Learning Without Frontiers1:
Beyond Open and Distance Learning

Jan Visser 2 , Manish Jain3, Stephen Anzalone4, Gordon Naidoo5

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Editor's Note

The following collection of four papers results from a shared concern by its authors. What has motivated us to write them is the conviction that, on the one hand, current educational solutions fall dramatically short of the expectation that they should provide an adequate response to a) the broad spectrum of human learning needs and b) the right of all human beings to learn. On the other hand, we believe that both educational discourse and practice reflect inadequately the profound changes taking place in the world and thus the challenges posed by our perceptions of the future.

As we see it, learning is in the process of acquiring entirely new meanings. It serves new purposes, comprising the needs of the young as much as the old in a lifelong and life wide perspective. Learning is an attribute not just of individuals, but of different organismic entities in society at levels ranging from local to global. More than ever has it become a key determinant for the survival of the world, rather than merely a condition for survival and well-being of the individual in the world. An ever growing variety of technologies offers powerful opportunities to support and develop it. However, the perspective on learning as it transpires from current practice and discourse reflects little of the multiple ways learning can be looked upon in the context of what is known about such issues as lifespan development (e.g. Sternberg, 1990); complex adaptive systems, cognitive science, mind/brain research (e.g. Morowitz & Singer, 1995); or multiple intelligences (e.g. Gardner, 1983). Considerations that people have different learning styles and notions about how learning connects to local culture and knowledge systems are equally often absent from such discourse and practice.

The four papers that follow constitute an attempt to open debate on these issues and concerns. The authors do not pretend to have been exhaustive in their approach nor do they think that they have dealt in depth with any of their concerns in these papers. The reader is thus encouraged to look at the four essays as reflecting a process that has merely begun and is still underway. That process was a simple one. The first author, who served as editor and moderator, approached the others with the question: "And what if we would write a couple of pieces, directed at the community of distance education professionals, on how one might move beyond current practice and thinking?" That proposition was of course met with an enthusiastic: "Yeah, why not."

What followed was a profound learning experience that primarily took place over the Internet. We struggled through different iterations of both the abstracts and then the actual papers in varying stages of development, commenting on each other's work, questioning each other, agreeing and disagreeing, and at times simply accepting that we didn't necessarily have to agree. To stay true to the nature of that learning exercise, the editor has refrained from removing redundancy or contradiction among the four pieces. Readers are invited to share in this learning experience. Those who feel inspired by how Visser or Jain envision the world of learning and the policies that should help bringing it about may feel disappointed with the extent to which current practice, as presented by Anzalone or Gordon, can seriously be seen as a good starting point to create the new realities. Others, on the other hand, whose motivation is more primarily derived from their involvement in trying to find solutions for educational problems here and now, may feel frustrated by attempts, such as in the first two papers, to envisage the future, and propose ways to shape it, apparently in a way that has little connection with the mundane realities of the present.

While debating such questions, it became clear that language plays an important role. If the future is that different from the present, how can we describe it adequately if all the language we have is based on past and present experience? Categories like 'open learning communities' make little sense for those who think in terms of the school-teacher-textbook modality of teaching and learning or replications of that model in, for instance, the distance education environment. On the other hand, describing the future in the language of a paradigm that ceases to be relevant in the perspective of how the world is changing, creates another conflict of understanding. We are in need of effective metaphors, particularly those that allow us to visualize transitional processes that connect the past and present with the future.

But even in those cases where we apparently have no difficulty using the same language - as we employ the same words - we may not agree on the meaning attributed to those words. The very word 'learning' represents one of those notions the perspective on which undergoes a fundamental shift depending on the paradigmatic assumptions inherent in the discourse in which it is being used. Such confusion about underlying assumptions may, as Greeno (1997) argues in the context of a debate on situative and cognitive perspectives on learning, easily lead to answering the wrong questions. Continuing debate is therefore at this stage a key condition to clarify assumptions. The four papers presented here are an attempt to contribute to such debate, which the authors hope to promote not only during the 18th ICDE World Conference at the Pennsylvania State University in June 1997.

The four papers have been arranged such that they go from the general to the specific. The first paper, by Visser, outlines elements of a vision of where the world of learning may be going. The next paper, by Jain, is concerned with policies that should facilitate that new paradigms of learning and development evolve. Anzalone then looks at what can be found in the current environment, particularly in developing countries, that can serve as a starting point for the development of open learning. Finally, Naidoo explores this same issue in the more restricted context of one country: South Africa.

Jan Visser - Paris, March 10, 1997

The four papers

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Sternberg, R. J. (Ed.) (1990). Wisdom: Its nature, origins and development. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press

Morowitz, H. & Singer, J. L. (Eds.) (1995). The mind, the brain and complex adaptive systems. Proceedings Volume XXII of the Santa Fe Institute. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York, NY: Basic Books

Greeno, J. G. (1997). On claims that answer the wrong questions. Educational Researcher, 26(1), 5­17


1.  Learning Without Frontiers (LWF) was created by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. As a non-proprietary concept, Learning Without Frontiers also represents a partnership that goes beyond UNESCO. The current paper reflects that partnership. Any opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors and not necessarily those of UNESCO.back

2.  Director, Learning Without Frontiers Coordination Unit, UNESCO, Paris, France. - back

3.  Associate Expert, Learning Without Frontiers Coordination Unit, UNESCO, Paris, France. - back

4.  Associate Director, Advancing Basic Education and Literacy Project, Education Development Center, Washington, DC, USA. - back

5.  Director, Open Learning Systems Education Trust, Johannesburg, South Africa - back

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