Constructing Knowledge at a
Distance: The Learner in Context
California State University, Monterey Bay
Naval Postgraduate School
In his 1977 account of the first 5 years of the Open University, Walter Perry, its first vicechancellor, lamented,
It is very depressing to go on offering a course knowing that a great many of your students are not going to succeed; and moreover that the failure is going to be much more frequent amongst those very deprived adults whom one is especially trying to help. We have not yet succeeded in solving this dilemma. (p. 188)
The solution of this dilemma is not the Open University's challenge alone. Perry's recognition of the dilemma was an early indicator that, for much of the uneducated portion of a population, simple access to a centrally prepared program is not sufficient. Distance education worldwide has been driven by the need to provide access to learning for those most in need of education. Implicitly and explicitly, distance educators have struggled to make the leap from providing access to educational programs to facilitating successful learning. Even as (now Lord) Perry's work was being penned, educators at the Open University and elsewhere were reflecting on and critiquing existing practice. Their goal was to make successful learning accessible to and possible for each individual who desires it, whatever the background and context. But where in the educational process are the learner and the learner's context considered?
As early as 1974, the Open University's own journal, Teaching at a Distance, was publishing critical inquiries about the rigidity of its curriculum (Harrison, 1974, p. 2). Sharpening the point a few issues later, Farnes (1974) noted,