Book Review: Flexible higher education: International pioneers reflect

I was asked to do this book review about a year and a half ago, and only finally got around to it.  In some ways, that’s a good thing–I would have probably had different things to say about it at that time.  My response to this book is very much influenced by the ed tech conversations of the last few years, so even though this book came out three years ago and has already had many other reviews, it’s kind of fun to read it and think about it in the current context.  It’s been submitted to the Journal of Distance Education, and it should appear in the next issue.

Burge, E. J. (2007). Flexible higher education: International pioneers reflect. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Current conversations around higher education, in particular those associated with the educational technology field, have not lacked energy, vision, and a desire to change all that is wrong with our current systems.  What seems to have been lost in many of these conversations is an examination or acknowledgement of distance education as an important force of change that existed parallel to or in conflict with ivory tower higher education.  Burge’s book brings this dusty past back to the fore, drawing connections with the past to the current, reminding us that distance education has always been about flexible education, where the student, not the institution, was the most important focal point. Through narratives of key distance educators, drawn from interviews collected as part of a larger research study, we are drawn into these conversations of the past and invited to reflect on their currency and relevance to our present.

The structure of the volume reflects its research origins, with the first part pulling together themes from the interviews with 44 international distance educators.  The second part of the book asks seven of the more prominent pioneers in distance education to comment on the themes of the first six chapters. It had me wondering whether Burge’s volume was trying to be too many things: part research, part meta-reflection.  Yet, ultimately this approach is useful in providing some distance from the researcher’s own interpretations, by allowing the commentators to extend the interpretations of the research findings, grounded in their own experiences and interpretive frameworks. Burge wisely makes use of many quotes from her interviews, and the voice of the educators, and not her own, is the one that dominates.

The book provides the reader with several clear takeaways that serve as useful reminders of how far we’ve come, or perhaps how far we’ve strayed:  distance education in its roots was idealistic, but well defined.  Providing access to education—in particular to a previously underserved population disadvantaged by geographic limitations and social status, to name a few—was the cornerstone of its mission.  New systems in higher education emerged, such as open universities or distance education (DE) units in traditional universities, to serve this population because it was the right thing to do.  The strength of this volume is in demonstrating that this was an ideal not only being taken up in Canada, but one that was shared globally, albeit in largely varied contexts.  It’s not difficult to observe that with the emergence of educational technology in both distance education and traditional higher education the DE mission has become blurred in the sense that DE associated with correspondence education is dated, while DE with educational technology is indistinguishable from other university educational delivery.  Through the often passionate reflections of the original DE educators, this book serves as a compass for distance educators who find it difficult to locate themselves in a field that is perhaps being defined by new boundaries.

Looking backward to look forward

I hadn’t really intended on a post that summarized the past 365 days or made predictions for the future, since others have done it so well already.  These posts have caused me to nonetheless reflect a bit on my own ed-tech moments of 2009  and the inevitable ups and downs that come with the field.

In 2009 I felt like I became a bit of a student of Distance Education and Ed-tech history, since many of the current conversations seemed to me to be echoes of the past. These are few that stood out for me.

Open Educational Resources–ideology, movement, or simple sharing?

As excited as I am about everything related to Open Educational Resources, and how much I’d like to see my own institution think about them strategically, I was disappointed by how much of the OER conversation (in North America, at least) seemed to forget that Open Universities from their inception had a goal of increasing access to education to disadvantaged groups, a radical (dare I say edupunk) idea at the time, and shared many of the ideological concerns of current OER proponents. OpenLearn is a logical extension of this vision, facilitated by the distribution and sharing opportunities of the internet.  Yet the jazzy tools and technologies that enable OER content sharing to those that have access to the internet seemed to me to dominate the discussions that I heard at the Open Education conference in Vancouver, and in the blogosphere in general.  And while I’m convinced of the value of WordPress, RSS, Twitter, and social networking and their value to the OER movement and a particular interpretation of “openness”, apart from some interesting presentations at the ICDE 2009 conference in Maastricht (notably the COL’s Asha Kanwar COL talking about the VUSCC)  and some journal articles, I would have liked to have learned more about broader contexts of OER use and interpretation, linguistic challenges and developments, OER sharing practices (Siyavula), and cost-benefits.

Yet, I’m increasingly aware that I have a responsibility to step outside of the ed-tech echo chamber that I participate  in, and spend more time looking for a different type of conversation.  This requires looking backward and beyond. By looking backward, I continue to find relevance in some of Mackey’s geolinguistic observations of the 80s and 90s; commonalities between the self-directed learning movements of the 70s and later and the desire for substantial change in teaching and learning in higher education. By looking beyond, I intend to read beyond my English language comfort zone and read more in French and Spanish. I also intend to explore other echo chambers in the twittersphere and blogosphere–this includes an interesting group of ed-tech enthusiasts in Quebec (Mario Asselin, Patrick Giroux)–and many more yet to be discovered.

Connectivism or Activity Theory?

This year I continued to be bewildered by the contribution of Connectivism to understanding learning in a networked environment.  I haven’t adequately articulated this anywhere on this blog, but I can’t get past looking for differences between Connectivism and Engestrom’s notion of “knotworking” in third-generation activity theory.  I’ve made this point in the past (posted on George’s blog back in 2006 under ‘tanbob’) but as noted by Bill Kerr’s critique back in ’07the point was never really addressed. I’m obviously not alone here but clearly have some homework to do in fairly and adequately discussing my view of the intersections of these two prominent ideas. The Networked Learning Conference, featuring not only Engestrom and Siemens, but Wenger as well, would have been a nice opportunity to gain some clarity, since current discussions of activity theory (in 2 recent books, one of them nicely reviewed here by Spinuzzi), in particular Engestrom’s notion of a ‘runaway object’ seem to bring connectivism and activity theory even closer.

21st Century Skills–a (sort-of) flashback to multiliteracies?

Another topic that I have yet to adequately articulate here, but I found myself going back to the work of the New London Group and looking for reasons why 21st Century skills felt like a more diluted version of Multiliteracies. How did we go from a broad, socioculturally-driven notion of literacies (framed in 1996, no less), to a more limited behavior-cognitive focussed notion of skills? I worry that 21st century skills will the be the buzzword of 2010 that will take us down the wrong path.

Digital Natives-an ed tech myth that will hopefully become history

On the topic of buzzwords Net Gen Skeptic has done a good job of demonstrating how an ed tech buzzword can become accepted and subsequently adopted as a rationale for systemic change without a whole lot of critical thought or demand for evidence. Being involved in a Skeptic project has made me aware of my own role in supporting myths-in-the-making, eg. what am I retweeting and why; who am I reading and who am I not reading. I suspect that myths find their legs in echo chambers, and I resolve to step outside of the spheres of my discipline and into those that are relevant but not totally familiar.