We now live in the digital age. The explosion of knowledge and scholarly resources in the Internet and recent advances in information and communication technologies (ICTs) have spurred educators to develop new methodologies for teaching and learning.

These innovations have been labeled as “distance education,” “open learning,” “e-learning,” “flexible learning,” “online learning,” and “blended learning.” These concepts now fall under the umbrella of “open, distance, and e-learning.”

There are three domains in open, distance and e-learning, each of which has its own definition and origin. Distance education (DE) is a mode of learning in which students and teachers are physically separated from each other, students undertake guided independent study of specially-designed learning materials in various media, and two-way communication exists between the teacher and students.

Open learning, on the other hand, is a vision of an educational system accessible to every individual  with  minimal  restrictions.  It emphasizes the flexibility of the system to eradicate problems caused by barriers like age, geographical location, time constraints, and economic situation. Open and distance learning (ODL) is therefore a system which combines the methodology of DE with the concepts of open learning and flexible learning.

A more recent concept, e-learning is commonly referred to as the intentional use of networked ICT in teaching and learning (Naidu, 2006).

Strictly speaking, e-learning and ODL are interrelated but not exactly synonymous terms. As Guri-Rosenblit (2005) explained, DE in most higher education systems is not delivered through the new electronic media, and vice versa: e-learning in most universities and colleges all over the world is not used for DE purposes.

The plethora of terminologies in this area of education can indicate the different value systems that underlie these forms of technology- mediated learning. As a communication scholar, I look at how meaning making constructs realities. In this paper, I will attempt  to examine the meanings various authors (including myself) attach to these labels. Since meanings are contextual, I will look into the trends in open distance e-learning globally and nationally. I will also present to you a brief background on the UP Open University, the institution to which I belong.

Based on these, I will thresh out some lessons that can be deduced from the previous discussions, in particular the spaces and possibilities that we in the ODL sector can look into. Drawing implications from the lessons, I will then present my worldview of “Open and Distance e-Learning” (ODeL) and identify issues that may arise out of this worldview.

Global Trends in Open, Distance, and e-Learning

In recent years, open and distance e-learning has been influenced by the following trends.

1. Transnational education

One impact of globalization is the increasing demand for cross- border education. Institutions of open, distance, and e-learning are well positioned to propel them to cross-border education given their experience in ICT-enhanced modes of delivery. In their efforts to control border education, governments may be forced to internationalize their accreditation systems. As an International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) report noted, this is a case of concern as it may unintentionally create a new postcolonial knowledge environment that is dominated by the strongest and richest institutions at the expense of cultures and traditions in developing countries.

2. Quality assurance

With the spread of border education comes the heightened focus on accreditation and quality assurance. Most established distance educator providers have their own quality assurance systems. However, Belawati (2008) said that ODL has not yet established a universally standardized or acknowledged quality assurance system comparable to that in conventional face-to-face education.

3. Digitization of distance education

In the past, most ODL institutions deliver a large part of their course content through print, radio, and television. The arrival of the Internet has enabled ODL institutions to get into what Otto Peters called “digitized” distance education. However, the adoption of e-learning methods across ODL institutions has been quite varied.

4. Changing profile of students

Across the world, the number of adult learners wanting to update their knowledge and qualification has steadily increased. To cater to these learners, many conventional universities have gotten into blended learning, combining traditional classroom practice with e-learning solutions. However, many conventional universities have been unable to adapt online teaching methods fast enough to ensure increased access, quality, and sustainability through the use of teaching technology.

5. Open educational resources

More and more institutions are openly sharing their learning resources at no The development of free and user-friendly ICT has brought down the cost of producing learning resources. This coupled with the principle that knowledge must be free has contributed to the propagation of open educational resources (OER).

Recent Trends in the Philippines

At present, there are only 17 higher education institutions that offer DE programs in the country. However, there is a growing number of conventional universities that offer programs in either online  or blended modes. The Commission on Higher Education (CHED) assesses, monitors, and accredits institutions that are intending to offer DE programs and transnational education.

In the area of basic education, the Department of Education implemented the Open High School Program (OHSP) as part of the Education for All (EFA 2015) program.

