Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS)



Sir John Daniel, President and CEO, Commonwealth of Learning, Globally Recognized Leader and Scholar in Education

This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with Sir John Daniel.

Sir John DanielSIR JOHN DANIEL - President and Chief Executive Officer

Sir John joined the Commonwealth of Learning in 2004 after serving for three years as Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO.

He began his career with an undergraduate degree from Oxford (First Class Honours) and a Doctorate in Science from the University of Paris, both in metallurgy. During his first academic appointment at the École Polytechnique of the University of Montreal he began part-time study for a Masters in Educational Technology. The programme required an internship, which he carried out in the summer of 1972 at the brand new UK Open University. This was a conversion experience. Inspired by the idealism, the scale, the technology and the focus on students that he found at the Open University, he decided to join the distance learning revolution.

He spent four years helping to establish Québec's Télé-université, moved west to Alberta as Vice-President of Athabasca University, and then returned to Montreal as Vice-Rector of Concordia University. In 1984 he became President of Laurentian University, Ontario and moved to the UK as Vice-Chancellor of the Open University in 1990.

In 1988, Sir John chaired the Working Group that was appointed, following the 1987 meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government, to "develop institutional arrangements for Commonwealth co-operation in distance education". This led to the creation of the Commonwealth of Learning (COL), and in 2002 he was named an Honorary Fellow of COL for his contribution to the development of open and distance education worldwide.

Sir John has been active as a scholar and student throughout his career. The success of his book, "Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media: Technology Strategies for Higher Education" (Kogan Page, 1996), established his reputation in international university circles as a leading thinker about the role of technology in education and learning. His more recent book, "Mega-Schools, Technology & Teachers: Achieving Education for All", tackles the challenges providing secondary schooling to tens of millions of young people and training very large numbers of teachers.

Sir John was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for services to higher education in 1994. He has received 30 honorary doctorates from universities in 17 countries, is a past-President of both the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) and the Canadian Association for Distance Education (CADE), and has served as Vice-President of the International Baccalaureate Organisation. In 2008 he was awarded the Symons Medal for service to Commonwealth universities. He is a citizen of both Canada and the U.K.

To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link

The latest blog on the interview can be found in the IT Managers Connection (IMC) forum where you can provide your comments in an interactive dialogue.


Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic

:00:41: Sir John, you participated at the World Computer Congress (WCC) due to your globally recognized leadership. Can you tell us more about your work and your experiences at the WCC?
"....I went to the WCC at their invitation and presented a paper on Computers for Secondary Schoolchildren: A busted flush?....I got the impression that the focus was now moving more from the WCC conference to the IFIP conference, which has a more developing nation focus and is emerging as a very important conference...."

:02:51: Can you profile your experiences and lessons from serving for three years as Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO?
"....It was a wonderful introduction to the whole international community intergovernmental relation, and a wonderful training for coming to a smaller and more focused inter-governmental body, the Commonwealth of Learning where I am now...."

:06:53: Sir John talks about the steps that led him to become Assistant Director-General.
"....I am a believer that if you can't do something in ten years you never will, and I'd been at the Open University for 11 years by that time so a move was timely. I've always been very internationally oriented so it seemed like an interesting opportunity...."

:09:27: Please tell us about your experiences in the summer of 1972 at the brand new UK Open University?
"....It was a revelation. It was in its second year of operation....It was an enormously stimulating period and I thought I've seen the future of our education and I wanted to be part of it. So when I came back to Canada I was very lucky. I managed to get a new job with the then new Open University in Québec called the Télé-Université and my career took off in a different direction...."

:13:22: After your time at UK Open University, can you outline your past roles and key lessons you wish to share from each of these prior roles?
"....A huge investment was made in developing those courses – the written materials, the TV, the radio, the home experiment kits, the summer school programs, the whole tutorial support system – and that was why the Open University established a terrific reputation for quality, really right out of the starting gate. Seeing that and the student focus of it, the fact that the whole thing was erected to allow students who had very varied educational backgrounds to succeed in an university course which was not "dumbed-down" in any way. What they'd done was to turn the traditional British educational system on its head....Seeing all that, and having gone through a traditional education myself, was a revelation and changed my whole outlook to a university education...."

:16:21: After that experience Sir John Daniel went on to the Télé-université in Québec and became Vice-President at Athabasca University, Vice Rector at Concordia University, President of Laurentian University, Ontario and back to the UK as Vice-Chancellor of the Open University. He talks about his many experiences and shares some lessons from those roles.
"....It's better to do something even if it's not perfect than to spend all your life trying to find the perfect thing to do...."

:37:32: Currently do you have a sense of the number of students, the number of faculty, or the budget of Open University in the UK?
"....The quarter of a million students enrolled with the university are really only the tip of the iceberg because the university has made a big commitment to open educational resources so many of its course materials are freely available on its website. They estimate that there are something like ten million students worldwide who are using courses from their own institutions that actually are based on Open University courses that they have taken and adapted...."

:40:21: Do you have a sense of what percentage of their courseware offerings are in the open-courseware arena?
"....Anyone wanting to know more should simply go to the Open Learn website and see what's there....Martin Bean, my successor, very strongly believes that part of the role of the university is to provide people with the root of the informal cloud of learning – this vast group of people who are dabbling in some form of learning and give them a root that can lead them into some more formal kind of learning so that they can get certification in accredited courses...."

