Alan Tait

VOL. 1, No. 1

Learning for Development: An Introduction

In a world crowded by journals, what is the need for a new one?  The worlds of education and development live two separate lives, and educators in particular too often limit their interest to the educational systems within which they work – hard and innovatively – without, however, often enough making that further step to plan for and evaluate the impact on and outcomes in development. This is as relevant in the richer countries, with their social segmentation and lack of equity in opportunity, not to speak of relative if not so often absolute poverty, as in the poorer countries. This journal aims to promote that alignment of learning for development

The range of theories of development available for consideration is broad.  It includes understandings of the world that progress is built primarily on economic growth and that poorer countries should become like richer countries, to a hostility to the idea that economic growth is sustainable, and with considerable scepticism about the impact of development defined by the ‘North’ on the lives and cultures of the ‘South’.  While in most cases education is seen as an essential contributor to the human capital that countries need to grow economically and socially, there is a counter view that education, especially at the tertiary level, provides legitimacy for a filter for the labour market and legitimation of elites, and for under and unemployment, as much as it provides real skill and knowledge essential for employment for the majority. Development is in other words a contested concept, and this journal will welcome contributions to the necessary debates about how development is conceived by those who contribute to it through the organisation of learning opportunities in all their range, informal as well as formal.

Within that range of possibilities for the meaning of development, the most dominant set of ideas over the last 20 years or so, especially for International Governmental Organizations, has been the Human Development model pioneered by UNDP through its annual World Development Reports. These began in 1990 with the celebrated but, at the time, challenging statement, ‘People are the real wealth of a nation’ (UNDP 2010 p. 1), which lay in contrast with the World Bank approach to development at that time of GDP growth being the simple goal and measure for development (The Economist, cited in UNDP 2010 p. 14).  While Mahbub Ul Haq was the progenitor of this new approach in the UNDP, including the idea that the capacity to make choices was core to a framework for development, his partner at the time in this rethinking was Amartya Sen whose work developed under the title of Capability Approaches has subsequently become highly influential (Sen 2001).  In brief, development activity should seek to support capabilities in people ‘to be and to do’. The approach has an existential commitment to human freedom to choose those capabilities, constrained as those freedoms may be by context. Capabilities are supported by sets of skills and activities, known in Sen’s terminology as ‘functionings’.  The skill of reading may for example support the capability for an individual to be the person she or he wants, and to gain a livelihood in a more fulfilling and materially rewarding way. This approach to development has been very influential in International Governmental Organisations charged on behalf of their governments with development goals over the last 20 or more years, and has more recently made an impact in particular in thinking about the education sector. Evaluating these contested sets of ideas as to what make up development, and their relevance for innovation in learning and Open and Distance Learning in particular, will be an important focus for the Journal.

Education, primarily adult literacy and school enrolment, was included along with life expectancy and GDP per capita, to create a more complex set of measures than just GDP with which to assess development in the first UNDP annual report to address the issue in 1990 (Saito p. 22). This new set of measures was known as the Human Development Index (HDI).  Education has thus been part of the overall framework of ideas, which became the Capability Approach from the beginning, along with the notion of freedom to make choices.

It has however taken longer than expected for the ideas of the Capability Approach to make their way as an explanatory framework into education and in particular into the tertiary and higher education sectors.  Saito summarizes Sen’s view on the contribution that education can and should make to human capability:

The human capital received from education can be conceived in terms of commodity production.  However Sen argues that education plays a role not only in accumulating human capital but also in broadening human capability. This can be through a person benefiting from education ‘in reading, communicating, arguing, in being able to chose in a more informed way, in being taken seriously by others and so on.’

Saito 2003 p. 24

Saito points out also that education may not necessarily improve capabilities, as some kinds of education may even reduce them (rote learning, for example). While her comments relate to children and compulsory education they are highly relevant to tertiary and ODL approaches:

It seems appropriate to argue that education which plays a role in expanding a child’s capabilities should be a  kind of education that makes people autonomous.

