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Research as Professional Development

Opening Ceremony Speech by Prof. Kenneth Young
Chairman, Research Grants Council

I am delighted to be here with you today, as you start the first Conference on Research in Distance and Adult Learning in Asia (CRIDALA 2000).  I congratulate the Open University of Hong Kong and its Centre for Research in Distance and Adult Learning (CRIDAL) for this endeavour.  I am told that the conference will focus primarily on Asia, but the participants, over 100, have come from all over the world --- the subject is surely of global importance.  Let me therefore add a word of welcome to the overseas participants.  I wish you a pleasant stay in Hong Kong and fruitful deliberations at the conference.

The operating environment for open and distance learning (ODL) is very different from the traditional tertiary environment to which most academics are accustomed.  I had an opportunity to learn something about ODL during the visit of the Research Grants Council to the Open University last August.  The visit was organised, at the request of the Secretary for Education and Manpower, to gain an overall understanding of the research policy, culture, infrastructure and activities in OUHK, and to review and comment on the research capability of the OUHK in relation to its role and mission.  We learnt much about the research activities in distance and adult learning.  Today marks my second close encounter, and I am sure I will learn even more.

Changes in demography, developments in information technology including tele-communications, new thinking on pedagogy and new institutional or organisational policy are radically altering the concepts of what it means to be a student, to learn, to teach and to be a teacher.  It seems to me that there are now three types of players on the scene, as far as providers are concerned.

  • First, there are traditional distance providers such as OUHK, which know this sector best, and which are well experienced in the modes of delivery and the management of these courses.  

  • Secondly, traditional universities are drifting towards some form of distance education, either within their normal curriculum (e.g., using the web in various ways), or in extensions to their regular curriculum (e.g., MBA programs extending towards executive education).  Nevertheless, these offerings, though at a distance, would still be typically within the same city, because they are almost invariably supplemented by face-to-face tutorials or discussions.  

  • But a third group of providers are emerging --- those who market their courses to truly distant locations.  In Hong Kong, we have seen an influx of overseas institutions offering their programs here.  Some are manifestly of dubious quality; others are offered under prestigious brand names.
It is therefore a question as to how the different players can complement each other, how they will compete, and how they can collaborate.

In this globalised economy there are perhaps no more than twenty or so automobile manufacturers, in reality no more than two commercial aeroplane manufacturers, in effect only one dominant producer of office software (perhaps soon to be broken into two).  All consumers buy their products at a distance.  So there is the extreme view that the reach of technology is such that, in time, there will only be a handful of higher educational providers in the whole world, and all consumers will buy from them at a distance.  Those who aspire to be among the dominant players are scrambling for market share.  Others are worried about the threat of imports, and debating whether, if you can't lick 'em, you should join 'em --- thus we have seen local universities, especially their extramural or continuing education units, marketing or even operating courses from overseas institutions.

This scenario throws up a number of very important issues for open and distance education, not only for institutions such as OUHK, but for all providers of higher education.  The more obvious ones revolve around technology, the effectiveness of different modes of delivery and student satisfaction.  All these questions need to be looked into.  And that is why research is important.

At this level, I am told that four specific beacons characterise the ideal of open and distance education --- an ideal that is of course not always attained when resources are limited.  These are:

  • good learning materials,

  • individual academic and professional support to each student,

  • effective administration and logistics, and

  • teaching rooted in research.
It follows then that these principles call for research in and the use of technology, the modes of delivery, issues in student learning, and pedagogy in relation to the subject areas.  In their turn, these involve the following issues amongst many others.
  • The capability for research in open, distance and adult learning needs to be enhanced.  But distance education is no longer an island unto itself, so this research capability has to draw from and become integrated with the community's overall research capabilities, especially in educational and social research.

  • A balance must be sought between basic research (the best media mix for instruction, learner characteristics and teaching strategies, interactive learning) and applied research (instructional design, supported individualised learning through multimedia).

  • Probing into the globalisation of education and its effect on local or cultural contexts, the quality of instruction through web-based instruction.

  • The issue of quality control in general.

  • The use of technology to foster cross-cultural, cross-institutional collaboration in research without marginalising peers from institutions or countries with less endowed resources.  I suppose that this is part of what is now emerging as the digital divide.
I am pleased to see that the tasks you have set for yourselves over the next few days at CRIDALA 2000 will focus on these issues.  With so many ODL researchers assembled here, I can imagine no better forum to do justice to these issues than this conference.

But I would argue that there are even more critical issues which should not be overlooked.  For example, one is compelled to ask:  What is the essence of education?  Is it the provision of information, which can certainly be orchestrated at a distance?  Is it the development of the capability to search for information, the ability to evaluate, analyse, criticise and synthesise?  That would already be much more challenging.  Or is education much more, the development of a whole new mindset and system of values?  If that is the case, how best can it be achieved in the distant mode?

I see education, especially university-level education, as the broadening of the mind rather than the acquisition of particular skills or qualifications.  As usual, I do not have much to say that is original; many writers over the years have eloquently stated this ideal, so let me quote from some of them.  (Indeed here I am plagiarising myself, which I guess is allowed.  I have made some similar remarks at another Conference some years back.)

It has been said, not so long ago, that “modern thinking on university education is a series of footnotes to Newman’s lectures and essays” [1], so it is appropriate if I quote the great educational thinker John Henry Newman.  Upon being elected as rector of the Catholic University in Dublin in 1852, he gave a lecture in which he had this to say [2].

You see, then, here are two methods of Education; the end of the one is to be philosophical, of the other to be mechanical; the one rises towards general ideas, the other is exhausted upon what is particular and external.  ...  I only say that Knowledge, in proportion as it tends more and more to be particular, ceases to be Knowledge.
William Johnson Cory, a master at Eton, expressed very similar sentiments in an address to a group of young men in 1861 [3].
But you go to a great school, not for knowledge so much as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual posture, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the habit of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage and mental soberness.
If we ascribe to these ideals of what education means, it becomes all the more challenging to debate and consider how such objectives can be realised in a world where, inevitably, more and more students have to rely on the distant mode for their education.  I very much hope that through your research you will come up with some answers to these questions.

Thank you very much.

[1] JM Cameron, John Henry Newman (London, 1956).
[2] John Henry Newman, Discourses on the Scope and Nature of a University Education (1852).
[3] William Johnson Cory, in an address to a group of young men in 1861; see Eton Reform (Longman, 1861).