The Commonwealth of Learning (COL) is an intergovernmental organisation established by the Commonwealth Heads of Government in 1988 to encourage the development and sharing of open learning and distance education knowledge, resources and technologies.
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Chair: Burchell Whiteman OJ (Jamaica)
President and Chief Executive Officer: Sir John Daniel (Canada/UK)
COL is hosted in Canada by the Government of Canada. The major voluntary contributors – currently Canada, India, New Zealand, Nigeria, South Africa and the United Kingdom – are each entitled to seats on COL’s Board of Governors.
COL works in close association with Commonwealth governments and local institutions and agencies, operating through a wide range of partnerships undertaken in a spirit of equality and participation. It seeks to create mutually beneficial linkages, especially of a South-South character, among Commonwealth countries. Some of COL’s key international partners are:
- Caribbean Community Secretariat (CARICOM)
- Commonwealth Association of Polytechnics in Africa (CAPA)
- Commonwealth Secretariat
- Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)
- Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)
- Indira Gandhi National Open University (India)
- National Institute of Open Schooling (India)
- National Assessment and Accreditation Council (India)
- Southern African Development Community (SADC)
- Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa (TESSA)
- World Bank
- World Health Organization, and
- World Intellectual Property Organization.
COL’s regional agency, the Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia, was established in 1994 to promote co-operation and collaboration in the use of electronic media resources for distance education. COL also supports two regional agencies in Africa: the Regional Training and Research Institute for Distance and Open Learning (RETRIDOL) in Nigeria; and the SADC Centre for Distance Education (SADC-CDE) in Botswana.
COL’s work is supported by the following.
- Focal points: individuals nominated by the minister of education in each country to act as COL’s primary contact.
- Honorary advisers: 12 eminent open and distance learning (ODL) professionals from across the Commonwealth.
- UNESCO-COL chairs: distinguished serving academics who serve in an honorary capacity, complementing the political and administrative role of the focal points and honorary advisers.
In addition, COL also sustains links with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in many countries, and has an important relationship with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for developing the use of open educational resources (OERs).
COL’s mission is to help governments and institutions expand the scope, scale and quality of learning by using new approaches and technologies.
Programmes and initiatives
Through its own resources and its extensive networks, COL provides a wealth of services and collaborative opportunities for policy-makers, institutions and distance education practitioners to encourage the development of, and help to enhance, the use of ODL policies, systems and applications.
COL’s mission focuses on helping Commonwealth member states to use technology as a means of increasing the scope, scale, quality and impact of their education and training systems. The application of technology through ODL techniques has shown its power and value in many countries and for many purposes.
‘Learning for Development’ is the theme of COL’s three-year plan, 2009-2012. It expresses a vision that reaches beyond formal education to embrace areas of learning that are vital for better health, greater prosperity and a safer environment. Understanding development as the process of increasing the freedoms that people can enjoy, COL pursues this vision operationally within the framework of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the campaign for Education for All, and Commonwealth values.
COL’s three-year plan, 2009-2012 groups COL’s work into two sectors of activity: education, and livelihoods and health.
There are four education programme initiatives: Open Schooling, teacher education, higher education, and Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth.
Growing success in achieving universal primary education is creating a surge of demand for secondary schooling that many governments will not be able to satisfy. Open Schooling can deliver quality education cost-effectively at scale.
The ‘open’ in Open Schooling refers to the openness of the system; usually there are no rules dictating student ages, prerequisites, content of courses or number of courses in which learners must enrol. As a result, Open Schooling meets the needs of a broad range of learners including young people who missed out on schooling in their childhood, mothers, working adults, and people of all ages who want to acquire new skills and knowledge.
COL is helping to increase access to quality education while increasing student achievement by providing teachers in developing countries with new technologies, tools and skills. COL’s Open Schooling initiatives include the following.
- Advocacy. COL works with partners in government, NGOs and education institutions to promote Open Schooling.
- Collaboration. COL led the establishment of the Commonwealth Open Schooling Association (COMOSA), a group of Open Schooling and distance education practitioners that is working to support the expansion and improvement of open schooling.
