In any provision of higher education, the responsibilities of the university extend well beyond placing learners within a curricular landscape at the front end and, at the back end, assessing learners to ascertain the degree to which set learning outcomes have been met. A host of other responsibilities come into play; here I want to focus on just one: setting the culture of teaching and learning that mediates both ends.

The ‘How’ of Learning
The curricular landscape sets out ‘what’ to learn, while the culture of teaching and learning concentrates on ‘how’ to learn. Both are critical considerations, of course, but the latter is especially close to the heart of any institution that provides higher education in the open, distance and online modes. This is due primarily to the unique learner demographics.

An open university such as OUM caters to a multitude of geographically dispersed learners from a very wide range of backgrounds, almost all of whom juggle work and study simultaneously. This is in contrast to the conventional university where learners, most of whom study full-time, attend face-to-face lectures and tutorials, and interact with their peers and teachers on-campus.

By way of facilitating teaching and learning for the former category of learners, OUM had in the early days equally emphasised learner participation in self-directed learning, online discussions on content-related matter, and supplementary face-to-face (F2F) tutorials led by the assigned tutors.

Increasing Emphasis on Online Teaching and Learning
As OUM evolved and fine-tuned its operations based on institutional research and feedback from learners, academics and other stakeholders, it began to de-emphasise F2F tutorials and give increasing emphasis on online teaching and learning. As our President and Vice-Chancellor, YBhg Prof Dato’ Dr Mansor Fadzil, has explained in several issues of TCX (Tutor Connexxions) and elsewhere, OUM studies have shown that, although our learners generally view F2F tutorials favourably, an overwhelming majority have not been able to leverage on them. For the most part, this is due either to learners being geographically removed from the nearest learning centre, or to their being preoccupied with work and other life commitments, compelling them to forgo the tutorials.

Hence, in recent times, instead of getting learners to organise themselves around the fixed times and places of tutorials they are unable to attend anyway, OUM is putting learners back at the heart of their learning experience with online learning. The result is learners being empowered to learn asynchronously alongside their peers and tutors at their own convenience, by their schedule, at their own pace, and from wherever they may be located at any given time.

Entwining Self-Directed Learning and Collaborative Online Learning
With F2F tutorials reduced in frequency, OUM’s current accent is on self-directed learning and, especially, collaborative online learning. These two main ways through which learning is promoted are intertwined, each feeding into the other in cycles that repeat themselves until the minimum threshold of learning is met.

Within this framework, self-directed learning is an essential staple, as YBhg Dato’ Mansor underscores in the main feature of this issue. At the most basic, learners need to individually cover their learning materials consistently over the semester, progressing day by day, week by week. Learning materials here refer to one or more of the following: course modules, video lectures, online exercises, prescribed references, and so on.

In the OUM context, self-directed learning, while essential, is rarely in itself sufficient to promote the kind of deep learning that typically occurs when it is coupled with collaborative learning with peers and the tutors serving as online interlocutors.

To illustrate this, let’s imagine that that topic to be studied by the learner concerns ‘ideology’ and the phenomenon where people espouse values and perform actions that are arguably detrimental to their best interest.

Studying on his/her own as the first step, the individual learner should be able to grasp, at the very least, some key concepts related to ideology and ideological identification. Reasons may be offered in the prescribed reading material for why people do not always act in conformity with their best interest.

All that is well and good. But how would the learner check his/her understanding? What if the learner gets tangled up in attempting to unravel the knotty problems related to the subject matter? On his/her own, how will the learner reliably test the theories or hypotheses encountered as ‘knowledge’?

Community of Inquiry
Taking cognisance of the real world, we will find generally that, while an individual may be able to make reasonable strides solitarily, he/she stands to make even greater strides if he/she were to learn collaboratively. As the idiom goes, two or more heads are better than one.

It is on this premise that the online ‘community of inquiry’ model was originally proposed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer in their essay, “Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment” (2000). Garrison et al. argue that an online community of learners practising the culture of collaborative inquiry trumps solitary learning on its own. Together, through sustained online discussions, the learner, his/her peers and the teacher (or tutor, as is the case in OUM) will be able to critically negotiate and co-construct meaning out of what they are studying in a given course.

It bears pointing out, though, that putting a group of learners and the teacher together in an online forum does not in itself constitute the kind of ‘community of inquiry’ envisioned by Garrison et al. The ‘community of inquiry’ may be said to exist only insofar as every member in the group actively shares (instead of hoards) resources, experience and knowledge, and participates in sustained online discussions on the subject-matter at hand at higher cognitive levels.

Articulating this espoused culture of teaching and learning is no doubt easier than realising it. The challenge that open universities invariably face lies in obtaining the buy-in and commitment of all parties – learners and tutors – to come online prepared, having done prior homework, to share and partake in sustained discussions that progress to higher cognitive levels.

The task required to realise the goal is, in short, to entrench the culture of collaborative inquiry. This involves a number of things, including communicating unambiguously and routinely reiterating to learners and tutors the university’s teaching-learning expectations, weaning learners off the culture of passive learning with demonstrations of successful collaborative teaching-learning, guiding learners in engaging with others online in a respectful and supportive manner, providing continuous training to tutors on ways to exert constructive ‘teaching presence’ in their online facilitation of discussions that encourage critical reflection and discourse, and so on.

OUM is currently engaged in this multi-prong phased approach to entrenching the culture of collaborative inquiry, about which I hope to share more in the coming issues of inspired. I warmly invite all of you, learners and teachers of OUM, to join us on this worthwhile journey.