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Roles of educational institutions in open learning for business and industry

Roger Atkinson
External Studies Unit
Murdoch University


The theme chosen for the 1989 conference of distance educators in Australia was "Distance education for training in business and industry" (ASPESA, 1989). In the previous year the theme for the major conference of educational technologists was "Designing for learning in industry and education" (ASET, 1988). These professional societies have placed open learning and its supporting educational technologies for business and industry based training upon their agendas. This is a logical step, based upon the possession of relevant skills and knowledge, precedents in other countries, and the nature of the growing demand for improved training in business, industry and government departments.

However, most of the persons who identify themselves as distance educators and educational technologists are located in educational institutions. Whilst individual practitioners in these fields are finding employment as private providers of open learning services, or as training officers and training managers, most of these persons will interact with business and industry based training through their institutions. Therefore, it is important to analyse the issues influencing the extent to which institutions are prepared to adopt new roles in relation to corporate based education and training.

Open learning for industry

A prominent practitioner in open learning, Roger Lewis of the UK Open College, commented that "Open learning is an elastic concept, maybe too flexible for its own good" (Lewis 1988, p.90). There are many definitions for this elastic concept, often given from a specific perspective or comparative context, for example Australian TAFE (Ashurst, 1987; Foks, 1988; Hall, 1988), Federal government policies (Johnson, 1990), distance education (Holmberg, 1989; Keegan, 1990) or the British experience (Paine, 1988, p. ix). In the context of this paper, interest will centre on open learning as a mode of delivery with attributes which overcome some important constraints often faced by corporate trainers, for instance

Whilst there are variations in detail depending upon the particular context under discussion, there is little difference in the principles of design for open learning in business and industry, and design for higher education and TAFE's distance education students. In the educational sector there is considerable experience in these matters, though actual practice may not approach the ideals, and conformance with institutional frameworks in aspects such as admissions and the scheduling of study may limit the extent of openness.


It is not surprising that there are precedents established for distance education and educational technology units in Australian institutions participating in industry based learning. For example, Deakin University is engaged in open learning courses for several professional associations (Evans and Nation, 1989). Other examples in the design of training materials for industry include work by the University College of Southern Queensland for the SE Qld Electricity Board (Timmins and Cook, 1989), and by Ballarat TAFE for Mars Confectionary (Hamilton, 1988). As examples of a further level of collaboration, Karratha and Hedland Colleges provide the Certificate in Supervision [Minerals and Energy] in association with five major companies in the Pilbara (Gunningham and Davy, 1989). Further examples, from the TAFE sector, are given by McBeath (1988), Ashurst (1988), and Foks (1988).

However, the number of Australian case studies on institutional participation in some aspect of open learning for industry based training is relatively small. A much wider range of case studies is available from Europe and North America. British experiences show how the skills and techniques applied to producing and delivering learning packages for individual students can be applied also to industry training requirements. The key feature is the transferability of skills in designing learning packages. Conformance with institutional rules about the content of learning or institutional practices in delivery, is not necessary, although expertise in designing for industry's requirements in content and delivery is.

The UK developments in open learning owe much to the Open University (see, for example, Thorpe and Grugeon, 1987); the National Extension College (eg Richardson, 1988); the Open College; and Training Commission (previously Manpower Services Commission) activities such as the Open Tech programme (eg Tinsley, 1988). However, many smaller institutions in the further education sector have developed open learning design and delivery, often in collaboration with industry, eg Wakefield District College and the glass industry (Hirst et al, 1987), and Leith Nautical College and the offshore oil industry (Watson et al, 1987).

Use of telecommunications technologies is not a prominent feature of open learning in the UK. However, there is an important example of satellite communications in Europe's PACE network for delivering advanced continuing education to workplaces (Longworth, 1988). The use of telecommunications based delivery of learning is most extensive in the USA. For example, about 250 institutions contribute to the National University Teleconference Network (NUTN) (Duning, 1990), and about 24 universities host the National Technological University (NTU) which delivers one way satellite, two way audio, classroom programming nation wide to industry sites, for masters degrees in engineering and computing (Mays and Lumsden, 1990).

Another important precedent from the American experience is the provision by educational institutions of contract training to corporate clients, using conventional classroom delivery as well as open learning techniques (Aslanian, 1988).

The examples available from other countries provide both a set of precedents and a warning about future scenarios. Open learning in Australian industry could be dominated in the future by imported education, which may be self contained open learning packages, or telecommunications based delivery from other countries, in the same way that our text book markets are dominated by imports. As educational markets become more internationalised, how can Australian practitioners identify and develop the appropriate niches that will enable us to attain a favourable balance of trade in open learning?

