SDG 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

Jan Kowal
Programme Director, Department of Engineering
and Innovation at the Open University

Until fairly recently, it was assumed to be essential in the teaching of engineering that the students come to a laboratory to do their practical experiments. However, with engineering advances like the arrival of the World Wide Web, this approach is being challenged by the use of digital media. Students have already for some time been using software simulations, viewing audio-visual content, taking part in online conferencing, and inhabiting web spaces in which to collaborate on projects and share and comment on each other’s work. But there is further to go, and educators everywhere are continually seeking to improve and extend the world of online learning. For the first time, it is possible to offer students practical learning experiences online that are as rich as if they had the equipment in front of them.

The possibilities of such advancement are vast, and directly feed into the UN’s fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 4): to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. As well as making education more convenient for those who already have access to it, it is now a possibility for many more people for whom it was previously unreachable. People in remote areas now have access to the best quality education, and those who have no choice but to work can now fit it in around their other commitments.

The OU and the OpenSTEM lab

At the Open University (OU), our mission is ‘to be open to people, places, methods and ideas’ and promote educational opportunity and social justice by providing high-quality university education to all who wish to realise their ambitions and fulfil their potential. We have been implementing further technical advances, to add more and more functionality to remote learning. This has been particularly beneficial for our engineering students, to ensure that they have the practical skills needed to really make a difference in the real world. The OpenSTEM lab is a multimillion pound project to bring real experiments to students on a massive scale. Using racks of web-linked electromechanical systems and associated measurement instrumentation and webcams, students will be able to log onto the system at a time convenient for them to operate the equipment, take measurements and share their results as if they were physically present at the lab bench.

The aim behind this is to help students gain as good a ‘feel’ for working on real engineering systems at their remote locations as their fellow students at conventional universities. Although it is possible to study engineering entirely through reading theory and using mathematical tools, the best way to gain insight into whether a proposed engineering solution is likely to work is through practical experience of, and experimentation with, how tangible things behave.

We expect to extend the use of the OpenSTEM lab such that students using our MOOCs (massive online open courses, which are available free of charge to anyone in the world with an internet connection) also have the opportunity to perform and learn from real experiments. MOOCs are an important part of the formal online learning, but there is an additional intermediate step, in the form of providing assessment that the student can complete and have marked. Students who have shown that they have learnt enough from the online module then receive a digital badge that is uniquely identifiable as belonging to them and can be used as evidence of attainment. We hope in this way to create an even smoother progression path from informal to formal learning.

We also need to ensure that a holistic view is taken in regards to education – from primary school upwards. Even in the UK, the primary and early secondary education stage has been recognised1 as a weak point within a ‘leaky pipeline’ and is a serious problem that is progressively worsening the shortage of educated engineering professionals.

For this reason, OU initiatives to create open educational resources for primary and secondary teacher education in sub-Saharan Africa and more recently in India (TESSA and TESS-India) are important foundations for the building of a complete infrastructure for the education of engineers in both these parts of the world. 

Engineering skills are vital to the creation of a workforce that will develop the infrastructure that can improve lives and address global issues such as secure settlements and reliable sanitation. Improving engineering education and making sure our future engineers are of the best calibre has the potential to have a global impact. We already have the technology to effectively foster those skills, and improve access to quality education for all. Who knows what incredible innovations these new practical skills will create?

1Perkins Review of Engineering Skills (2013), BIS, London