Online extra:
How distance learning promotes inclusion*

Felix Kayode Olakulehin
National Open University of Nigeria




 This article looks at the experiences of promoting and advancing the principles of inclusion and diversity at the National Open University of Nigeria, a distance education institution in a developing country. This critical reflection seeks to address questions such as: Can open and distance learning contribute towards enhancing inclusion and diversity in educational participation in the digital age?

There is an imperative on education systems across the globe to pursue socially just and equitable access to education for all demographics as a new definition of quality in education. This notion is further reinforced by the recently-minted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which replaced the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in the last quarter of 2015. The educational target of the SDGs is focused on the promotion of inclusive and qualitative education for development. The concept of inclusion has evolved over the past few decades from being regarded as “the process of educating students with disabilities along with their general peers” (Pattie 2010: 2), to become a comprehensive ideal of education which seeks “to include all … whatever the provenance of their difficulty at school, whether it be poverty, cultural origin or disability” (Thomas and Loxley 2007: 122). Diversity reflects the involvement of wider social identities including race, ethnicity, culture, language, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age and disability (Higbee, Siaka and Bruch 2007: 4  Shaw 2009: 323).

This article reflects on the objectives of inclusion and diversity in open and distance learning. It addresses questions such as: Can open and distance learning contribute towards enhancing inclusion and diversity in educational participation in the digital age? How are inclusion and diversity conceptualised in the contemporary discourse of access? What are the experiences of promoting and advancing the principles of inclusion and diversity at the National Open University of Nigeria, a distance education institution in a developing country?

Open and distance learning: a philosophical and conceptual overview

Open and distance learning (ODL) is an amalgam of the concepts of open learning and distance education. Teaching and learning take place between tutors and students who are located remotely from one another in both space and time. The social and geographical disconnect between distance learners and their tutors is overcome through basic analogue media such as print courseware and modules, radio and television, and by advanced digital resources such as mobile communication devices and computing technologies, as well as Internet-based media such as open educational resources (OERs) and massively open online courseware (MOOCs). Open and distance learning operates on the ideas of equity and equality of access. All learners have a right to aspire to education up to their levels of interest and, if adequate arrangements are made by institutions, they can achieve their educational objectives within the structures of ODL. This emphasis on accessibility of educational opportunity for all learners forms the raison d’être of distance education (Keegan 1993).

Open and distance education also carries promises of relaxed entry modes, providing equal opportunities to weak and strong learners alike. At the same time, it emphasises high-quality instructional materials designed to give participants access to the most up-to-date and cutting-edge knowledge imaginable. Remedial access courses are provided for students who may have severe deficiencies when beginning their studies, and support in their learning until they are able to improve their grades to the desired entry point for their programmes. Students’ learning experience is supported by professional counsellors who are familiar with the psycho-social needs of distance learners, who are often mature, socially responsible members of society[the latter point should be taken for granted, surely?]. Furthermore, tutorial and instructional facilitators are available to attend to learners’ academic and informational needs.

Open and distance learning is an industrialised form of education which evolved from the correspondence system into a full-blown technology-enabled approach to education, with the establishment of the United Kingdom Open University in 1969. The objective of this model of education was to enhance access to education to include as many people as possible, regardless of their location or of the challenges in terms of the time available to them. Developments in information and communications technology have radically reshaped open and distance learning in the past decade. Private and for-profit providers are competing on the same market as public institutions founded on the principles of equality and economic redistribution. Both forms of institution have taken advantage of the underlying philosophies of open and distance learning to provide accessible educational opportunities to learners everywhere, using technological opportunities available in their local environments. The clientele of distance education is as varied as the institutions offering it. On the one hand, highly regarded executive programmes from leading universities across the globe are being offered to learners on other sides of the world through online platforms by different distance education institutions. On the other hand, non-traditional learner groups, including farmers from small states of the Commonwealth, indigenous women in India and Africa, women under the Islamic tradition of purdah in West Africa, oil workers in central and south America, as well as school teachers across developing and developed societies, are being trained and retrained through open and distance learning.

Using the momentum

All interactions within open and distance education are designed to leverage the momentum created by the convergence of information and communication technologies with other relevant media such as mobile technologies to bridge the transactional distance. According to Moore and Kearsely (2005), transactional distance is constituted by the understanding and communication gap between teachers and learners that is caused by geographic distance. This gap must be bridged through distinctive procedures in instructional design and the facilitation of interaction. The successful engagement of various learner groups that is being witnessed across many distance education programmes derives from careful attention to eliminating the transactional distance. The theoretical postulations of transactional distance, together with the guided didactic conversation, forms the main anchor of learners’ mediation in open and distance education. The guided didactic conversation (Holmberg 1960) uses empathy to create a conversational style. This leads to increased motivation to learn and attain better results than conventional presentations. These learner-centred principles recognise the diversity of learner groups that enrol in distance education programmes, the differences in individual learners’ needs, and their varied expectations vis-à-vis the institution. When the conversation between tutors and learners is guided, specific and carefully crafted, giving attention to learners’ peculiar characteristics, the social justice aspects of open and distance learning are being operationalised.