Saito 2003 p. 28

The use of the Capability Approaches framework in the tertiary sector has been slim, but Watts and Bridges (2006) have analyzed the discourse of access to Higher Education.  They have critiqued the top-down nature of such policies in England, valuable though the goal may in general be to increase the study at university of a wider range of socio-economic backgrounds, on the grounds that the benefits are assumed rather than deriving from the young adults whom such polices are designed to serve.  The Senian notion of freedom to choose is thus ignored. This may serve to explain the limited success that a decade of such Widening Participation policies and accompanying funds have had over the last decade in England in shifting the proportion of entrants to  higher education from  poorer socio-economic groups.

Open and Distance Learning, Development  and Social Justice

Institutions and Intergovernmental organisations in the field of education and development frequently frame their mission or vision explicitly in terms of social justice, (Tait 2013).  What might they mean by that? The roots are both religious and secular, with the notion developed through the French Revolution from whence we hold the notion of universal Human Rights, but used also over a long period by the Roman Catholic Church in its positive option for the poor (Tait and O’Rourke 2014).  At core is a commitment to equality of human beings, the development of programmes of activity to deliver inclusion of the great majority in the benefits of society, and solidarity with those in need. 

However, there is no worked out and articulated framework of understanding as to what a development framework for Open Education might look like.  Earlier works such as Rogers on adult learning more broadly assert the need for such a framework in richer as well as poorer countries, and evaluate the range of development ideas available.  Many of the questions raised remain relevant, in particular the critique of Human Resource Development as making objects of ‘target groups’ rather than subjects of development (Rogers 1990). More specifically for ODL, Wall in writing about distance education with indigenous people in the North of Canada, asserts the importance of partnerships and working with communities (Wall 1992).

UNESCO, in its policy document on open and distance learning (ODL), explicitly linked its importance for the achievement of the right to education for all, and emphasized the significance for development of ODL’s deployment of technologies for learning in educational contexts (UNESCO 2002 pp. 13-19). Perraton makes an extended and sceptical examination of the claims of ODL to contribute to development in the South, and identifies the high incidence of non-completion as a major stumbling block to the recognition of those claims (Perraton 2000). Reza asks still pertinent questions about how the impact of ODL can be assessed in terms of personal, social and economic measures, and laments the absence of adequate data. She nonetheless concludes that there are benefits to its target audience but that future policy in this area must be better informed by research (Reza 2004 p. 221). Rumble has focused in the context of ODL on one aspect of social justice, namely the contribution ODL can make through the provision of education at prices affordable to the poor through redistributive taxation (Rumble 2007). Such an argument, and its accompanying polemic against neo-liberal approaches to society in general and education in particular, would if applied, at least arguably contribute to access to education, a necessary condition for social justice to be delivered. Outside continental Europe however that argument is not followed at least at the tertiary education level, and indeed in England has recently been comprehensively dismissed by the recent fees and funding policy for Higher Education, where university education has been positioned as private not a public good. Kirkpatrick has argued that ODL is central to delivery of the Millennium Development Goals, and in particular draws attention to the scale of impact of OERs on teacher education in African contexts (Kirkpatrick  2008 pp. 26-28).   Dladla and Moon identify the need for ICT solutions to the scale issues of teacher education in developing countries (Dladla and Moon 2013)

The Commonwealth of Learning, which focuses its mission on the contribution that innovation in learning and in particular ODL can make to development, is the first institution to propose the use of Capability Approaches in the ODL field. COL sets out its position clearly on both how development is to be framed and how education for development is to be understood.  The organisation’s Three Year plan 2012-15 states that

Following the ideas of development economist and Nobel laureate the freedoms that men and women enjoy is a definition of development, and greater freedom empowers people to be more effective agents of development.

COL (2012 p. 9)

It can be inferred that it is the framework of learning for development, rather than only on innovation in learning, that has over the last decade brought for COL the explicit use of the dominant framework for development of the Capability Approach.

This Issue

The Journal is hosted and generously supported by the Commonwealth of Learning, an International Governmental Organisation (http://www.col.org), whose primary focus is on ‘Learning for Development’, and in particular the expansion of ‘the scale, efficiency and quality of learning by using appropriate technologies, particularly those that support open and distance learning (ODL).’  As with COL, the Journal will take a particular interest in ODL but will not be restricted in its focus on innovation in learning to ODL, nor is it another journal of ODL or distance, e or on-line learning.  As stated above, the Journal will provide a place where researchers and practitioners provide studies of the impact of innovation in learning on development. 

