By Emeritus Professor Junhong Xiao, Open University of Shantou

Between 2017 and 2018, the Journal of Learning for Development, the official journal of the Commonwealth of Learning, published a total of seven articles focusing on key leaders in distance education and online learning across Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, the Pacific, and South America and the Caribbean. Of all the leaders introduced, some are household names in the international open, distance, and digital education (ODDE) community, including Börje Holmberg, Michael Moore, Otto Peters, John Daniel, Tony Bates, Terry Anderson, and Donn Randy Garrison, each of whom has made internationally-recognised seminal contributions to both the theory and practice of ODDE. It is noteworthy that these gurus are from Europe and North America, which may explain why ODDE scholarship tends to be Europe- and North America-centric. Although there was an apparent lack of common selection criteria, the leaders identified by the different authors can be roughly categorised, nonetheless, into three types: intellectual leaders, institutional leaders, and intellectual cum institutional leaders. This begs the question of what kind of leadership we need for the Asian ODDE community.

In the article introducing ODDE leaders on the African continent, Paul Prinsloo from the University of South Africa raised a series of provocative questions which in my opinion can be transferred to the Asian context:

How do we evaluate and define leadership in distance education on the African continent? Are we looking for individuals who have contributed to the advancement of distance education as praxis on the African continent, regardless of their international gravitas, or are we looking for African scholars who shaped our understanding of distance education as a specific research and theoretical field in the context of Africa? […] What are the implications if we find […] that there is very little recognition of African leadership in distance education, with the exception of a few individuals and institutions, outside of Africa?

With Paul’s questions in mind and taking stock of the socio-cultural realities of the Asian countries, I will make a case for the ODDE leadership that we need in Asia.

My first position is that what we need most are intellectual leaders, that is, scholars whose research has been integrated into the mainstream landscape of the international ODDE community and is internationally recognized.

My first position is that what we need most are intellectual leaders, that is, scholars whose research has been integrated into the mainstream landscape of the international ODDE community and is internationally recognized. ODDE is almost as ‘old’ or as ‘new’ in Asia as in the international mainstream community. However, the intellectual contribution of the Asian ODDE community to ODDE as a field of study, especially in terms of (foundational) theory building, is in disproportion to the scale of its enrolment. For example, seven of the eleven mega-universities in the world identified by John Daniel in his seminal book Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media: Technology Strategies for Higher Education (1996) are in Asia. This means that Asia is a fertile land for ODDE theory revisiting and building. Yet ODDE scholarship contributed by Asian researchers is mainly underpinned by Europe- and North America-centric theories with only a few scholars such as Insung Jung and Charlotte ‘Lani’ Gunawardena (now in America) demonstrating awareness of the need for the recontextualization of Western theories. If theories originating outside Asia can inform Asian practice, scholarship originating from Asian practice is sure to be of relevance to practice outside Asia. Efforts to recontextualize non-Asian theories and even to build Asian ODDE theories will not only improve local practice but also add to the international knowledge base of ODDE, fulfilling the responsibility that any member of a glocal enterprise must assume.

As I argued earlier (see the guest feature in Issue 19 of inspired), an international perspective on ODDE in terms of both theory and practice is critical to the healthy growth of the field within and beyond a particular region or country. We are not short of big names in the local ODDE community who may have contributed to the development of local ODDE but who are little known elsewhere, not to mention played a role in shaping ODDE globally. On the other hand, it cannot be overemphasised that intellectual leaders are neither selected nor appointed by any institution or the authorities but are recognised by colleagues around the world in acknowledgement of their ODDE scholarship. For example, country representation or membership in international or regional ODDE organisations does not necessarily translate into intellectual leadership, especially in countries where such representation/ membership is made out of political or bureaucratic consideration. Nor is intellectual leadership defined by one’s affiliation. ODDE history tells us that intellectual leaders are mostly from the grassroots of the field with passionate commitment to the mission and core values of ODDE. It is the collective wisdom of generation after generation of committed scholars that has laid and consolidated the foundation of ODDE as a field of study, shaped its evolution, and kept moving it forward. Asian ODDE scholars should not be absent in this ongoing process.

My second position is that we also need intellectual cum institutional leaders. The importance of institutional leadership is self-evident because these leaders are the top management and take the helm of an institution. However, generic institutional leadership alone cannot cater for the management of an ODDE institution. Expertise in and insights into ODDE are essential to ensure that the institution develops in the right direction in every sense, for example, by avoiding past mistakes, making informed decisions, facilitating academic rather than managerial discourse, and empathising with students and staff as well as the wider ODDE community, among other things. Ideally, leaders of an ODDE institution should be intellectual leaders of ODDE as well, as evidenced by successful open universities across the world. For example, Sir John Daniel is an internationally-recognised institutional and intellectual leader under whose leadership the UK’s Open University (OU) witnessed the greatest development since its establishment, with student numbers doubling from 10,000 to 20,000 and the OU ranking fifth among UK universities for its quality of teaching. Otto Peters, the Founding Rector of the FernUniversität in Hagen, Germany, is another exemplar of ODDE intellectual cum institutional leader.

My second position is that we also need intellectual cum institutional leaders.

It is imperative to enhance the presence of Asian leadership in the globalised ODDE community. Due to the diversity of social and political systems in the region, it is simply impossible to elaborate on how to foster intellectual cum institutional leadership in this short article, a topic which I may pick up in another article. As for intellectual leadership cultivation, first and foremost, ODDE scholarship should be as well respected and rewarding as other disciplines within ODDE institutions. Only when it is adequately valued can it attract commitment and dedication from individual academics. Second, academics should be encouraged to exercise their agency in integrating into the international ODDE community by sharing their research as well as learning from their international colleagues. This kind of individual engagement is crucial to making our presence globally known. Third, mentoring may make a difference. Experienced researchers should shoulder the responsibility for mentoring early-career colleagues in their pursuit of ODDE scholarship while young colleagues should take the initiative by seeking advice and assistance from veteran colleagues, both inside and outside their institution and even country. With joint efforts, Asian ODDE researchers and practitioners are sure to play a bigger role in contributing to and shaping global ODDE.