The preceding chapters in this book illustrate well the rich variety of activity that goes under the name of open and distance learning at the turn of the millennium. What else is left to say?
I fear that the very richness and variety of the projects and institutions described mask a problem. There is a conceptual fuzziness that is endemic in open and distance learning which has a number of origins. Confusion of ends and means is one, the search for simplicity in public policy is another, and enthusiasm for the potential contribution of information technology to education and training is a third. When any domain of human endeavour suddenly becomes fashionable it becomes difficult to sustain a clear and consistent framework for discourse about it. Some appropriate the topical descriptor ‘open learning’ with little concern for whether it really fits their particular activity. Others invent new terms, like ‘distributed learning’ in order to imply that their own approach is a novel form of distance education. In the early 1990s the European Commission introduced the term ‘open distance learning’ for its policies and programmes in this broad field. This expression, or its sister term ‘open and distance learning’, now has wide international currency. The problem with the term is not that it makes light of conceptual rigour but that it can easily mislead people about the educational and social purposes being pursued.
The term ‘open learning’ stands for the general aim of opening up education and training more widely. Openness has many dimensions and most projects that describe themselves as open learning concentrate on only a few of them. Two examples demonstrate this. For the UK Open University widening intake through open admission was a key dimension. For New York’s Empire State College opening up the curriculum for students to design their own programme was the principal goal. Distance education, on the other hand, is one means of pursuing some dimensions of openness. In terms of our two examples it allows the Open University to widen its intake to include people wherever they live but contributes less to Empire State College’s goal of letting students shape their own programmes. A simple way to summarise scholarly reflection on these terms is to say that open learning