The Journal will be published on an open access basis, as befits both the topic and the sponsoring organisation.  We will also publish on a rolling basis, archiving content on a periodic basis and publishing articles as soon as they have been reviewed and edited.  This means that authors will not have to wait in a long queue for publication, a considerable advantage deriving from the on-line character of contemporary journal publishing. We will publish scholarly articles, normally up to 6500 words, double blind refereed in the conventional way, although we also hope in due course to introduce some dimensions of  ‘open refereeing’, which allows the article to be published immediately and for the community to complement the anonymous refereeing process. We will also publish shorter case studies of projects that have contributed to development through innovation in learning (see elsewhere on the Journal website for guidelines), which we intend to build up as a resource for both research and practice.  I am pleased to announce that we also have a Reviews Section, led by Reviews Editor Dr Godson Gatsha of Botswana College of Open and Distance Learning.  Along with our distinguished Editorial Board and Regional Associate Editors, we hope readers will be fully engaged by what we publish, and will want to contribute and encourage colleagues to contribute.

We are already very gratified that contributions to this first issue have fully justified our aspiration that there is space for a journal focusing in the field of learning for development. We could not have hoped for a more distinguished affirmation for the need for the journal than to have received a contribution from Sir John Daniel, former President and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning.  In his article ‘What learning for what development?’ Sir John gives an historical account of the evolution of attitudes of poverty and education, and sets these into the broader contemporary context of global agendas defined by International Governmental Organizations for development and universal education.  Setting out a Senian framework to development, Daniel focuses on a grassroots agricultural project of lifelong learning for farmers to support his argument that bottom–up approaches are at least as important as top-down policy frameworks in testing Sen’s ideas.  We believe that this in itself is an innovative focus and justifies the need for a journal to provide space and to encourage such analysis, which will in due course, we intend, benefit the participants in and users of such educational programmes, both formal and informal.  Hayat al Khatib in her case study of the Arab Open University provides evidence of the employment opportunities for graduates from the seven countries in the Arab region within which it works. In particular she identifies as key the aims of the Arab OU to recruit women and students from poorer backgrounds, and discusses the need to tailor the approaches to learning and teaching to the culture of the Arab Region with a significant element of face to face teaching in a blended offer.  Finally Al-Khatib discusses the challenges faced when major open and distance learning interventions depend on teaching materials developed in Western countries, and the importance of ensuring their appropriateness to the needs and culture of the Arab region.

Osei and Mensah report on a programme of science undergraduate education, tailored as  a top-up programme for diploma holders and delivered at a distance by Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana.  The priority for the programme derives from the perceived shortage of science graduates in the  country, and science programmes delivered at a distance have been hampered by difficulties in teaching science skills to a sufficient degree off-campus.  The focus of the article lies importantly in the effort to support students and mitigate drop-out, which produces  graduation rates (not module completion rates) which  range from 36 to 93%, a very  high range of achievement in the distance education field.

Latchem makes an impassioned plea for non-formal and informal lifelong learning to be given more attention in the field of distance and e-learning and development outcomes.  He argues that the great majority of learning is in fact informal, and that technologies are having a very Important impact in expanding this field, and yet research and discussion is very much focused on the formal sector.  This is an important clarion call for change, and Latchem is surely right when considering the impact of informal learning on development.

Baggaley draws attention to the risk for the developing world of uncritical and uninformed adoption of recent MOOC  practices, which have, he argues, been too little constructed with access to the literature and understandings of the distance education tradition. Bagalley proposes that the field has too often been limited by the silos of specialisation, and that we need to see the integration of international development, community development and distance education literatures.

Seelig provides a case study of work in prisons undertaken by the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. She describes the innovation necessary to provide elements of technology supported learning with specially tailored tablet devices in order to comply with security needs as well as introduce support for individual learning.  The proportion of the indigenous Maori population in prison  is high, as in other similar Commonwealth contexts, and the development imperative clear.

Baijnath sets out a major programme of innovation by the University of South Africa to introduce  online learning, of great significance as an example in the African continent marked by such disparities in wealth and access to technology.  He reports on the 6 Signature courses, which will be represented  in all undergraduate degrees, based on heutagogical learner-centred principles.  The material can be carried on a device that can be plugged into a computer for those who do not easily have access to the internet, but which will provide some of the affordances of technology supported learning.  This was a major development with more than 33 000 students in the first presentation, and provides an important vehicle for the introduction of online learning in countries with significant populations in 'developing country' contexts.

