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Interview with Professor Belinda Tynan: A journey through distance education

Interview done by Daniel BURGOS, Philippe DUMAS, Émilie REMOND, on May 19th, 2020, through videoconference
Daniel Burgos, Philippe Dumas et Émilie Remond
Traduction(s) :
Entretien avec la Professeure Belinda Tynan [fr]

Texte intégral

1For this special issue, we have had the privilege to speak to Professor Belinda Tynan. She is the vice-President of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), has held the post of Vice-Chancellor at the Open University of the United Kingdom and represents Australia at the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) Board of Governors. She has been the Executive Committee President of the European Distance Education Network (EDEN) and in FutureLearn, the MOOC platform at the Open University as well. She was also the former President of the International Council of Open and Distance Education (ICDE). Professor Belinda Tynan's rich and diverse career provides a valuable insight. But let Belinda introduce herself and share with us her ideas on "education in the age of hybridization".

2Prof. Belinda Tynan (BT):
I have been working in the university sector for more than 20 years now. I have had a deep passion for how education can transform the lives of people. And in fact, I am a success story myself because education has transformed my life. I was one of those people that you might call “first” in family. Without education, I would not be where I am now. I think it is something that I carry very dearly and feel very passionate about, that everyone deserves the right to education so that they can live a successful and fruitful life. Prior to my career in higher education, I was a schoolteacher and I taught in early childhood, primary and secondary schools. Some people might be surprised to know that I am a music educator. I taught music for many years. And in the background of the video you are watching, you will probably see that I have a piano. I play the piano and the flute as well. Not that I play them as much as I would like to, but they certainly give me good cognitive relief.

3But over the 20 years of working in higher education, I became even more entranced with the pedagogies of learning and teaching and the intersection of technologies. My doctoral research was about the Schools of the Air which are unique in Australia and in some other places in the world, maybe the USA, where they were using radio frequency to teach children in the outback of Australia. The Schools of the Air were remote – it is remote schooling and it is a form of distance education where children are taught by their families. They dial-in everyday to the radio station and they get radio lessons with their teachers. My background stems from investigating how education was undertaken with those primary-aged children, living in far-flung places across Australia, and how they were taught through the Schools of the Air by radio technologies.

  • 1 Canvas ( is the Learning Management System (LMS) used at the Roya (...)

4From that, I started to move further into how technologies could be used to enhance university education. That is how lecture capture was experimented at the University of Western Australia through a product many people now use, called Echo360. We were some of the very early adopters of using that technology in our lectures within the university. Fast-forward a little bit more with the introduction of learning management systems, such as WebCT similar to blackboards and then Moodle, and more recently Canvas1. I have been involved in the implementation of so many learning management systems that I have too many scars to bear on those! My research has been focused on how the staff and teachers have learnt for many years now, how to use technologies and to intersect them with their disciplines in order to teach learners through online learning, distance education, blended learning, flipped classrooms. Over the last 10 years, my career has turned to management and leadership.

5I have been working at the senior levels of universities for some time now. In my current role at RMIT and previously at the Open University in the UK, I am the deputy vice-chancellor of Learning and Teaching. And I look after all the students from when they first see the advertisement in the paper to when they graduate and everything that sits in between that. All the students, student support systems, both their digital journey and their learning journey, their experience journey, everything that touches a student, I am almost responsible for. So in that journey of going from being a teacher in a classroom or actually from when I first achieved my own education with the support of my parents through to where I am now, it has been really a journey of how education can transform people's lives. A journey of how technologies have intersected with that, with a particular focus on distance open and online learning.

Institutional hybridization policies and implications

  • 2 Founded in 1938, The International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) is a member-led, (...)

6DB, PD, ER:
I think that when we came with this interview protocol, the coronavirus was not that present. But now that it is, we can add some extra reflection about the current situation and how it is impacting distance education. Our first question is about national and international policies. I can tell from your international background and expertise and your position as the former president of the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE)
2, that you are an expert at international policies. Do you think that policies impede or facilitate hybridization?

  • 3 The Commonwealth of Learning (COL) is "an intergovernmental organization created in 1987 by Commonw (...)

