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Interview of the month: British Association for Open Learning


BAOL, the British Association for Open Learning formed in 1990 as a result of a merger between the National Open Learning Association (NOLA) and the Supervisory Management Open Learning Federation (SMOLF). Both organisations had been put together as a result of the Open Tech programme managed by the Manpower Services Commission beween 1984 and 1987, which was set up to develop a series of open learning and skills projects.

BAOL today is a national cross-sector association for open learning, with a membership including corporate users, education and training providers, TECs, government organisations and specialist open learning providers. It exists to 'promote quality and best practice in open, flexible and distance forms of learning throughout the education and training sectors of the UK, Europe and internationally'.

TrainingZONE spoke to Brian Merison, General Manager and Sarah Bell, Marketing and Development Manager about the role of the association and current issues affecting its members.

TrainingZONE: What sort of people are members of BAOL?

Sarah Bell: You can see from the details on the site that they're cross-sector, and there are currently 235 of them - we're currently growing at around 30% a year. Members join to enhance their own credibility - they can use our logo, and have to adhere to a customer charter.

Members also receive copies of the quality guides we've developed, which can be useful to use to benchmark against. For example, the Learning Centre guide we produced in conjunction with the Training Technologies unit of the DfEE has just been revised - a number of members were involved with developing this, and members also receive copies of the guides the DfEE produce themselves. They also receive a copy of guide to the BAOL Quality Mark. There's also a journal, Open Learning Today, which is also available for non-members to subscribe to.

TrainingZONE: How do members benefit from other input from other members?

Sarah Bell: We hold quarterly free members meetings at members premises so members can find out more about each other. We also invite other members to speak at the members forum. This year, the hosts have been Apple Computers, V-SPAN Videoconferencing, Sheffield TEC and Cable & Wireless. We also have two conferences a year, which are key events for members to get together.

TrainingZONE: How does the Quality Mark work?

Sarah Bell: As BAOL exists to promote quality and good practice, the Quality Mark was developed to support this. It's a full accreditation process linked to the Business Excellence model, which organisations can apply to be accredited for. It's a way of developing a common standard for open learning.

TrainingZONE: What is the concept behind BAOL Direct?

Brian Merison: In the training market at the moment there are lots of suppliers but it's very difficult to find what you actually need. We also have a lot of members involved in marketing, so BAOL Direct addresses their needs as a directory for them which anyone could search to find a suitable provider. As the directory is only open to members customers also have the assurance that all the providers have signed up to a quality statement.

TrainingZONE: How has e-learning impacted upon the focus of BAOL's work?

Sarah Bell: We are getting more requests for information - our recent conferences have been very much geared towards the subject. Our next conference in April in Warwick will also focus on e-learning but will concentrate on the human aspects which can often be ignored. We're finding a lot of organisations are in the exploratory stages. Of our members, some have been involved in e-learning for a while - Robert Gordon University and Swindon College are two good examples of members who have virtual campuses. BAOL Direct has some listings of member organisations which are involved.

TrainingZONE: Is e-learning overshadowing what you do at all?

Sarah Bell: The challenge certainly gets harder! When keeping members up to date, there is so much going on, it's important to pull out all the really important information. There is a danger that we are being technology-driven rather than need-driven. We're encouraging people to see it within an overall strategy for learning by combining it with traditional methods of delivery - helping people to identify how e-learning might fit with their existing strategy.

TrainingZONE: What sort of relationships have you been building with other associations?

Sarah Bell: We have really good links with the British Quality Foundation - we worked with them on the Quality Mark, which is based on the Excellence Model. A representative also sits on the Quality Forum, which determines who gets to display the Quality Mark. The DfEE have also been very supportive in our work.

Brian Merison: We've also started to make more contacts overseas, which is a positive move for us, for example, we've made contact with the Community of Agile Partners in Education (CAPE) in Pennsylvania, which is a similar organisation but orientated more towards the web. We're also the UK representative within the European Federation for Open and Distance Learning.

TrainingZONE: What's the link with the Open University?

Sarah Bell: They're one of original members and have a representative on the Quality Forum.

TrainingZONE: Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with the Department for Education and Employment?

Brian Merison: The DfEE have been very supportive in a number of our activities, particularly the development of the Quality Mark. When the relationship with the Department started in 1996, it was felt that the take-up of open learning was being affected by quality of the sector, and quality assurance was regarded as a key to that (actually economic and organisational factors have overtaken this so that take-up has increased, and quality hasn't been such an issue).

We have also been involved with the initial development of the LearnDirect learning centres - the DfEE approached us for some advice, and we were jointly involved with the Open and Distance Learning Quality Council (ODLQC) in devising quality statements for the training providers.

It has to be said that the emphasis for learndirect so far has been getting centres operational - I think there are certain aspects of quality which they will need to address more in the future. It's a topic we're likely to return to early next year. Our members have also had an influence on the development of the learning centres directly as training providers.

Because we're a charitable organisation we have the advantage of being able to give an objective view on what's happening in the market - we're not acting in the interests of any particular member.

TrainingZONE: Your conference was held in Scotland for the first time this year. Were there many differences between delegates' concerns there and in England?

Brian Merison: Most of the issues are the same in Scotland, but of course Scotland has its own agenda. Actually the geography of the country lends itself more to flexible learning. The Chief Executive of LearnDirect Scotland gave a speech at the conference - delegates were interested to contrast the Scottish experience with the English one. I think the general view was that the Scottish model is more coherent and detailed, and some expressed the view that the English version of learndirect should have been based on this one!

Of course e-learning is a key issue, but people are actually interested in addressing basic concerns - e.g. what exactly is it? People are aware of the possibilities but aren't aware how the pieces may fit together. At November's conference a number of colleges and universities demonstrated what they are doing. There's a lot of concern in the HE sector about global competition - anyone in the education sector today realises they have to attract students, it's not guaranteed that people will attend just because it's local.

BAOL is a registered charity and operates on a non-profit making basis. The Association is run by its members through a Board of Directors which represent each sector, and has three full-time members of staff. Membership details can be found at


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