- Development of open schools. COL has helped to develop policies and proposals for the establishment of open schools in Cameroon, the Caribbean, Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan, Trinidad and Tobago, and United Republic of Tanzania.
- Capacity-building. COL works with partners to train educators, administrators and policy-makers in the development and operation of open schools. Workshops have focused on materials development, instructional design, multimedia content development, radio broadcasting, learner support, e-learning, management of open schools, strategic planning for open schools and quality assurance.
- ‘OERs for Open Schools’. Funded by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, COL is working with educators in six countries – Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Seychelles, Trinidad and Tobago, and Zambia – to develop and share OERs for secondary education, the professional development of teachers in the effective use of technology in classrooms and creating learner support material for teachers.
- Research. COL has commissioned research into the provision of secondary level open schooling in India and Namibia, and the use of mobile technologies in open schools.
- Quality assurance. COL provides training in this area and has developed a Quality Assurance Toolkit for Open Schools.
- Publications. COL publishes handbooks, guides and reports about open schooling costs and financing, learner support, administration and course development.
- Learning materials. COL has assisted with the development of quality learning materials for open schools.
Achieving the MDGs and Education for All will require millions of new teachers and training for millions more unqualified teachers already in post. Teacher education institutions will not be able to meet these demands without adopting the methods of ODL.
COL will help them do this.
COL works in partnership with teacher training institutions, government ministries and development partners in the developing countries of the Commonwealth. COL’s activities in teacher education include:
- advocating the use of ODL in teacher education by supporting policies for professional development
- working with selected teacher education institutions to ensure the design and delivery of quality teacher education programmes
- emphasising the development of pedagogic content knowledge and skills among ODL practitioners
- building capacity in teacher education through training workshops in areas such as learner support, quality assurance and instructional design
- promoting quality through the development of a Quality Assurance Toolkit for Teacher Education
- supporting conventional teacher education institutions to make the transition to dual-mode, and
- facilitating the development and use of open educational resources.
COL is working in partnership with UNICEF to mainstream Child Friendly Schools models and approaches into teacher education curricula and enhance the quality of education in schools. Efforts are focused on ten Commonwealth countries. Developed as a response to growing global concerns about the poor quality of schools, teaching and learning at the basic education level, the Child-Friendly Schools approach is based on the concept that quality education involves the total needs of the child; quality goes beyond good teaching methods and learning outcomes to also include health, safety and adequacy of school facilities.
COL is involved with a number of international partnerships committed to improving teacher education, including Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa. This consortium of 18 organisations, universities and teacher training institutions is collaborating to develop an extensive range of multilingual OERs for primary school teachers. Aimed at improving the quality of teaching in primary schools and teacher education in Africa, the TESSA OERs are freely available for download, use and adaptation.
Faced with burgeoning demand for higher education, many African universities are seeking COL’s help. Although ODL is now deployed by many conventional institutions, there is still a pressing need for professional development in different aspects of ODL.
COL facilitates the expansion of quality higher education and sharing of programmes among institutions through a number of initiatives:
- supporting the training of trainers in both curriculum and instructional design in tertiary institutions
- providing technical assistance to new open universities
- supporting the transition of colleges into universities, and
- offering scholarships to support the training of academics in and through ODL methods.
COL’s Review and Improvement Model (COL RIM) offers higher education institutions the tools to conduct a cost-effective institutional quality audit. This ‘do-it-yourself’ approach to quality assurance monitoring and evaluation is freely available to higher education institutions.
COL is also building capacity through its Executive MBA/MPA programmes and postgraduate diploma programme in Legislative Drafting, available at universities throughout the Commonwealth.
Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth
The Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth (VUSSC) is a network of 32 small states of the Commonwealth committed to the collaborative development of open content resources for education, capacity-building and the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to broaden access to education.
VUSSC is led by a management committee of representatives from small states in all regions of the Commonwealth, supported by COL. VUSSC is focusing on creating skills-related post-secondary courses in areas such as tourism, entrepreneurship, professional development, disaster management and a range of technical and vocational subjects. These non-proprietary, electronically held course materials – developed by small states, for small states – can readily be adapted to the specific context of each country. Small states thus become active contributors to global development and leaders in educational reform through the innovative use of ICTs.
