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A short history of the conference

In 1982 Roger Mills and Alan Tait, both working in the student support field at The Open University UK, attended the World Conference of the International Council for Distance Education in Vancouver, Canada (it was, incidentally, at the Vancouver meeting that the International Council for Correspondence Education formally changed its name to the ICDE, recognising that distance education was a more accurate descriptor of developments in the field).

We found the conference enormously stimulating with its participants from so many countries, and the varied range of topics and speakers. At the same time, there were some aspects that led us to feel that there was a need for a different sort of professional meeting. The conference seemed perhaps because of its scale less than inclusive, and indeed it seemed possible to us that participants could go home not having spoken in depth to other colleagues from around the world. The issues under discussion seemed very wide in focus, and for those of us committed at that time not to the production of teaching materials but to the support of learners there lacked a space for consideration of our areas of work. There seemed to be a hierarchy that consisted of a small group, mostly if not exclusively of men, who seemed to manage events with other conference participants in a passive mode. The ICDE conference convinced us then of the need for a meeting that was more focused in topic, smaller in number, primarily practitioner led and so more given over to interaction and discussion. Returning to Cambridge, we reflected on our experience and wondered whether there would not be value in a complementary series of conferences that would be expressly designed to ensure maximum participation and engagement in discussion about real issues affecting the way we supported students in distance education. We were fortunate that The Open University UK, in particular through the East of England region, was actively supportive of developments and has provided substantial support throughout the history of the conference. Administrative support was also provided by the International Research Foundation for Open Learning, based in Cambridge from 2005-2007 and the Von Hügel Institute, St Edmund’s College Cambridge, from 2009.

The development over the next 25 years represents a chapter in the history of professional development in open and distance learning that spans the generations of our profession. This was the period before electronic communication, when publicity for the conference was made through paper-based journals and leaflets, and all applications were made through the postal service. We had absolutely no idea if there was an audience for professional development on an international basis in the ways which we proposed would be beneficial, nor of course if that audience would be able to generate financial support to make the journeys around the world to come to Cambridge.

The first Cambridge conference, in 1983, reflected our particular interests at that time and focused on the issue of advice, guidance and counselling in distance education. It was held in Downing College in the University of Cambridge, thus linking one of Europe’s oldest universities based primarily on the intellectual and often the social elite of the UK, and which insisted on residence as a condition of study, with new approaches in particular to higher education that were committed to openness, inclusion, the use of technologies to support learning, and the home as the primary place of study. The connection with the University of Cambridge continued at other colleges such as Robinson, Churchill and New Hall (now Murray-Edwards), but with the most consistent location on seven occasions being Madingley Hall, home of the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education, a sixteenth century house set in seven acres of beautiful grounds designed by Capability Brown in the eighteenth century and located some four miles outside the city.

The topic of counselling in distance education, which made up the theme of the first two meetings, was committed to that range of student support methods that were focused on the student rather than the academic subject, and to the support especially of those learners who came from non-traditional backgrounds. To our gratification and perhaps if we are honest, surprise, we found there was an international audience for this area of professional development, and some 60 colleagues participated in those first two meetings.

The theme of student support dominated the first five or so Cambridge conference meetings, and was returned to again in 2001. It was our firm view that the support of students in the first half of this period was consistently downplayed in international discussions of distance education, which focused on technologies and materials without adequate reflection on how the learner would succeed. We would like to think that the change to the acceptance of student support in distance education as an integral element not as an afterthought might be partly an outcome of the impact that the Cambridge Conferences have had on the field.

Thematically we broadened our field of focus to engage with issues that were topical and in our view demanded attention. These included Quality Assurance (1993 and 2005), the impact of new technologies on the field (1999 and 2009), and lastly the issue of social justice in 2011 (see below for the full list of conference themes). The range of the conference topics over the period reveals evidence as to what was changing in the field at the time, and this can be followed up for those who wish to investigate by looking at the conference papers in this archive over the full quarter century. Some of the subsequent meetings were organised in collaboration with other institutions. For example, we worked closely with Empire State College in the State University of New York on the 1991 and 1993 conferences and, on the latter, also with Laurentian University in Northern Ontario, Canada. Empire State’s commitment to innovation through the construction of curriculum through its learner centred approaches was revelatory of new dimensions of openness, and that relationship continued right through to 2011 when its President gave one of the keynotes at the last conference. More recently, a valuable partnership has been established with the Commonwealth of Learning in Vancouver, which has not only contributed to planning of the conferences but also crucially to supporting the participation of delegates from developing countries. One of the things which have given us most pride and pleasure has been the increasingly inclusive character of the Cambridge Conference from the perspective of North-South participants. Notable too was the contribution of an active group of feminist educationalists at the conference, led by Liz Burge of Canada and Christine von Prümmer of Germany, who educated us in the importance of gender-friendly practices such as in the keynote speaker line-ups. It was from the Cambridge Conference that the Women’s International Network in Distance Education was established, and Christine von Prümmer's seminal work on Women in Distance Education was planned (von Prümmer 2000) Here again for those interested in the generations who have developed distance education some of the history has been made at the Cambridge Conference.

In 2003 Anne Gaskell joined Alan and Roger as a Co-Director and she has played a crucial role as the approach to the conference has been further developed.

The conferences have been truly international and we have had participation from all continents bar Antarctica! It has been our observation that new partnerships between institutions and professional relationships between colleagues have sprung up over the years, validating the idea of international meetings. We have always ensured space for discussion and, for many of the conferences, employed a system of ‘home groups’ that have ensured that people coming from all around the world have found themselves in a small group that they have been able to get to know.

At the same time as having an interactive style, we have also been able to attract keynote speakers of the highest calibre and those contributing are listed below.

One of the most enjoyable features of the conference for us and, we hope, for the participants, is the fact that it has remained small, with a limit of under 90 people in total. Three days with this number of people means that everyone has a chance to make contact with everyone else and to make lasting contacts and professional friendships. It is a strength of the conference that there is some continuity, with some colleagues returning year after year but, at the same time, there is always a majority of participants who are new and, therefore, are bringing new ideas and new perspectives.

We have decided that as we reach the late period of our careers the time has come for us to give up this responsibility, and we are delighted that the future of the conference is assured as it has now been taken on by the University of South Africa (UNISA) which plans to run a similar conference in Cape Town from 2013. Our own connection with the University of Cambridge continues with St Edmund’s College, which has taken us into its senior membership and provides us with a place, in particular with its Von Hügel Centre, where there is base for innovative thinking about how social justice can be promoted, including through distance and e-learning.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank all those colleagues over years who have given so much in terms of their intellectual, professional and personal lives. We have enjoyed all of the conferences – and learned a great deal!

Anne Gaskell, Roger Mills and Alan Tait Co-Directors January 2012


Von Prümmer, C. (2000) Women in Distance Education, RoutledgeFalmer, London

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