The issue concludes with three substantial book reviews by well-known experts who have taken themes central to the learning  and development focus of this journal. These themes include continued discussion of the management of the digital revolution for education in developing countries, with a particular focus on education systems in sub-Saharan Africa.  I am grateful to Mark Bullen, Freda Wolfenden and Thomas Hulsmann for this support to the journal.

In conclusion the first issue has demonstrated the conceptual identity of this new journal, that there is a space where the contribution of learning to development can be framed for discussion. Major themes addressed include employment and  livelihood outcomes, the need for science and and technology graduates in developing country contexts, the undervaluing and under-examination of informal and non- formal learning, and the management of the digital revolution for learning in ways that maximize inclusion and success.  The journal critically engages with the questions as to what development is and how it should be supported, of relevance also in developed country contexts where development discourse is, regrettably, less familiar.

I am grateful on behalf of the Editorial  Board and the Commonwealth of Learning who support the journal for the confidence shown in this new initiative by all those who have contributed to this first issue. The second issue is already open, and I look forward to contributions and to reader response.

In closing I would like to acknowledge the support of the Editorial team of Dr Mark Bullen (Associate Editor), Dr Godson Gatsha (Reviews Editor) and Patricia Schlicht (Editorial Assistant) and I also want to acknowledge the leadership and support of Professor Asha Kanwar, President of the Commonwealth of Learning, in the foundation of this journal, and for the valuable Foreword she has provided.  Without support from COL and its President we would not be here.

Note: this introduction draws on Tait, A. (2013)


Commonwealth of Learning. (2012).  Three-Year Plan 2012-15: Learning for Development. Retrieved from this URL. 

Dladla, N., & Moon, B. (2013). Teachers and the development agenda: An introduction. In Dladla, N., & Moon, B. (Eds.). Teacher Education and the Challenge of Development. London: Routledge. 5-18.

Kirkpatrick, D. (2008). The Challenge of the Millenium Development Goals: Role, Potential and Impact of Open and Distance Learning (pp. 25-31). In Open and Distance Learning for Sustainable Development. Proceedings of the Second African Council for Distance Education conference, Lagos. Retrieved from this URL.

Perraton, H. (2000). Open and Distance Learning in the Developing World. London: Routledge.

Reza, R. (2004). Benefits for Students, Labour Force, Employers and Society. In Perraton, H. & Lentell, H. (Eds.). Policy for Open and Distance Learning, (pp. 209-223). London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Rogers, A. (1990). Adults Learning for Development, London, Cassell Education with Education for Development.

Rumble, G. (2007). Social justice, economics and distance education. Open Learning, 22:2, pp. 167-176.

Saito, M. (2003). Amartya Sen’s Capability approach to education: A critical exploration. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 37:1. pp. 17-33.

Sen, A. (2001). Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press.

Tait, A., & O’Rourke, J. (2014). Internationalisation, Social Justice and Open, Distance and E-learning: Working with the Grain’. In Anderson, T. & Zawacki-Richter O. (Eds.), Online Distance Education: Toward a Research Agenda.  Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, (in press).

Tait, A. (2013, September). Distance and E-Learning, Social Justice and Development: The Relevance of Capability Approaches—The Mission of Open Universities. International Review of Research of Open, Distance Learning (IRRODL).

UNDP. (2010). World Development Report. New York: UNDP.

UNESCO. (2002). Open and Distance Learning, trends, policy and strategy considerations. (Eds.), Moore, M., & Tait, A. Paris:  UNESCO.

Wall, D. (1992). Thoughts on the Theory of Community and Distance Education: The Significance for Maintenance and Sustainability of Development Programs. In Wall, D., & Owen, M. (Eds.). Distance Education and Sustainable Community Development. Canadian Circumpolar Institute with Athabasca University Press, Edmonton. pp. 1-10.

Watts, M., & Bridges D. (2006). The Value of Non-participation in Higher Education. Journal of Education Policy, 21:3. pp. 267-290.

Alan Tait is the Editor in Chief of The Journal of Learning for Development. E-mail: Alan.Tait@open.ac.uk