COL is building capacity in online materials development among educators in small states of the Commonwealth by hosting intensive training workshops or ‘boot camps’. Educators from small states learn computer literacy skills and how to collaboratively develop learning materials. Upon return to their home countries, workshop participants continue to collaborate on course materials and share their skills with colleagues.
VUSSC has developed a Transnational Qualifications Framework, a system of accreditation for VUSSC courses that facilitates the movement of courses and learners among countries. The aim of the TQF is to ensure all OERs created for VUSSC can be adapted into recognised courses that students can take for credit through educational institutions in small states.
VUSSC has launched an online learning portal that offers free online materials and resources for learners and educators. The site features the Moodle Learning Management System, which enables educators to collaborate on the development of online courses. The VUSSC learning portal is freely available to all VUSSC participating institutions.
Livelihoods and Health
There are four programme initiatives in this sector: skills development, Learning for Farming, Healthy Communities and integrating e-learning.
COL assists with the development of national and institutional policy for the use of ODL to scale up opportunities for skills development. Activities include:
- working with institutional partners to design and deliver quality ODL courses and foster greater use of ICTs in such courseware
- making materials available as open educational resources to be shared and adapted around the Commonwealth
- creating needs-based ODL training materials to enhance livelihoods
- providing training in course writing, tutoring and learner support, and
- fostering partnerships between Commonwealth institutions at different stages of development with a focus on South-South co-operation.
COL is working in partnership with the Commonwealth Association of Polytechnics in Africa to expand flexible and blended delivery approaches in technical and vocational education and training (TVET). COL and CAPA are spearheading training workshops, policy development and an online community learning network, all aimed at alleviating poverty by increasing access to quality skills development.
Learning for Farming
Lifelong Learning for Farmers (L3 Farmers) demonstrates COL’s ability to partner with communities and organisations, and make effective use of ICTs to facilitate learning for development. COL’s L3 Farmers programme helps people in rural communities to find appropriate technology-based open and distance education to improve their livelihoods.
The programme is a response to a critical need: the wealth of information resulting from agricultural research and development often fails to travel the last mile to the villages of the developing world where it is most needed. While governments face challenges in funding adequate agricultural extension, globalisation is creating increasing competition for poor rural farmers.
L3 Farmers addresses these issues by empowering vulnerable rural women and their families to:
- gain knowledge
- create their own self-directed learning process
- organise themselves to solve problems of marketing their products and food security
- improve their living conditions, and
- increase their freedoms and independence from government support.
- The programme involves four key partners.
Farmers. Rural farmers form an association and create their own vision of development for their village.
- Learning institutions. A consortium of learning institutions brings together expertise in agriculture, veterinary science, open learning and technology, serving as an information resource for farmers.
- ICT providers. Commercial ICT kiosks facilitate the transfer of information by linking the farmers to the scientific and research institutions, and also provide other useful information such as weather forecasts.
- Banks. Commercial banks are encouraged to provide loans to farmers who have increased their knowledge, capacity and productivity thanks to information from the consortium and ICT kiosks.
Introduced in four villages in southern India in 2004, L3 Farmers has expanded to Jamaica, Kenya, Mauritius, Papua New Guinea and Uganda.
Good health is a prerequisite for learning and earning a livelihood. Throughout the Commonwealth, disease and illness take an enormous toll on education systems, livelihoods and productivity.
COL aims to increase access to appropriate information, knowledge, learning materials and tools to enable better community responses to HIV/AIDS and other health and development challenges, particularly in remote and resource-poor areas. By encouraging participation by community members and other partners, COL facilitates effective learning and enables better responses to development challenges such as maternal and child health and HIV/AIDS. COL’s work in the area of Healthy Communities includes:
- working with key actors in ICT/media, health, development and education to develop quality content that will be freely available as OERs
- using community media for education, training and health promotion
- developing the capacities of ‘knowledge info-mediaries’ to reach larger numbers of people in the community, and
- building research and evaluation into projects to ensure knowledge is shared and to foster the development of model practices and policies.
