with the ODL institutions comprise school leavers, teachers, dropouts, community leaders, counselors, employed staff, government employees, professionals, youths in exile, farmers, executives, cooperative inspectors, and disadvantaged groups like the disabled.  In addition, individuals who are students mainly engage with the ODL institutions because of affordability. (Mkwizu & Mtae, 2021, p. 265)  

The institutions providing ODL are supported by governments as a priority for national development.  This work would also benefit from deeper firsthand insights.  

Online learning:  Educating and training student nurses remotely in a pandemic

Some programs of study require more hands-on learning experiences, direct physical observations, and the uses of manipulatives, write Simon-Peter Kafui Aheto in “Access and Participation Factors in Online Distance Nursing Education Programme during a Major Pandemic: The Student-Nurse in View” (Ch. 12).  Undergraduate student-nursing is one such example.  The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has had a “perilous effect on education across all levels” (p. 276).  In one case, an open university had to move their student-nursing program fully online (and for the learners to acclimate to the respective necessary technologies).  This author offers a conceptual framework for “a migrated blended DE mode of nursing education to a fully online distance nursing education programme during a pandemic” (p. 282).  The research was conducted with 11 nursing student participants sampled through a snowball technique and interview by two researchers simultaneously using a semi-structured interview approach. The collected data underwent thematic analysis.  One theme was the positive attitude towards technology (p. 286); another was the change in work shift given daytime work and study later on (p. 287).  The researcher observes:  “The support from Faculty, Peers and Family were found to be the factors that affected students’ accessibility and experiences with the online distance nursing education during the pandemic” (p. 288).   Various factors affected both the “access” and “participation” of student nursing students when their curriculum went fully online during the ongoing pandemic.  

ODL in Brazil vs. traditional meritocracy?

Luciano Sathler’s “Open and Distance Education in Brazil:  A Scenario of Contrasts” (Ch. 13)  points to 18th century industrial society practices “with medieval rituals and practices of a bureaucratic, exclusive and meritocratic nature” as a major influence on how Brazil approaches higher education (p. 299).  The author summarizes the state of Brazilian education from both published academic works and government documents.  Without revolutionary change, open education that can advance the population to “a new educational level” in Brazil is not likely, based on available information, even with acceleration from the pandemic.  

Open higher education in Assam, India

Shrutidhara Mahanta’s “Open Higher Education in Assam:  Prospects and Challenges” (Ch. 14) is focused on a geographically remote region of N.E. India.  Assam, in the 2011 census, had 31 million people and a literacy rate of 72.19% (p. 319).  

This study used a purposive sampling technique by identifying two faculty members, two administrators, and two office staff from each of the ODL institutions under study to capture insights.  This approach involves non-probability based sampling to seat respondents, and a semi-structured interview technique.  The research is bolstered by other research and data collection.  Contextually, India has “witnessed an unprecedented growth in the ODL systems” in the last four decades (Mahanta, 2021, p. 317).  India has 15 universities, “which run as single-mode Open Universities (OUs) offering programmes through the ODL mode” and also Institutes or Directorates of Distance Education.   Prior to 1985, there were dual-mode universities offering in-person and distance learning.

The ODLs work to provide various student support services: “pre-admission counselling, support for admission related matters, details of study material and information, the delivery mechanism of study materials, a full-time dedicated help desk, Grievance Redressal Mechanism, on-line guidance and counselling, on-line discussion forum, (and) Learner Support Centres or study Centres” (Mahanta, 2021, p. 327).  Common ICTs used in the target ODLs were the following:  “audio/videotapes, cassettes, CDs, multimedia arrangements, slide presentations, CD-ROM, (and) online contents” (Mahanta, 2013, as cited in Mahanta, 2021, p. 328).  Support was provided through radio broadcast programs, bulk SMSes, “several telephone lines,” a mobile app, an e-content lab, and others (p. 329).   One way to expand the work of ODLs is to expand the technologies for all stakeholders (p. 332).  Quality assurance is an important part of advancing ODL work.  It inspires to realize that this researcher and the others in this collection stayed the course even under the harsh fallout of the pandemic, which is ongoing.  


It has been decades since the first open university was started back in 1946 in Africa.  In the intervening decades, perhaps this sector has already gone through the peak of inflated expectations, the trough of disillusionment, the slope of enlightenment, and arrived at the plateau of productivity (in terms of the hype cycle).  As several of the contributors to this collection have noted, COVID-19 drove many more to open higher education, so as not to lose the time under lockdown.  With a burgeoning world population, the needs for higher education are greater than ever, and this broadens the ambit of such universities.  

In the U.S., there are some endeavors for open educational resources (OERs), in which online learning objects are shared without cost.  There are some stand-alone courses and some course series on MOOC platforms.  A perusal of the List of Open Universities identifies only one public open university in the U.S. (Open SUNY), and two private ones.  Perhaps many of the needs in the U.S. are met with excellent community colleges and various institutes.  Or perhaps Americans reach out for opportunities as provided by other open institutions of higher education, regardless of geographical location. 

About the Author

Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer / researcher at Kansas State University.  She is working on multiple book projects. Her email is  
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