The new inclusion

Inclusion has been decoupled from disability and special needs, and has gained a new interpretation as a broad term which embraces the notions of equality and equity as essential corollaries of new quality regimes in education. Even though Shaw (2009) comments that “‘widening access’ and ‘widening participation’ are not necessarily synonymous, as access suggests a location of focus at the point of entry to higher education, and has traditionally been associated with mature students through Access courses… whereas ‘widening participation’ is intended to be a term that covers the entire students experience…” However, in our context ‘widening access and participation’ is a hybrid term that represents the notion of access which begins the moment a learner first develops an interest in enrolling in a programme at an institution. Think of a learner who starts looking around at different institutions, considering which one has the most flexible offer to cater for their particular circumstances, in this sense which one is most inclusive and accessible. Hence, inclusion and diversity are closely linked to issues of widening access and participation in education through increasing the number of non-traditional students enrolling in education. This position is closely aligned with the primary objectives of open and distance learning, which seeks for increase access to students at all institutions.

The Nigerian educational context

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, with a population of about 170 million (National Bureau of Statistics 2016). It is the only African member of the E9 countries, which includes Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico and Pakistan. Together these countries account for over half of the world population and about 70% of the world’s illiterate adults. Nigeria’s education indicators reveal disparities in access and participation in higher education in terms of age, gender, disability and socio-economic status. With more than 150 universities and about 191 other forms of higher education institutions, Nigeria has one of the largest higher education systems in Africa. However, these universities have a low absorption capacity, with an intake of only about 12% of qualified applicants annually. This absorption level reflects an increase in enrolment from 325,299 students at 48 universities by the year 2000 to 1,552,913 students at 148 universities in 2016. There is rapid growth in the amount and diversity of university students in Nigeria, as in many other countries. This is due, in part, to a greater focus on increasing access and participation opportunities of historically underrepresented groups in higher education.

The National Open University of Nigeria was established in order to address the yawning gap between the application and enrolment of students in conventional universities. Especial emphasis was placed on meeting the expectations of divergent groups of students who have not traditionally been enrolled in higher education. Two major declarations paved the way. The first is the National Policy on Education (1977, revised 2014), which stated unambiguously that “maximum efforts will be made to enable those who can benefit from higher education to be given access to it. Such access may be through universities or correspondence courses or open universities, or part-time and work study programmes.” The second is Nigeria’s avowed commitment to provide education for all within the context of the declaration at the World Forum on Education for all (EFA) in Dakar, Senegal.

Inclusion through distance learning

Since the introduction of open and distance learning in higher education in Nigeria, there has been a remarkable increase in access to higher education for diverse groups including underprivileged women, disabled people and prison inmates. The National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) has significantly increased access to university education in Nigeria at an unprecedented rate over the past 15 years. Before NOUN, the conventional universities were unable to grant admission places to all qualified applicants. This is mainly because of the limited capacities of each of the formal universities to enrol candidates beyond a certain limit. This is a result of inadequate funding, characterised by dilapidated physical facilities, a limited number of well-trained staff and dwindling research capacities. The Nigerian Government recognised from the start that there are some major areas requiring urgent policy review in order to maximise the benefits of distance education. These are (i) the need to democratise access to education, (ii) the need to develop curricula content in the programmes being offered in order to remain abreast of the unprecedented knowledge explosion as well as rapidly-growing technology, and (iii) the urgent need to integrate communication technologies into the practice of open and distance education.

NOUN is the only fully-fledged open and distance learning university in the West African sub-region. It is also the largest university in the sub-region, with enrolment hovering above 260,000 students, across 76 study centres, and projected to hit the 1,000,000 mark by 2021. In addition to expanding access and providing flexible learning opportunities, the cross-cutting agenda of NOUN is to deliver quality education anchored by social justice, equality, equity and innovativeness. Thus, NOUN has been the only university in Nigeria offering degrees and certificate courses for inmates in prisons across the country with a 100% scholarship for all interested prison inmates. Additionally, the University provides tailor-made academic and skills development training for members of military and paramilitary units in Nigeria, with learner support activities delivered at dedicated study centres located in the Air Force, Army, Navy, police, prison service, fire service, and civil defence formations across Nigeria. NOUN is on record as the only university in Nigeria that has given disabled people significant attention by ensuring that all disabled students are given focused learner support required to successfully navigate their programmes. Disabled students are also given scholarships to enable them to successfully undertake their programmes to the point of completion.

The flexibility of NOUN courses makes them popular among candidates who have been unable to gain admission to conventional higher education institutions. It is equally popular among people who are currently in employment and do not wish to leave their occupations in order to go into full-time education. Enrolment in NOUN courses also includes politicians, senior civil servants, legislators and offshore oil workers.


* / This article has been written exclusively for the digital version of the Adult Education and Development journal.


Higbee, J. L.; Siaka, K. & Bruch, P. L. (2007): Assessing our commitment to multiculturalism: Student perspectives. In: Journal of College Reading and Learning, 37(2), 7-25.

Keegan, D. (Ed.) (2005): Theoretical principles of distance education. Routledge.

Rouse, P. (2009): Inclusion in physical education: Fitness, motor, and social skills for students of all abilities. Human Kinetics.

Shaw, J. (2009): The diversity paradox: does student diversity enhance or challenge excellence? In: Journal of Further and Higher Education, 33(4), 321-331.

Thomas, G., & Loxley, A. (2007): Deconstructing special education. United Kingdom: McGraw-Hill Education.

About the author

Felix Kayode Olakulehin is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Research in Distance and Online Learning in Lagos, Nigeria. His research interests include higher education, open, distance and online education, as well as cross-cutting themes such as widening participation, lifelong learning, access, inclusive education and quality assurance. He holds higher degrees in Educational Leadership & Management as well as in Open and Distance Learning.


Adult Education and Development


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