Commonwealth countries want to integrate e-learning into their educational systems but often do not know where to start. COL helps countries and institutions to understand e-learning and implement it using technologies that are practical, user-friendly and compatible with available and existing equipment. COL is building capacity in e-learning by:
- expanding training in e-tutoring
- facilitating the creation of high quality learning materials made available as OERs
- providing low-cost online training to large numbers of individuals
- developing low-cost technology options for the developing Commonwealth, and
- building communities of practice and facilitating collaborative content development and sharing.
In 2010, COL worked in partnership with UNESCO to improve understanding of OERs by educational decision-makers in order to expand their use. The initiative, ‘Taking OER beyond the OER Community’, involved four capacity-building workshops, online forums, two new publications and a concluding policy forum.
The cross-cutting themes of gender, quality and appropriate technology are pervasive throughout COL’s three-year plan. COL pursues the goals of gender equality and equity across all initiatives. As access to education and training increases, the quality of what is provided to students is a growing concern. COL assists member states to improve quality assurance, with an emphasis on standards and outputs. ICT is the backbone of ODL. An important part of COL’s mandate is to encourage the use of accessible, affordable and effective technologies in support of learning.
Each sector pursues its aims through five core strategies.
- Partnerships: fostering sustainable partnerships and networks in support of these aims.
- Models: refining and sharing models for applying teaching and learning technologies to development challenges.
- Policies: assisting countries and organisations to develop and implement policies that support technology-mediated learning.
- Capacity: facilitating training and organisational development to increase the overall ability of partners to deploy learning systems and technologies effectively.
- Materials: working with partners to co-create learning materials and make them widely available.
E-learning for international organisations
Recognising COL’s extensive technical experience and understanding of issues in the developing world, international organisations are increasingly turning to COL for their training needs. COL has developed customised e-learning programmes for the Commonwealth Secretariat, United Nations agencies, the World Bank and many other international agencies. Course subject matter ranges from effective communication and report writing to operational data management and debt management. Each course is tailored to the specific requirements of the contracting organisation so that learners can apply learning to their daily occupations. COL’s e-learning for international organisations team has trained more than 7,000 learners around the world since 2000. These training solutions use ODL to widen access to professional development opportunities, especially for female and junior workers based in field and country offices. This contract work is performed on a fee-for-service basis with full cost recovery.
Events and awards
COL hosts a biennial Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning (PCF) and Excellence in Distance Education Awards programme. Hosted in collaboration with Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), PCF6 in Kochi, India, drew more than 600 people in November 2010. The theme of the forum was ‘Access and success in learning: global development perspectives’.
COL continues to build its information and knowledge resources as well as develop mechanisms to effectively disseminate them across the Commonwealth. COL’s website (www.col.org) receives more than 1,000 unique visits every day, making it one of the most visited sites in the field.
COL’s website offers a wide range of information resources (www.col.org/resources) including several online databases and knowledge retrieval services. The website also offers free access to an extensive collection of publications including studies, reports and research documents.
COL’s newsletter provides news about COL’s work and updates about ODL from around the globe. It is published three times annually and is available online at www.col.org/connections.
COL’s online blog (www.col.org/blog) encourages interaction, discussion and knowledge sharing on issues related to learning for development.
Information Resource Centre
COL’s online library catalogue (www.col.org/irc) offers access to a wide range of publications, OERs and news feeds, as well as extensive search tools.
COL’s Resource CD-Rom
This collection of COL’s most popular resource publications, news and software contains over 60 publications including training manuals, start-up guides and research, including all 21 titles in COL’s popular Knowledge Series, as well as free and open source software. While most of the contents are also available in print or on www.col.org, the CD-Rom provides a convenient, fast-loading compilation of the open and distance learning resources that COL has produced for public distribution and use. It is updated regularly and available upon request at firstname.lastname@example.org.
COL’s online search service (www.col.org/kf) provides access to information related to ODL. Knowledge Finder offers 36 specialised search fields, each catering to the need for finding information in focused areas. If users do not find what they need on COL’s web pages, they are directed to narrow sets of information from websites selected by COL specialists.