:43:09: You talked a little about this earlier, about social media and the grassroots movement and democratizing everything out there so that it is available to anyone and at very low cost. Can you comment further on this?
"....We at the Commonwealth of Learning have this fascinating program called the Virtual University for the Small States of the Commonwealth, where 32 small countries are working together to produce courses as open educational resources which they can then all use and adapt....They work together in this virtual university by creating everything as open educational resources, and not only can each of them adapt and use it but also anyone in the world can adapt and use it. We are strongly supportive at the Commonwealth of Learning of this virtual educational resource movement and are moving it into the secondary school arena...."

:45:52: What lessons do you wish to share from your best-selling book, "Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media: Technology Strategies for Higher Education"?
"....That book was written because at the time the demand for higher education around the world was rising so fast that I think my calculation was that you would have to open one brand new conventional university every week to cope with it. Therefore, the world should pay a lot more attention to what I call these mega universities....It seems to me that the Knowledge Media (on-line media) are really qualitatively different from the older media like television and radio in that they engage the academics much more....The subtitle, Technology Strategies for Higher Education, the management aspects of how a university moves forward in developing a technology strategy whether it's an Open University or a campus university....I hope it was a useful contribution. It seemed to strike a chord at the time...."

:50:20: What lessons do you wish to share from your more recent book, "Mega-Schools, Technology & Teachers: Achieving Education for All"?
"....That really was to do some advocacy for what seemed to me to be the two educational problems facing the world and which are two of the key initiatives at the Commonwealth of Learning. The first half of the book is promoting open schooling which is the application of distance learning methods and local study centers to secondary schooling....The second half is about the teacher problem. There is a massive shortage of teachers which UNESCO estimates to be about ten million new teachers needed within the next five to ten years...."

:55:39: You were knighted by Queen Elizabeth for services to higher education in 1994. Can you describe this experience and how this has helped you in your work?
"..It was a wonderful, simple, moving ceremony....It's very meaningful to me and still something of a surprise....The credibility I think is not just a credibility for me, but it does I think confer a credibility on the whole field of distance learning which I'm rather pleased with too.."

:59:03: As past-President of both the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) and the Canadian Association for Distance Education (CADE), and Vice-President of the International Baccalaureate Organisation, can you share your best practices in distance education?
"....The triangle of access, cost and quality....To think of distance learning as a three-legged stool with three components: development, logistics and administration, and student support. If any of those legs is weak, the stool will collapse and the student will fall down...."

:01:04:57: Can you outline your current roles and your goals?
"....I've got the perfect job that brings together the three things I like doing, and I suppose my goal quite simply is to make the Commonwealth of Learning respected as the most effective intergovernmental organization....If we show people models that are obviously effective that they replicate themselves then we can have an impact and that's basically what we are trying to do...."

:01:07:12: What's your perspective on the Asia pact regions, specifically India and China, considering the enormity of their populations and the fact there is some investment in infrastructure and education?
"....My next book which I'm writing with a colleague at UNESCO is about the developing universities in developing countries and how they've got to take a slightly different route to the traditional one that's been taken in the West....Both India and China are making very big commitments to distance learning because they have to because of the numbers...."

:01:08:52: What are the major challenges that you are facing and what are the solutions to the challenges?
"....Scale....Open educational resources....Mobiles....Community...."

:01:11:38: What are the major innovations and opportunities and what actions can be taken to take advantage of these opportunities?
"....Open educational resources....Open schooling....Computers in schools....Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth...."

:01:13:43: What are the top global forces shaping education?
"....Secondary schooling surge....Teacher shortage....General expansion of higher education....That will not happen without much greater use of the private sector....The good use of technology across the peace...."

:01:15:05: There is this program by the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) and it's a program to professionalize IT. To make it a profession, to have a code of standards and quality standards and continued professional development and globally recognized credentialing and so on. What do you think about this? [see for more details]
"....It goes back to the balance between learning from the freely available cloud of things that are out there, but also doing it in a way that someone with authority certifies that yes you can do this, and you have had the training necessary to be capable in the area you claim to be capable in...."

:01:17:13: What are some pivotal lessons that you can share from your considerable history of national and international success?
"....A quality culture....Student centeredness....Action orientation....Listen to people....If you are leading an institution it is important to continually polish and present the vision of that institution...."

:01:19:37: You choose the areas – provide your predictions of future trends and their implications/opportunities?
"....Defining competencies....This leads into controlled openness....Going back to a version of where fewer bodies examine and students can take advantage of this whole cloud of courseware and learning possibility in order to prepare for a credible examination...."

:01:22:48: Which are your top recommended resources and why?
"....A good place to start is the Commonwealth of Learning website (a gateway to a whole lot of other information)....OpenLearn website....the World Bank has lots of information....Be alert to the rest of the world...."

:01:25:54: Sir John Daniel shares some stories (something surprising, unexpected, amazing, or humorous) from his work and many experiences.

:01:31:34: If you were doing this interview, what questions would you ask and then what would be your answers?
"....Why have computers in schools been a relative disappointment so far?....Why educators and the general public are so wedded to this idea that quality in education has to be related to exclusivity?....How will the world react to a successful and overwhelming China?....My last thought is that we should be aware that technology can actually go backwards...."