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Open learning: An alternative approach to the delivering of training

Ken J Widdowson, Managing Director
EMA Open Learning Pty Ltd

Essentials of open learning

Open learning is a flexible approach to education and training designed to make it more accessible, effective and responsive to individual needs. It places considerable responsibility on the learner and relies, in the main, on well produced course materials. Open learning has been described in the literature as follows
... a term used to describe education and training schemes which are designed to meet the varied requirements of individuals - for example as to what, where, when and how they learn. Organisations make these freedoms of time, place and methods possible by providing a carefully planned, flexible learning package. This enables the learner to study, for much of the time if necessary, away from the direct supervision of the trainer (Manpower Services Commission of the UK).
It thus represents an alternative to instructor lead training. It is not intended to replace instructor lead training nor does it deny that the conventional class room delivery of education and training may be the most effective form of delivery. Open learning represents an alternative where some of the following circumstances might exist. Open learning relies on well produced course materials to drive the learning process. Text is central, even if reproduced on CBT (computer based training). Most often text is well supported by video, audio and in some cases practical equipment. In most cases open learning is supported by a tutor and the importance of the role of the tutor, mentor, adviser, counsellor, or whatever he or she is called, cannot be minimised and will be referred to later in this paper. Open learning is different from distance education, which by definition occurs at a distance, whereas open learning may well be undertaken within an institution as well as at a distance. Distance learning is most often employed to enable students to enrol for an existing course and undertake it parallel to those attending class and to sit for the same examinations. It therefore shares with open learning some of its characteristics and advantages, but generally does not have as much flexibility in terms of admission levels, pace of learning or adaptability to specific learners needs.

Open learning around the world

Some of the elements of open learning were pioneered around 25 years ago with the Open University in the UK and the extension services of the University of Chicago. These were created to provide greater access to tertiary education. Entry levels were modified, and well produced course materials were developed in some cases making use of broadcast technology for their delivery. Self instructional materials, as such, have been used for a very long time.

What distinguishes open learning from simply reading a good book or the instruction manual which comes with a new product? Open learning courses require continuous interaction between the learner and the course materials. Even the text is written in an interactive mode requiring constant involvement of the student in self test questions and other activities. Again the role of the tutor is a vital ingredient as we will see later.

We normally look to the United States with its large population, abundant resources and advanced productivity to find new innovations, but according to the Ohio National Centre for Research in Vocational Education, open learning approaches have made no impact in the United States at all. Conventional instructor lead training is still perceived as virtually the sole means of delivering education and training. While colleges and universities have made extensive use of distance education and have developed a large body of telecourses, that is, video based courses for delivery on PBS television services, open learning approaches to education and training as defined above are relatively rare.

This is less the case in Canada, notably in British Columbia where the Open Learning Agency, an amalgam of their Open University, Open College, and Knowledge Network, their educational broadcast service, has become a major exponent of open learning approaches which has impacted on the rest of Canada.

It is the United Kingdom which has taken open learning approaches for education and training to a highly developed state where theory, research and quality control now support its applications. Open learning commenced there in the early 1980s.

In 1982 the Manpower Services Commission launched their Open Tech programme, which represented an investment of more than $100 million in over 100 projects involved in course development and the creation of a network for their delivery and support. The MSC identified open learning as a primary solution to the urgent need to upgrade skills in British industry so that it might remain competitive with Japan, the United States and the emerging strength of a united Europe. The organisations involved in developing and implementing open learning training courses included employers, local authorities, colleges, training organisations and trade unions. So the principal application of open learning training approaches was seen as upgrading or updating the skills of workers, trades persons, technicians, managers and professionals in business and industry.

Open learning was perceived as being particularly useful in post formal education for adults already in the workforce. In the UK it is an often quoted maxim that 70% of those who will be engaged in the very different workplace of the next century are already in the workforce, so will be unaffected by any improvement in basic education and will only be reached by continuing or life long education.

Another special element which is driving development in the United Kingdom is the impact of new technologies on every occupation. Many of the open learning training resources produced are directed to this end.

