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UNESCO Education EU

In Europe open and distance learning is a well-established form of education, although the status and tradition varies considerably within the region. In Western Europe there is a strong private sector serving the adult population, mainly through general education programmes at the secondary level, through various forms of vocational and professional training and through non-formal education. A number of countries have implemented particular legislative measures to ensure quality control of private provision. Some countries have also established major government-funded institutions (France, Spain, and Sweden). Some of these operate mainly at the secondary level, others also have tertiary level programmes.

The UK Open University has set the standards for a particular type of university institution, the open universities. Flagship institutions have been established in other European countries including most notably Spain with the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED) and the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UoC), Germany with the Fernuniversität, as well as the Open Universiteit of the Netherlands and the Universidade Aberta of Portugal. In other countries the dual mode type of universities represent the dominant model, and in recent years various consortia models have been introduced, including virtual and distributed universities. European distance education is currently at a stage of major strategic development, where national provision is being extended across borders.

In Central and Eastern Europe and the former USSR the political and economic transformations have had important implications for education, and have already led to fundamental reforms and restructuring of national education systems. In most of the countries, distance education based on correspondence studies combined with face-to-face .consultations. was developed and served large populations. However, student numbers decreased very much after the political transformation, partly due to lack of support from employers. The model is now often met with some reserve regarding both status and quality. Open and distance learning is still a priority for most of the governments in this sub-region, but it is in need of fundamental reform and upgrading, as is the education system as a whole. Undoubtedly, distance education and training has an important role to play in the modernization and expansion of access to education in Central and Eastern Europe and the former USSR. The development of new structures will need support in forms of funding and regional collaboration in order to be effective, such as the PHARE and TACIT Programmes of the European Commission.

Cultural diversity, the range of languages in use, and differences in educational tradition have made educational provision a matter for the individual country, and there are still few examples in Europe of successful international provision of distance education. However, efforts towards economic and political integration are changing this picture. Distance Teaching Universities, above all the UK Open University, are now enrolling considerable numbers of students, particularly within business education, from all over Europe including the former USSR.

The European Union has for many years been promoting distance education, particularly with a European dimension and in co-operation between institutions in the member states. Open and distance learning features strongly in policy documents from the Commission of the European Communities, and was mentioned particularly in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. Support for distance education is also given within the framework of programmes of economic assistance to Central and Eastern Europe and the former USSR. This continuous interest of the European Union has probably influenced national governments in their revision of policy concerning open and distance learning. Several regional networks have been formed since the second half of the 1980s, among them the European Distance Education Network (EDEN), and the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU). They are active in promoting and implementing collaborative projects in various sectors and at different levels
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The role of users in the de facto acceptance of open and distance learning should not be underestimated: the examples of many British professional bodies and of the German car industry provide evidence of its importance. The trend that has definitively changed the level of legitimization and respectability of open and distance learning in the last five years has been the integration of open and distance learning segments and modules derived from open and distance learning into conventional education and training, and into work-based learning. This evolution is quite different in nature because it does not only concern specialized open and distance learning providers or specialized consortia (although composed for the most part of conventional educational institutions), but is bringing open and distance learning into the core business of education and training bodies. It involves cohorts of hitherto passive or hostile teachers and trainers to open and dis- tance learning, and is bringing the experience of open and distance learning to normal and privileged users of full time education and training.

Substantial progress in the quality of supply of multimedia products and services for education and training has taken place over the recent period. The explosion of Internet use and the significant growth of the CD-ROM market represent the two basic conditions for this development on the technology infrastructure side. The quality of multimedia products has improved substantially, moving from an unsatisfactory level which justified negative attitudes developed in the past by users and intermediaries (teachers, trainers, managers etc.). New forms of user-based review are emerging in some countries.

High growth has taken place in the diffusion of ICTs in all European countries, and the trend is expected to continue vigorously, especially in those countries that are less advanced. Education and training is responsible for about one third of multimedia development. A sort of virtuous circle is created, in which users familiarize themselves with multimedia tools in the context of entertainment activities, and then become able and willing to use multimedia products and services either for education or for training purposes. An aspect which should not be underestimated is the fact that while the diffusion of ICTs is involving a growing proportion of the European population, it is not involving all of it.

Public authorities in the main European countries have understood the significance of educational multimedia and the number of initiatives at local, national and European levels has multiplied. They are taking shape through the setting up of financial support funds, and incentives to develop infrastructures and programmes, and through lowering the costs of equipment for schools. A potentially significant new fact is the emergence of multi-country projects directly supported by national Ministries of Education, which have among their objectives to involve private partnerships in a systematic way.

Diversity and fragmentation in Europe goes beyond the structure and traditions of the education system. Severe obstacles for development include lack of standardization, varying and insufficient copyright legislation and weaknesses in the European software industry. Proper regulatory frame works, tariff structures and the seamless interconnection of networks, as well as the development of services and applications, are crucial for further utilization of new technologies. The European Union has carried out actions in this area, including open and distance learning, based on recommendations from a group chaired by Commissioner Martin Bangemann (Bangemann, 1994; Commission of the European Communities, 1991a; Commission of the European Communities, 1991b). This has been extended most recently with the eLearning Action Plan (Commission of the European Communities, 2001), and the extension of opportunities to develop open and distance learning activities for Central and Eastern European countries using the European Commission Framework Programmes.

Some of the emerging issues in European distance education may be summarized as follows:

  • The problem of matching open and distance learning provision to the needs of human resource development at national and sub-regional levels, and of integrating future development with human resource and education policies and strategies;
  • The challenge of mobilizing conventional institutions of education in the implementation of open and distance learning strategies, and at the same time capitalizing on the experience and resources of the many specialized distance teaching institutions;
  • The need for innovation by both conventional and distance teaching institutions concerning the effective use of new information and communication technologies for education and training purposes, based on sound educational strategies and research and on the accessibility of the necessary ICT infrastructure and connectivity at affordable cost;
  • The continuing importance of the recognition of awards deriving from study using open and distance learning methods;
  • The significance of competition in the education and training field from providers from outside the European region;
  • The importance of developing quality standards for e-learning systems in both the private and public sectors;
  • The need for appropriate balance and synergy between national and European development concerning policies, infrastructure, quality standards and equivalence, joint development projects and delivery and support systems;
  • The challenge of assisting the development of open and distance learning programmes and infrastructure in sub-regions where it is not sufficiently developed.

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