Institutional resources for design and production

Design and production expertise in Australian institutions and relevant for open learning is concentrated in a relatively small number of units or departments. In higher education, rationalisation of external studies has resulted in the formation of eight Distance Education Centres (DECs). These are the University College of Central Queensland (Rockhampton), the University College of Southern Queensland (Toowoomba), the University of New England (Armidale), Charles Sturt University (Bathurst), Monash University (amalgamated with Gippsland Institute), Deakin University, the South Australian College of Advanced Education, and the Western Australian Distance Education Consortium (WADEC, hosted by Murdoch University, in consortium with Curtin University of Technology and the Western Australian College of Advanced Education).

The number of TAFE units with distance education expertise is likewise small, being one major centre for each of the state systems, Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia. In addition there are several other units with relevant skills, for example RMIT's Centre for Extension Education (RMIT, 1989).

Each of these units or departments can offer skills in designing open learning packages, producing materials in a range of media, utilising new educational technologies effectively, and access to a wider range of expertise elsewhere within the institution, for example curriculum development, subject matter expertise, and evaluation of training.

Resources and services for open learning design and production are relatively easier for these units and departments to offer, compared with the larger scale services discussed below. This is because design and production services, in a course team environment and working to clients' specifications, are very similar to their institutional role. Also, design and production services for a corporate client are less likely to generate conflict with the institutional policies which control interactions with corporate training (discussed below). It is probably easier to have subject matter expertise provided by the client, as in the case reported by Timmins and Cook (1989), because institutions may not be able to transfer subject matter specialist staff from normal teaching to other activities at short notice. Also, the concept of a partnership in creating open learning materials is likely to be more readily sustained if the subject matter expertise is provided by the corporate client.

Although the present base is relatively small, institutions are building up their library collections of open learning materials and relevant books and journals. This is an important basis for distance education units being able to offer consultancy services on open learning systems and packages. This type of potential support is likely to expand in the near future to include services in new technologies. For example, distance educators should be able to provide consulting on the use of video conferencing for corporate training, including in this service the hire of facilities. Access to institutional resource bases should be extended also into collaboration with the newly emerging private sector providers of open learning services, packages and technologies.

Wider roles in open learning for industry

The roles for institutions in corporate-based open learning, outlined above, are relatively confined, essentially to the services which distance education units can offer. These roles would not impact significantly on mainstream institutional activities and policies. However, the wider possibilities listed below in this section are worth noting, even though their full development may be very slow, for reasons discussed in the next section.

Partnerships with business and industry for the delivery of open learning may be in many cases a logical and sensible approach. Very commonly the services of a skilled tutor, counsellor, facilitator or manager are an essential ingredient in an open learning system. Depending on individual circumstances, corporations may wish to have these services contracted to an institution, possibly with integration into a formal, accredited institutional award for the training undertaken. For example, WA TAFE's Customised Training Agency should aim to secure a prominent role in this area.

Some important pressures will arise from the union movement's desire for portability and accreditation of training, and from corporate control of the selection of trainees, the content and the delivery of training. Institutions may expect to become hosts for accrediting awards which are integrated with and specified by company based training, as for example in the Certificate of Supervision [Minerals and Energy] (Gunningham and Davy, 1989). Another aspect is the granting of credits towards an academic award, for company based education, training and work experience.

Although extensively involved in providing diplomas, degrees and continuing professional education for teachers in early childhood, primary and secondary education sectors, faculties of education offer relatively little for persons developing a career as a corporate trainer or training manager. One important exception is the TAFE Teacher Education programme at Curtin University which does attract enrolments from company training personnel. However there is a specific unmet need in the provision of short courses for corporate trainers.

There is considerable scope for institutions to redirect a part of their research and development services in education. These are dominated by topics relating to primary and secondary schools, with relatively little effort in the broad area of post school education and training, and almost no attention to the specific areas of open learning and technologies for industry based education and training.

Issues affecting new roles

Institutions will have to resolve some difficult issues which may inhibit their ability to respond effectively to the general opportunity to participate in business and industry based training, and the specific opportunity to provide open learning support services. Indeed, some institutions, or even many, may decide not to participate at all and will continue to provide only their traditional teaching for traditional full time students.

There are resource problems. Even in the DECs and TAFE external studies colleges, the units containing relevant expertise are relatively small. Most would have difficulty in undertaking a major contract, particularly in cases which require advanced technologies. The ability of these units to establish communications with industry trainers and to develop contracts is inhibited by a lack of venture capital, that is staff resources that can be detached from existing workloads. It is unfortunate that the stimulus and venture capital provided by the UK's Open Tech programme (Tinsley, 1988) have not been matched by any equivalent in Australia.

