Sharon Fraser is a Research Assistant in the Faculty of Science and Technology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Western Sydney, Nepean.
UniServe Science News Volume 6 March 1997


Open Learning

The Challenges Ahead

Sharon Fraser

Much has recently been made of open learning, but what do we mean by the term. To some it means distance delivery, to others it means flexible access and to others the term is synonymous with a way of teaching that meets the needs of the learner i.e., open and flexible. In this discussion, of the potential value of open learning in science education, let me start by clarifying the term 'open learning'. I prefer to use the definition used by Paine (1989) which is to look at "... open learning as both a process which focuses on access to educational opportunities and a philosophy which makes learning more client and student centred" . This means that not only is access to education made more equitable, but also that the learning experience itself is more flexible.

Recent reports commissioned by the Australian Government (Baldwin 1991; Candy et al. 1994) have acknowledged the necessity for a greater emphasis to be placed on meeting student needs in ter-tiary education, in order to produce gradu-ates equipped for the workplace. There is no shortage of literature identifying criteria for, and characteristics of teaching, which is considered effective in maximising student learning and achievement (Ramsden 1992; Stubbs and Maddison 1991), but there is little specific research evaluating and assessing the results of such teaching strategies. This is particularly evident in the application of this approach in science education.

Science undergraduates in Australia are, being increasingly exposed to novel and innovative teaching and learning experiences (Clark and James 1993; Pollard 1993). They are being required, moreover, to develop not only discipline-specific skills, but also generic and transferable skills. Students have to adapt to this new learning environment and so too do lecturers. How effective student-centred teaching, which underpins the philosophy of open learning, is in producing science graduates of the calibre required by employers is largely unknown. How students, staff, employers and funding bodies perceive the effectiveness of such strategies is also largely ignored. Yet all of these factors must be taken into account when evaluating or assessing the effectiveness of innovative science courses. What we can be sure of, however, is that an academic interested in embracing the philosophy of open learning will face challenges, which are yet to be proven worthwhile.

In a true open learning environment the learner is now responsible for, and in charge of, the learning process. The new role of the teacher is to be "... increasingly less the carrier of information, but more and more the tutor who stimulates and promotes a communication process between himself and the student and between the student and the learning materials." (Van Enckevert and Leibbrandt 1988). The focus is on the students' learning, not on the instructors' teaching. Student centred learning activities that foster deep learning require innovative assessment strategies. Where possible, students should be involved in the assessment process as this helps them to develop the ability to make judgments, in particular about themselves and their work (Brown et al. 1994).

Any course development must not only meet the objectives of how students learn (Nussbaum and Novick 1982; Piaget 1983) but also take into account the students' motivations, priorities and preferences. Together with the note-taking and information gathering skills, traditionally taught to the students, it is now necessary to include such skills as group work and presentation skills in this training. The learner requires immediate and continual feedback about their progress which results not only in a sense of achievement but also provides a validation of the learning strategy adopted by the student (Clark 1994).

Although we seek to develop the students' ability to be independent learners, the tutor does not become obsolete, rather he/she must be the supportive and motivating influence in the development of the students' autonomy, being aware of the individual learning needs of each student and prepared to help with the students management of their learning.

Science education lends itself to innovative teaching techniques. Problem based learning (Feletti 1993), multimedia packages (Harper 1996), the use of concept mapping (Ault 1985, Clark & James 1993) and group learning (Kennedy 1996; Sleet & Logan 1996) are all being used in undergraduate science education and receiving positive feedback from the students. However, student centred teaching strategies, which hand over the responsibility and control of the learning process to the student, actually require a very motivated member of staff. A great deal of work must be put into the develop-ment, establishment and maintenance of the teaching strategy to be implemented. The lecturer needs to ensure that the students have adequate skill to get the most from the innovation.

All this requires a commitment of time, energy and resources. Will this mean that the staff member's research load and other commitments to teaching, need to be cut back and further staff development training undertaken. Are institutions willing to fund this new approach to the teaching/ learning relationship? Is there a risk that open learning and its tools are seen by some "economic rationalist" as a means of cutting the cost of higher education perhaps by reduction in staff? There is no doubt of the strength of the educational arguments supporting the establishment of student centred teaching, but without well structured evaluation of the effectiveness of individual strategies and their institutionalisation, is it reasonable to expect an academic to make the necessary sacrifices?


Ault, C.R. (1985) Concept mapping as a study strategy in earth science. J. Coll Sci Teach 15; 38-44.

Baldwin, P.J. (1991) Higher Education: Quality and Diversity in the 1990's. Australian Government Printing Service, Canberra.

Brown, S., Rust, C. and Gibbs, G. (1994) Strategies for diversifying assessment in higher education. The Oxford Centre for Staff Development. Oxford, UK.

Candy, P.C., Crebert, G. and O'Leary, J. (1994) Developing lifelong learners through undergraduate education. Australian Govt Printing Service, Canberra.

Clark, R. (1994) Student opinion of flexible teaching and learning in higher education. (in) Wade, W. et al., (eds) Flexible learning in higher education. Kogan Page, London.

Clark, I. and James, P. (1993) The use of concept maps in the teaching and learning of structured geology (in) Bain, J. et al., (eds) Promoting teaching in higher education. Reports from the National Teaching Workshop. V.R.Wood, Govt. Printer, Qld.

Feletti, G. (1993) "Inquiry based and problem based learning: how similar are these approaches to nursing and medical education?" HERD 12(2), 143-156.

Harper, B. (1996) Exploring the Nardoo: multimedia reporting in science problem solving UniServe Science News 4.

Kennedy, B. (1996) Improving student learning UniServe Science News, 4.

Nussbaum, J. and Novick, S. (1982) Alternative frameworks, conceptual conflict and accommodation: towards a principled teaching strategy. Instructional Science, 11, 183-200.

Piaget, G. (1983) Piaget's theory. (in) Mussen, P.H. (ed.) Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 1. History, theory and methods. New York. John Wiley and Sons.

Pollard, J. (1993) Developing physics understanding through guided study. (in) Bain, J. et al., (eds) Promoting teaching in higher education. Reports from the National Teaching Workshop. V.R.Wood, Govt. Printer, Qld.

Ramsden, P. (1992) Learning to teach in higher education. London. Routledge.

Sleet, R. and Logan, P. (1996) Broader skill requirements of science graduates. UniServe Science News 3.

Stubbs and Maddison, (1991) Improving teaching quality in higher education. Edn Today. 41(1).

Van Enckevert, G. and Leibbrandt, G.J. (1988) The open university of the Netherlands. (in) Abrahamson, K. et al., (eds.) Adults in the Academy. Stockholm.

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