The UPOU Experience

The UPOU was established in 1995 as the fifth constituent university of the University of the Philippines System. It aims to provide education opportunities to individuals aspiring for higher education and improved qualifications but who are unable to take advantage of traditional modes of education.

The creation of UPOU was a response to a felt need. Through the DE provided by the UPOU, the University is able to respond better to the demand for quality higher education especially in areas which do not have a UP campus.

When UPOU was established 17 years ago, the university taught primarily through stand-alone modules in print. With the growth of the Internet at the turn of this century,  the university shifted  its gears and adopted online teaching and learning. Harnessing the advantages of these technologies, the UPOU decided to look at e-learning as a means to enrich the learning experience of our students. In addition, e-learning also enabled us to expand our reach abroad. At present, our offshore students come from over 40 countries and comprise 20% of our total student enrollment.

Compared to other universities, UPOU is unique for several reasons.

First, UPOU is basically a graduate university. While many open universities focus on offering undergraduate and non-formal courses, most of UPOU’s program offerings are at the graduate level. The founders of UPOU thought it best to cater to the underserved graduate education sector, since there are many colleges and universities all over the country that offer a range of undergraduate programs. As of the latest data from CHED, there are 2,180 higher education institutions in the country, 72% of which are privately owned and run.

Second, the UPOU exists as part of a national university system that is essentially residential in character. This poses both constraints and opportunities. In the beginning, UPOU took great efforts to convince some of its counterparts in its sister campuses about the quality of DE as a mode of teaching and learning. On the other hand, being part of UP has also allowed UPOU to tap the academics in other campuses as course authors, reviewers, affiliate faculty members, or tutors. The various campuses also became hosts to most of UPOU learning centers in key cities in the country.

Being part of UP also means upholding the values the national university has been known for – scholarship, academic excellence, academic freedom, humanism, nationalism, and social responsibility. Our regular faculty members and academic units are subject to the same performance review standards used in the whole university system.

Third, UPOU’s creation also coincided with the inception of the Internet in the Philippines. From the time the university was established to the time the  Internet  took  off  in  the  country,  the university has not invested much in physical infrastructure associated with earlier models of DE. This made it easier for the University to get into online models of delivery and digital mode of printing (i.e., print on demand).

Fourth, the rapid increase in the number of Internet users in the Philippines bodes well with e-learning. From 2000 to 2011, the number of Internet users in the country leaped by 1000% from two million to 29 million Internet users in 2011. This can be attributed to the partnership between the government and telecommunication providers as well as increasing Internet usage among families of millions of Overseas Filipino Workers who use the web to connect with their loved ones.

Issues and Lessons

  1. E-learning opens up possibilities

Modern ICTs have made teaching and learning innovations possible. The non-linear nature of web-based technologies allows for more independent, problem-based, and creative learning opportunities for our students. It gives teachers and learners the tools to engage in learning activities that foster creativity.

E-learning will also play an important role in the internationalization of DE. World-renowned universities may still rely on their reputation to attract younger international students to study on campus. However, there is a group of mature learners out there who prefer to study part-time and acquire the skills necessary to advance themselves in their careers. Many private online providers have actually specialized serving this market.

2.    ODL creates spaces for the marginalized

In recent years, there has been a surge in e-learning initiatives all over the world. There are more commercially operated providers of e-learning now than a few years back. All these point to the viability of e-learning as a reliable approach to education.

Even as the providers of e-learning continue to diversify, there is a need to revisit what it means to be open. As author Greville Rumble argued, we need to remind ourselves that “access is about individual learners, structure and dialogue” and not some instrumental ends or commercial interest. It would do us good to look back at the contributions of open and distance learning not only to educational systems but to also to society as a whole.

ODL has helped usher in a more learner-centered approach to education. As a pedagogical approach, learner-centeredness brings with it certain values like public service, access, and equity.

In the past, we have seen how ODL has reached sectors that do not have equal access in conventional forms of education. These values are what made ODL a success in the past and these are the same values that have and will make ODL relevant in the digital age and beyond.