Thank you for that question. It is an interesting one because our world is so diverse, and every context is unique. When I was president and deeply involved in ICDE that became even more apparent because you can see it has crossed so many jurisdictions. I am also an executive director for the Commonwealth of Learning3 so I see across the Commonwealth, too. The contextualization of education is incredibly important because many countries have different perspectives and histories of how their education system has grown up. They have ideologies that drive policies in which education becomes contested as a space. That could be a research topic of its own. I do believe, though, that policy provides a framework quite often. Every country has a set of policies that provide a framework to allow its education system to operate.

8Policies can be interpreted in different ways and they do not often give you the precise, “You should do this” or “You should not do that.” Although they may be accompanied with guidelines insuring both quality and compliance issues. So again, you get this conflation of a policy and of a guideline and then how it is actually governed and measured. I would say that if you have got a policy then you have got a framework. How you interpret it will depend on the regime, the political context within which you operate. Probably another aspect to consider there, are the resources allocated to the education system. Some people would say that while good learning is good learning, whether it is hybrid, flipped, blended, problem-based or whatever the other multitude approaches to education that exist out there, it is up to the educator in a sense. As a matter of fact, they hold it in their hands to design a learning experience that enables learners to learn.

9If you are speaking about hybridization as being that intersection of technologies at distance and technologies used in face-to-face, let us face it: actually, that Distance Education has been on the planet for at least a hundred years now. In fact, Australia has been one of the leading countries in the world to provide distance education to its outback children and educators for many years. Technologies have moved from the textbook and the chalkboard to computers to… now we are seeing immersive classrooms in the COVID-19 context. So, a hybrid approach, really is an interpretation of probably a deep-seated pedagogy that for me, must be situated around the constructivist framework in terms of how we think about education taken as a whole.

10I realize that it is a convoluted answer to your question around policy and regulation, but it comes down to probably those three things, for me. First, that policy is connected to the context that it exists in. Second, that it is governed by an ideology or a political regime of some kind that has a view of what education should be. And then attached to that, you have got your resources that will support it and what resources are available. Your final little step is how it has been governed and how we assure it. That would be where I see policy is working. Sometimes, it does and sometimes, it does not. A policy can be either an inhibitor or on the contrary an enabler driven by its context.

11DB, PD, ER :
Would you be able to sketch out a typology of educational systems in the matter of hybridization? Are there differences between north and south? Between private or public schools? Between religious approaches?

I think there are multiple typologies, which is fascinating because there are intersections between north and south, between privileged and underprivileged. In Australia and other countries, we might talk about indigenous peoples as well.

13Typologies are probably connected with languages. We are dominated by the English paradigm in the world. I think that there is probably something in there that wraps around our philosophies of education linked to a political context and an ideology. The typologies would probably be in and around those things as well.

14DB, PD, ER:
I think that you are very right about policies. They have to be contextualized. And in this context, universities play a role of course by interpreting and setting up that policy. How do you think that the universities are actually facing the hybridization process in any context?

Well, again it is a difficult question because it is so multifaceted. If I reflect on that, I would probably say that – again it is context-driven. But it is probably more situated with the academic or the teacher. Conceptions of learning and teaching, how people think about what their role is and what their identity is are major factors. “Are you a teacher of learning? Are you a facilitator of learning? Are you a conductor of learning? What kind of teacher are you?” The tools that you then have at your fingertips are many and varied. The best classroom will depend on the kind of teacher you are, how you understand knowledge and how you develop knowledge in others.

  • 4 See Remond, 2017, p. 78: "The first institution to offer distance education on the African continen (...)

16I think different universities have a different take on that. You can look across the world and see very traditional universities who have set up small group instruction; Oxfordian and those sorts of models have small tutorial groups of learning. And then you have got like UNISA4 in South Africa, a distance online with different technologies and it may be more distant. You have a whole host of universities that sits somewhere in between on that spectrum where they are experimenting with technologies. They are playing with flipped classrooms, hybrid approaches. There is a real mixed approach around the globe to what we see and what the adoption is. But if you're assuming the stance of, “Hybrid approach is the best approach.”

17I think the question I would prefer to ask is: what is the teacher’s identity and how is it attached to the act of teaching? I have this very interesting debate in my own University about, “What is the role of the professor?” Quite often, I get back, “The role of the professor is to profess.” Now in a modern construct around teaching and learning, we would probably say that, “Is it the role of the teacher to profess or is it the role of the teacher to facilitate learning?” Depending on where your position is on those ends of the scale, it will determine what tools you will use and the traditions of that university or that organization.