In Australia, open learning approaches have been relatively slow to take off, but are now achieving fairly wide recognition. When EMA Open Learning first launched its subsidiary Learning Network, an open learning television initiative using the downtime of ABC and SBS in 1987, it was perceived as being ahead of its time. Even organisations which had represented themselves to the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal as being interested in taking advantage of Australia's new domestic satellite system were not ready when the time came to address such an opportunity. The high cost of producing open learning resources required a level of cooperation between educational institutions which was not possible until the round of amalgamations and new cooperative machinery, especially in the distance education area, enabled the aggregation of needs and funding.

In 1987 the company also established a national distribution centre for UK Open Tech projects, and again the reception by industry and training bodies was very slow. In most cases, during the mid 1980s, federal and state mechanisms established to support training in industry, recognised only instructor lead training, and made little or no allowance for open learning approaches. However, in 1988, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training investigated the opportunities for the use of technology in training and devoted a considerable proportion of its report An apple for the Teacher to describing the benefits of open learning and the potential for its use. After having described the essential elements of open learning, it makes the following comment.

Open Learning made available in this way would extend educational access in the most economical possible way. There would be no need of extra buildings or other capital facilities. Agencies could provide open learning packages developed under contract by outstanding academics or practitioners in whatever organisation those people were employed. Similarly academics, practitioners and other suitably qualified people could be contracted to provide tutoring, counselling and assessment. Learning could be delivered into the home or the work place with great savings in time and convenience and often savings in costs of absence or travel. Well-developed packages are very likely to be more effective educationally than mediocre to poor classroom instruction. (1.35, p. 8 )
However, its recommendations on this point were disappointing in that it simply suggested a cooperative mechanism between states, relying heavily on the involvement of the Australian Educational Council, the peak body of State Ministers for Education.

Getting started in open learning

Out of the British experience a number of well documented case studies in text and video are available to illustrate how a variety of companies have implemented open learning. Obviously, as with all training, a training needs assessment is required to clarify needs before considering appropriate remedies. Often the adaptation of an existing instructor led training programme to an open learning format is a good way to get started. This overcomes the annoying problem of running a course for 20 people, one or two of whom subsequently leave and it is not economical to run the course again. It is also often perceived as a way of reaching trainees unable to attend conventional training sessions.

An inspection of existing open learning resources can often identify open learning course materials which might do a better job than present training procedures. For example, Telecom has recently adopted two open learning packages on basic electrical skills as a step towards replacing some of its instructor led training for beginning technicians with self instructional delivery.

Acquire or produce?

Open learning training material is very expensive to produce. Investments in individual projects in the United Kingdom range from $250 000 to $3 million for a set of course materials employing print, video, audio and CBT. It is well worthwhile therefore to look at existing course materials before deciding to reinvent the wheel. Many new training courses are a response to new technologies which are usually international in their development and distribution, so a lot of existing training material may well suit. Otis Elevator Company, which is using open learning training for its maintenance workers in Australia, has adopted a basic core of existing course materials and added two more of similar design which are specific to their own training needs.

In most cases open learning materials are capable of local adaptation by replacing content which does not fit, or by providing supplementary resources which relate the content to local requirements.

Instructional design

Modern, open learning resources reflect advanced concepts in instructional design. They feature clearly stated objectives, testing of knowledge and progress before, during and at the end of the module, well written interactive texts properly integrated with other media including video, audio and computer based training resources. Information is broken down into manageable segments and units are modular in design allowing for the creation of different training paths to suit individual needs.

Computer managed learning

While a few open learning courses incorporate their own computer managed learning software, almost all materials, because of their clear instructional design, readily lend themselves to transfer to a Computer Managed Learning (CML) system using appropriate authoring software. Course objectives, the test questions and trainees progress can be entered into a Computer Managed Learning system while retaining the interest and flexibility of the multimedia resources.

Infrastructure for open learning

It is very important to be aware of the different organisational structure required to implement and support open learning compared with conventional instructor led training. Failure is almost guaranteed by simply distributing self instructional resources and expecting that learning will take place. All the essential elements need to be identified and carefully managed to ensure a successful outcome. For example, how is the programme to be explained to managers and workers? What is expected of trainees and their supervisors and how is this to be communicated? What records are to be kept and how is the scheme to be evaluated? Where is training to take place? Are facilities or equipment required? How are resources to be distributed, recovered, maintained if necessary and stored, etc.?

