Tait, 2013

Tait, A. (2013). Distance and E-learning, social justice, and development: The relevance of capability approaches to the mission of open universities. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 14(4), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v14i4.1526


This article reviews the discourse of mission in large distance teaching and open universities, in order to analyse the theories of development and social justice that are claimed or may be inherent in them. It is suggested that in a number of cases the claims are unsupported or naive. The article goes on to set out the nature of Amartya Sen’s capability approach for development, and to identify its potential for reviewing distance and e-learning more widely as a contributor to development and social justice.

Key Ideas

In brief, development activity should seek to support capabilities in people ‘to be and to do’. The approach has an existential commitment to human freedom to choose those capabilities, constrained as those freedoms may be by context.

At core is a commitment to equality of human beings, the development of programmes of activity to deliver inclusion of the great majority in the benefits of society, and solidarity with those in need. It is easy to see how an intention to include the excluded, and to support those who have been denied opportunity, would develop as the missions of open universities and DTUs and that the term social justice could be used to frame such missions.

Rumble has focused in the context of ODL on one aspect of social justice, namely the contribution ODL can make through the provision of education at prices affordable to the poor through redistributive taxation (2007). Such an argument, and its accompanying polemic against neo-liberal approaches to society in general and education in particular, would, if applied, at least arguably contribute to access to education, a necessary condition for social justice to be delivered.

However we might ... make a proposition that identifies the capabilities that successful students will need in order to exercise freedom as fully as possible. It is suggested that central to the Senian perspective for higher education would be

  • the capability to exercise independence of thought in order to build towards autonomy and self-fulfillment,
  • the capability to gain a livelihood that aligns as far as possible with the first bullet point,
  • the capability to operate as fully and equitably as possible as a citizen.