Field teaching practices in a context of hybridization

18DB, PD, ER:
Before, you were talking about flipped classrooms as an example of a technique that a schoolteacher or a university professor can use in the classroom. Do you use any other techniques or strategies to support this hybridization process in addition to flipped classrooms?

The other thing I should have mentioned earlier is there is a lot of research in this field. The research around flipped classrooms goes back a long way. The first official flipped classroom was first reported in California around 2007. It was a long time ago. Blended learning approaches, problem-based learning, discovery-based learning, mystery quest, a whole range of pedagogies that support hybrid approaches to learning and teaching has been known for a long time. There is a deep research and it has become quite common.

Apprehension of distance: intended uses, forced uses

20DB, PD, ER :
Let us go to the next section of the interview. We try and meet the academic outcomes with the expectations from the market. How do you think that hybridization can meet better the demand for the market? Do you think that there is any special added value that hybridization can provide to the labor market when it comes to their competence achievement or the training of the students?

According to the definition of “hybrid”, something can be done to educate the market for what is possible in terms of flexibility. We know that there are certain segments of the market especially older learners or learners who are working, even young learners now, who do not want to attend university full-time but would rather be an “earn and learn” generation. Therefore, there is a mixing of modalities. There are also the higher education apprenticeship-style approaches that are coming into curriculum as well in some parts. I think there is something about being market leading and to be able to educate the market about what is possible. Then there is a market responsiveness as well which can drive economic performance in the market and can also support people who are not necessarily able to come to a university full-time or do not even see it as being relevant.

22Consequently, there is a socio-economic group it could be more useful for - People who cannot afford to take three or four years out of their lives to go and sit on a campus but actually would rather be doing some work at the same time. There could be companies now - especially industry companies, who are questioning the value of a university degree. They are even moving to the point where they are taking people straight from school into their industries, teaching them by themselves and setting up either their own university relationships or partnerships. Therefore, that is a new flexibility and hybridization of the curriculum, I suspect.

23DB, PD, ER:
In this process of providing skilled people to the market, how free is a professor in using the required methodologies, pedagogies, strategies? Do you think professors are actually free to implement them, to adapt them according to their experiences? Or, on the contrary, do you think they have to abide by the rules and methodology advocated by the institution?

I am wondering if we might call it “controlled innovation.” Like at my organization, and I know at many, we are trying to provide coherent experiences for students. You do not want things to be too crazy and too different because it is confusing for the learner. We are aware that the student’s experience is important although it should not stop innovation or allow innovation. I think the important thing here is to be able to provide opportunities and the right environment for professors who wish to be innovative, so that they are supported to do it properly. What you do not want is runaway innovation which actually makes it more difficult for the students to learn. I would say there are parameters that within an organization you need to work within. It is not free-for-all. You do not get to just decide to do whatever you want to do.

25DB, PD, ER :
What about open education, such as a MOOC? How can open educational practices, resources, access and a number of open educational issues that are related to this approach, support better the hybridization process or strategy in a university? For instance, one of the specific points that we are very much concerned about is the dropout rate. How can open education prevent people from leaving, or just standing by the study process, somehow?

Connecting OER with dropout rates, I think that is probably not how I would answer the question of dropout and how we manage dropout rates. There is a lot of literature around how we support students and the reasons why they drop out and whether OER can be any help. I think that is a different question altogether. How we approach OER in our organizations needs to be very carefully thought. There is definitely a place in our world for the use and reuse of Open Education Resources and they can definitely be used in the hybrid classroom if there are well-understood rules about how to use them.

27You have all sorts of issues around copyright, policy, regulation, reuse, the technical skills required to reuse open education resources, the quality of the OER resources, etc. The list goes on and on. I think it is becoming a more mature area; and definitely, ICDE, the Commonwealth of Learning, UNESCO and numerous agencies are now promoting OER as ways to open up access to education and knowledge to many.

  • 5 The issue of the appropriation of OER will be the subject of the next issue of DMS. See: https://jo (...)