Tutorial support

While some open learning resources are effective on their own, most require some form of tutorial support. The tutor To make open learning more user friendly, a number of different names have been adopted for the tutor, including helper, adviser, facilitator, counsellor and others. Sometimes the work is split between a counsellor who is available to deal with the mechanics of learning, and a separate tutor who is the subject expert. Sometimes part of the role is shared by the trainee's immediate superior or technical staff within his or her own company or through peer support.

Tutorial support can be provided in a number of ways. For example, in the case of Telecom, mentioned above, training staff within the organisation will provide the tutorial support. In other cases an expert from outside the organisation, such as a consultant or an instructor from a nearby institution, is employed on an individual contract basis.

In other cases a link can be established with a local teaching institutions, such as a TAFE college, which can be contracted to provide the necessary tutorial support. It can take place either in the institution or on the company's premises, or a mixture of both. This is the model employed by Otis Elevator Company, mentioned above, which has branches in each state. The advantages of this approach are that the trainee is enrolled in the college, has access to its library and other amenities, exam results become part of the permanent college records, and a certificate of achievement is often issued for the successful completion of a short course. This may facilitate further accreditation.


Accreditation is becoming an important issue in the implementation of open learning in business and industry. The varied nature of open learning, the fact that it often employs existing resources, some times produced overseas, and other matters arising from the nature of its flexibility represent problems for achieving appropriate accreditation.

There are two kinds of accreditation with which we are concerned. First there is the issue of a certificate by a competent body indicating that a certain amount of study has been undertaken and successfully completed. This would be the short course certificates mentioned above. The second involves the extent to which the trainee, having invested say 130 hours in the successful completion of one or more open learning training modules, can receive credit towards an existing certificate or diploma course.

Overseas research has shown that about eight out of ten trainees, being of mature age, do not wish to progress from their short, open learning modules to a formal course leading to a certificate or diploma. However, even those eight or so are keen to know that the possibility exists even in the unlikely event of them wishing to take advantage of it. This becomes an important element in winning support from staff and employees to undertake open learning training.

Teaching institutions in Australia are experiencing great difficulty at the present time in addressing this problem and appropriate accreditation is extremely difficult to obtain. The whole issue is now being aggravated by award restructuring which again presents hundreds of new training requirements of 20 or 40 hours duration for which open learning approaches could well be appropriate, and where employees are looking for accreditation of both the kinds we have discussed. Some hope that an improvement in this situation can be found in current legislation before most state governments for the creation of independent training bodies. These bodies would be able to accredit industry based training and courses offered by independent providers, alongside the existing qualifications offered by educational institutions.

The transportability of course accreditation is a related issue along with monetary recognition. The use of open learning in award restructuring provides a direct link between the training offered and the achievement of higher levels of earnings in awards and salary classifications.

New technologies and open learning

New technologies are bound to play an important part in the development, delivery and support of open learning. As it is essentially a resource based approach, undertaken most often at a distance, the use of technologies which enrich the learning experience and facilitate communication with the tutor and other learners will continue to be of value. The old traditional correspondence course, with its mimeographed notes sprinkled with occasional hand drawn diagrams, was perceived as a poor substitute for classroom teaching. The greatly enhanced version we see today, however, with its well produced open learning resources and adopting mixed media approaches, now represents an exciting learning experience, which can capture and retain the interest of many trainees to their own and their employer's benefit. Well produced interactive print materials are still among the most effective, economic and time saving methods of dealing with a training need. However, the more elaborate media, such as interactive video which combines text, video, audio in a fully interactive mode, represent a powerful training tool for open learning in the future.

Equipment is still expensive and course development costs almost prohibitive but like all technologies they will become less expensive as they become more widely used. Development taking place with the interactive compact disc (CDI) playable on domestic priced hardware, offers considerable potential. However a warning needs to be issued against making a commitment to one form of technology or media to the exclusion of others just because it may be fashionable. There is no substitute for carefully identifying the appropriate medium or combination of media for each training situation and taking full advantage of the wide range of options available.