3.    The need to claim the space for the universitas

E-learning as a mode of teaching and learning does not exist in a vacuum. It is influenced by a host of socio-cultural, political, and economic factors. The confluence of these factors helps define what kind of e-learning will prevail and how it will affect our educational system in particular and societies as a whole.

For  instance,  the  diversification  of  providers  of   e-learning may provide learners with  more  options  but  it  can  also result in some unintended consequences. For example, the rush  to meet the demand for so-called skill-based courses may lead to myopic programs that do not go beyond the how-to’s of things. International accreditation of online courses can answer the need for quality assurance but it can also preserve the hegemony  of the market leaders in the field. Open educational resources can make learning more accessible to more people but it can also mute marginalized perspectives that do not lend themselves well to digital representation. Standardized quality assurance systems can ensure uniformity of student experience but they can also impinge on the academic freedom of faculty members.

How do open, distance, and e-learning hold on to its mission in the midst of these changes? Aside from getting inspiration from ODL’s inherent public service, access, and equity, we need to look at e-learning within the context of the “universitas” – the larger community of scholars, the state that has given us the mandate  to operate, as well as the citizenry from which we draw support.

By going back to the concept of the universitas, we can better appreciate what education is regardless of its mode of delivery – a social contract.

At the core of the universities’ social contract is its role in social transformation. Universities have helped shape society not only by producing competent professionals but also by nurturing innovative ideas, facilitating discourse on important social issues, and developing technologies that people can use.  Universities  are able to do this because they encourage the free exchange of ideas, thereby allowing its community of scholars to think critically, creatively, and collegially.

E-learning has the potential to develop learners who can think critically, analyze situation from different angles, tolerate other ideas, and propose creative solutions. From my observation though, effective course design and delivery are not enough to realize all this potential. For such learning to be authentic and therefore achievable, e-learners and e-teachers alike need to know and feel that they are a part of a community of scholars. E-learners and e-teachers alike need to imbibe values that have made the universitas the cradle of social transformation – academic freedom, humanism, intellectual pluralism, cultural diversity, academic excellence, democracy, and service to society. For purposes of discussion, I will identify this way of looking at these realities as “Open and Distance e-Learning” or ODeL.

Open and Distance e-Learning as a Worldview

ODeL draws from the features and affordances provided by open learning, DE, and e-learning – access and equity, resource sharing, learner-centeredness, flexibility, active learning, interactivity, ubiquity, and connectivity. Some of these features – like access and equity – are more in tune with open learning. Others – like learner- centeredness, flexibility, and active learning – are shared by the three domains. Ubiquity, interactivity, and connectivity are more of e-learning’s contributions (Figure 1).

OdeL Worldview


 As I have previously discussed, these affordances and features are infused with values that underpin the universitas – excellence, academic freedom, humanism, intellectual pluralism, democracy, and service to society. These ethos create the spirit of the university as we all recognize. Together, all these elements are embedded and facilitated by networked ICTs and make up what I refer to as ODeL. The interweaving of these components can bring about social transformation.

Let me just say that I am not the first one to espouse these values. Many ODL institutions have actually practiced these values in one form or another. ODeL is not a normative framework but is more of an expression of values. For me, ODeL is more of a worldview. A construction of how open learning, DE, and e-learning can converge and diverge, co-create each other, and enacted in the context of the universitas.

The conception of ODeL is a product of my experiences as an educator and administrator of an open learning institution in the Philippines. As we know, there is a range of models of ODL all over the world, each one of them is valid in their respective contexts.

ODeL-related Issues

 Instead of dispensing a specific set of recommendations, I would like to raise some academic and administrative issues that may arise within the worldview that is ODeL.

1.  Plurality of ideas

The post 9/11 scenario has shown us that the world needs more people who have greater understanding of the complexities of the world around them, a high level of tolerance for differences, and  a more open mind to transformation. These are the same values that define the universitas. For us working in ODeL, this requires designing courses that not only encourages participation but also presents a range of ideas and perspectives.