There are organisational and institutional problems. Demarcations between universities, TAFE and private providers in relation to services for open learning in industry have not been considered. In open learning, with its emphasis on a team approach to design, production and delivery, demarcations based upon the subject matter and perceived levels of study do not have the same relevance as they have for conventional, campus based teaching. Even within universities, there is a potential demarcation issue over courses for industry training officers, whether these should be provided by commerce faculties, concerned with human resources development and management, or education faculties. In some institutions, distance education units are not integrated with media production units, thus weakening their ability to undertake contracts for industry.

There are problems associated with the concepts of accreditation, portability of awards, lifelong learning, career paths from unskilled level to professional level, credits for previous study, and the value of work experience. These issues are particularly important to adult learners who seek to benefit from better recognition of their previous achievements, and also are important for good working relations between teachers in industry, TAFE and higher education. However, these are often in conflict with institutional policies on admission to study, and the tendency for institutions to assume an exclusive right to prescribe the study that must be completed to obtain a diploma or degree.

There are further issues related to some fundamental aspects of the missions of tertiary education institutions. With a long history of almost exclusively public funding, institutions are cautious about any form of collaboration with business and industry. This is particularly so if it is perceived that firms may attain larger profits from having better trained staff, or that corporate training may be narrowly based upon expectations of quick returns for the training dollar. With their long history of pastoral care for their full time on campus students, institutions are not used to environments in which the primary representation of learners' interests lies elsewhere, in government, unions, the professionalism of training managers, and the responsibility which the learners themselves undertake for their own learning.

The issue of privatisation in Australian higher education (Jones and Anwyl, 1987) may affect roles in open learning. It could be argued that collaboration with company based education and training will concede control of learning to others, when the learners should enrol instead in a conventional, institution based diploma or degree. However, experience in distance education units suggests that any formal learning which adults may undertake, whether company based or TAFE based, whether "training" or "education", can stimulate applications for admission to degree or diploma studies.

Open Learning Support Centre

A proposal to create an Open Learning Support Centre (OLSC), as a WA higher education activity to support open learning development in business, industry and government, has been under discussion since 1989. At present it is not an officially endorsed policy of the WADEC and its member institutions, and several attempts to gain funds for initial working capital from the Department of Employment, Education and Training have been unsuccessful. Nevertheless, proponents for the OLSC believe that its proposed functions are appropriate for higher education's distance educators and educational technologists in Western Australia. It will contribute in a very modest way to the reform of Australia's training system, which has become a prominent matter on the national agenda.

The OLSC has the potential to become largely self supporting through income from contracts and consultancies for the design, production, implementation and evaluation of open learning solutions for industry training requirements. It should offer courses in the technologies supporting open learning, professional continuing education courses, services for training officers, and research into and dissem-ination of developments in open learning. It should maintain collaboration and coordination with TAFE activities in open learning, providers of formal awards for training personnel, and with private sector suppliers of open learning resources. It should seek to facilitate institutional recognition of TAFE and industry based awards, and the development of consortium approaches to open learning.

It is not an easy proposal to undertake. Industry trainers have to be convinced that the OLSC has full institutional backing to enable it to accept contracts at realistic prices, and guarantee delivery of services and materials on time in accordance with agreed specifications. There needs to be some good reason, such as specialist skills and facilities, or institutional credits for company based training, for dealing with an educational institution instead of some other supplier of services. Institutions have to be convinced that open learning is not just some fad, invented by a few enthusiasts, which will waste scarce resources upon an activity peripheral to their traditions.

Notwithstanding these problems, etablishment of the OLSC is likely to occur, on a modest scale, to become a Western Australian initiative matching similar initiative at other DECs. The expansion of open learning in business and industry will become too important for institutions to forgo the opportunities and the challenges of participation.


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Roger J Atkinson is a Senior Lecturer in Distance Education with the External Studies Unit, at Murdoch University, Murdoch, WA 6150. His research and development work is on educational technologies in distance education, communications technologies, computer mediated communications, regional college contracting and the TAFE and higher education interface.

Dr Roger Atkinson, Academic Services Unit, Murdoch University
Murdoch, WA 6150 Australia

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. (1990). Roles of educational institutions in open learning for business and industry. In R. Atkinson and C. McBeath (Eds.), Open Learning and New Technology: Conference proceedings, 43-51. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology WA Chapter.

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