The use of broadcast technologies in open learning is inconsistent with its principles in so far as students are required to undertake their study at a fixed time and place in order to receive the broadcast (although this has been found in some cases to help students pace their studies and not to get behind through lack of motivation). However their use as a means of economically delivering the more expensive video component of an open learning course being widely undertaken has definite value. Further, the Open College in the UK, which grew out of the Open Tech movement and is intended to facilitate the dissemination of open learning resources, is making successful use of television to promote and publicise the availability of open learning courses to both employers and the public.

Obviously, the use of computers to deliver some elements of open learning training and to provide problem solving activities illustrating computer applications is most important, because of the increasing number of people who will be required to use computers in the workplace.

Of particular interest is the application of technology in the support of trainees at a distance. For example, the Overseas Telecommunications Commission has implemented a series of open learning training programmes for staff in the maritime stations located around the coast of the continent. These have been supported by a tutor from the University of NSW Continuing Education Department, who has used teleconferencing techniques to go on line once a month with trainees from several stations at a time, reviewing the past month's assignments and introducing the next month's studies. This system also provides for students to communicate with each other throughout the two hours sessions.

Facsimile and electronic mail provide a much more rapid communication with trainees at a distance in handling work assignments. Computer conferencing, where a topic is put up on an electronic notice board and accessed by trainees from different locations each adding comments, views, questions and replies over a period of one or two weeks, has interesting potential particularly in areas of management development.

The economics of open learning

Another major change involved in adopting open learning training approaches is the way in which education and training is budgeted. Conventional training involves a teacher and a classroom, representing a level of cost for salaries and overheads which varies little from month to month (except to go on rising!).

It needs to be understood that open learning requires a quite different approach to budgeting. Because it is resource based, there is usually a high initial cost involved in the development or acquisition of course materials, which is then amortised over the ensuing period, perhaps up to five years or more. While the average cost of open learning, including tutorial support is most often lower when calculated over the life of the training resources, this initial outlay is often an obstacle to implementing open learning because it requires a level of expenditure, of a one off nature, well above normal.

Applications of open learning

So we have seen that open learning represents a flexible approach to meeting a wide range of training needs. It has been particularly appropriate for upgrading skills in post formal education areas and for continuing professional and adult education. It is already being perceived as a logical way of meeting many of the demands for additional training created by award restructuring throughout Australia. Its instructional design is also consistent with the competency based approach to training currently endorsed by government. The future will see the application of open learning approaches to a wide range of training situations where a quick response is required to a discreet training need. Open learning training modules can be developed according to a curriculum plan. Thus, in their aggregate, they will represent an alternative way by which to achieve a formal qualification, for example a Certificate in Supervision, a Diploma in Management, or an Associate Diploma in Industrial Electronics.

For those changes now taking place in everyone's workplace, from workers on the shop floor to managers, nurses, teachers and engineers, the creation of short, open learning modules to accommodate the changed or additional skills will be seen as a viable solution to the training needs they represent. A body of professional knowledge is now emerging in the training community, which is able to ensure the successful use of open learning approaches as a viable and credible solution to training needs.


Manpower Services Commission. UK extract from Open Learning tool kit. Cambridge: National Extension College.

House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training. (1989). An Apple for the teacher - choice and technology in learning. Canberra: AGPS.

Author: Ken J Widdowson is founder and principal of Educational Media Australia, a 22 year old resource, production and distribution company. Through its open learning subsidiary, EMA Open Learning, formed five years ago, the company has become the major private sector exponent of open learning approaches to education and training, representing in Australis the UK Open College, the Open Learning Agency BC and many other British and North American producers of open learning distance education course materials.

Please cite as: Widdowson, K. (1990). Open learning: An alternative approach to the delivering of training. In R. Atkinson and C. McBeath (Eds.), Open Learning and New Technology: Conference proceedings, 347-355. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology WA Chapter.

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