The OER movement has done a great deal in democratizing learning materials. However, the developing world has been more of a consumer rather than producer of content. To create a truly global perspective, we in the Third World must find means to design, construct, and produce our information, our stories, our experiences, our interpretations, our course materials and claim our voices and spaces in the vast limitless Web.  There is a need  to create our own materials the way we want to create them and proliferate the web for the world to see. Only then can we talk about authentic contribution.

2.  Production of scholarly texts in a networked world

The Internet has been heralded and ridiculed for revolutionizing the world of education and for being a source of misinformation. If we really want the web to be truly reliable, academics need to be active in propagating scholarly texts that can be accessed by people across the globe. We in the academia should maximize the potentials of multimedia as research—both in terms of conduct and dissemination. While printed academic journals—which can be digital too—shall remain the primary mode for disseminating empirical work among academic scholars, multimedia offers a great opportunity to disseminate scientific knowledge to an audience that is becoming more accustomed to the grammars of the audio- visual language.

3.  Non-linearity of the medium

Traditional cultures like the Philippines has a long oral tradition. According to Thomas J. Farrell’s commentary on Walter Ong’s work on orality and second orality, orality is participatory while print is objectively distanced. In orality, the author is dubbed as the performer, however, the listener is part of the performance and therefore is likewise the author. E-learning is capable of reconfiguring a space for second orality through its use of hypertexts and hypermedia, and hypermultimedia. Hypertext brings back the non-linear, non-hierarchical organization of information of primary orality. The digital text has given the ordinary people voices thus expanding the democratic space.

Indeed, e-learning technology is characterized by that unending cycle of conversations and dialogues. It has that openness for the thickening of discourse that is recorded through this flickering medium. Just like the way we have become conversant in the technology of writing, teachers and learners will have to be eloquent in this new technology. Teachers and learners will have to go beyond traditional technologies’ linear nature and understand and appreciate how to think non-linear as well. This has implications on how we recruit, train, and even compensate our ODeL teachers.

4.  Instilling the universitas ethos in the electronic environment

In conventional universities, the spirit of the universitas is made manifest in the way classes are conducted, research is undertaken, or even in the cultural activities as well as sporting events held   on campus. How do we then propagate these values in an online environment? How do we re-define the spaces for socialization? Should we create new rituals for the performance of these ethos? How do we make social networking a tool not just for entertainment but also for a community of scholars? These issues offer exciting possibilities for ODeL.

5.  Digital divide

Just as ICT can be used to reach sectors that are not served by the conventional educational system, ICT can also marginalize people who do not have access to it. To address this concern, we need to improve the ICT infrastructure in the rural and poorer areas. This can be addressed by working with governments and the private sector.

The use of ICTs, and the web in particular, has an internal logic in it and therefore requires a set of knowledge skills. For us educators, the bigger challenge is how we can assist disadvantaged people to overcome this cognitive divide. In addition, we may also need to explore more ways of combining online technologies with earlier media—like TV, radio, and print—to address the needs of certain sectors.

These are indeed exciting times for open and distance e-learning which offers a lot of opportunities for experimentation and innovation. It is here today and will proliferate more so in the future. We hope that with ODeL, we can better prepare ourselves for the opportunities and challenges that lay before us as educators and learners in the digital age.

Belawati, T. (2008). Conceptual origins of open and distance learning. PANdora Distance Education Guidebook (1st ed.). Retrieved from pdf

Guri-Rosenblit, S. (2005). ‘Distance education’ and ‘e-learning’: Not the same thing. Higher Education, 49, 467–493.

Naidu, S. (2006). E-Learning: A guidebook of principles, procedures and practices (2nd ed.), Commonwealth Educational Media Center for Asia (CEMCA). Retrieved from bitstream/123456789/138/1/e-learning_guidebook.pdf

Suggested citation:

Alfonso, G. J. (2014). Creating Spaces and Possibilities Through Open and Distance e-Learning (ODeL): A Worldview. In G. J. Alfonso, & P. G. Garcia (Eds.), Open and Distance eLearning: Shaping the Future of Teaching and Learning (pp. 3-14). Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines: UP Open University and Philippine Society for Distance Learning.

Creating Spaces and Possibilities Through Open and Distance eLearning (ODeL): A Worldview | Dr. Grace J. Alfonso


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