In 1987, forty-nine Heads of Governments of the Commonwealth of Nations made a bold decision to establish the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) as their agency to inform, assist and encourage member states to develop capacities in the design, management and growth of distance education. Political leaders came to that conclusion out of a concern for the increasing demand for more and better education from their people, coupled with the realisation that newer and more economical ways must be found if those demands were to be met without bankrupting national treasuries. Distance education appealed to them as a viable alternative. In the ten years since its founding, the COL has in a variety of ways added value to the thinking, planning, starting and managing of distance education systems across the Commonwealth. In the process, the organisation also found itself to be a primary source of information, to the Commonwealth as well as others, on many aspects of distance education and open learning.
Even in this age of near-unfettered flow of information, it is amazing how little is known about the nature, practices, successes, failures, relevance and effectiveness of training and education delivered using distance education. This unawareness is not just limited to people from developing economies or those outside the educational profession. It is widespread among people from both developed and developing economies. Also, sadly, there is as much ignorance among many in education as among those outside it, about what distance education can do and cannot do, what does and does not constitute good practice in distance education, its efficiencies and governance. Yet over the same period that the practice of distance education was growing, so too has its literature, so that the problem for those wanting to know more about the field is, where does one start?
I hope that this volume, the first in a series, will be that starting point. Overwhelmed on the one hand by the proliferation of information on distance education and concerned on the other by its inaccessibility to many who should be informed by it, my colleagues and I at the Commonwealth of Learning felt compelled to design a publication that could bring the wealth of experience in distance education in a readable and usable form to