28We should be thinking about each context individually, about how OER can be integrated and how a broader concept called OEP (Open Educational Practice) is related to it. I am not sure it is the answer you wanted on that DMS-DMK issue, but it is a big question that you just asked me. You might need to just coin it a bit more specifically5.

What is next?

29DB, PD, ER:
To wrap up, we have a last question. According to you, what will the future of hybridization be like in 10 years’ time?

  • 6 Barnes, C., & Tynan, B. (2007). The adventures of Miranda in the brave new world: Learning in a Web (...)

In 10 years from now? What a lovely question! If I could wave a magic wand! I actually wrote an article called the “Adventures of Miranda”6 in 2007, an attempt to predict the future. It is still relevant today. I suggest that in 10 years’ time, it would be lovely if there were no more discussions about hybridization but a model which incorporates a whole range of different modalities, a model which does not need being defined and if we could talk about pedagogy rather than about the tools or approaches.

31That would be much more interesting, I think, for us to think about. Especially if our teachers understood pedagogy and were deeply concerned with the science of learning. By understanding the deep science of learning, they would then be able to select the tools necessary for learning to occur. I hope that there would be a blurring of lines between different education systems so that there would be a flexibility for people to be at universities and also to be at college or to have short courses. It would no longer be divided up, but actually more fluid for people.

32I hope that we might change the model from going to high school and taking these horrible exams, which stress all the young people out to a new model where you would have more of a skills-oriented approach. It would lead you down into a path of learning and knowledge that would allow you to explore without the pressure of going through a set pathway from school to university. I would actually like to see such fluidity for young people so that they would be less stressed about knowledge.

33I do not know if I have answered all your questions. But if we were on a university campus, I would hope that all our classrooms would be immersive experiences. It would not matter what part of the world you are in. I could enroll in your University and take a class and that class would be taken into account in my degree.

34We would not have any arguments about whether your degree is the same as my degree because we would have worked it out. We would have figured out that 101 Accounting is almost the same in every country. I do not know. It might be too fanciful. But would not that be amazing if I could just join one of your classes in Spain and in France and it would be at a good time so it would not be too late for me?

35I could meet your students and they could meet me, and it would be a global experience. In an immersive situation, that would be nice. I would love our teachers to have a deeper appreciation of pedagogy, actually. I think they have a deep appreciation of their discipline, but they do not understand the science of learning.

36It would be really nice in 10 years’ time to think that we have a professionalized academic workforce that understands the science of learning and sees that as important.

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1 Canvas ( is the Learning Management System (LMS) used at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. See Retrieved 27/06/2020.

2 Founded in 1938, The International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) is a member-led, non-profit organization in the field of open, flexible online education. It includes more than 200 member institutions and higher education organizations in some 84 countries. Visit Retrieved, 28/06/2020

3 The Commonwealth of Learning (COL) is "an intergovernmental organization created in 1987 by Commonwealth heads of government to promote the development and sharing of knowledge, resources and technologies for distance learning and education. [...] The Commonwealth of Learning (COL) is the only global intergovernmental organization that focuses solely on the promotion and development of distance learning and open learning," (our translation). Online, . Retrieved on 27/06/2020

4 See Remond, 2017, p. 78: "The first institution to offer distance education on the African continent is the University of South Africa (UNISA) in 1946 (Biao, 2012). Founded at the end of the 19th century as an off-the-go examination center in Cambridge and Oxford, it also served as a model for the South African universities that emerged from it. This new remote offering marks a turning point, since the only possibility of taking distance courses during the colonial period was to enroll in a foreign institution. With a staff of 250,000 students and a strong history, UNISA now ranks 5th among African universities." [Emilie Remond. The opening in question: when open universities redefine themselves in the age of digital globalization. Information and communication sciences. University of Valenciennes and Hainaut-Cambresis, 2017. French.]

5 The issue of the appropriation of OER will be the subject of the next issue of DMS. See:

6 Barnes, C., & Tynan, B. (2007). The adventures of Miranda in the brave new world: Learning in a Web 2.0 millennium. Research in Learning Technology, 15(3). Retrieved on 06/26/20

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Daniel Burgos, Philippe Dumas et Émilie Remond, « Interview with Professor Belinda Tynan: A journey through distance education »Distances et médiations des savoirs [En ligne], 30 | 2020, mis en ligne le 03 juillet 2020, consulté le 29 novembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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