[Image retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/7kq5lra on 24 January 2012]
Engaging with this week’s mooc reading, “Unlocking the Gates. How and why leading universities are opening up access to their courses” by Taylor Walsh, (in conjunction with Ithaka S+R); left me tossing and turning in my bed last night with my eyes wide shut (apologies to Stanley Kubrick).
From the Foreword, the Introduction and Chapter 1 it is clear that “online courseware” initiatives are a diverse and complex phenomenon. But as I read the document I could not help think of the short story by Oscar Wilde “The selfish giant”. Please hear me out before you throw me out…
A Giant returns to his castle and lovely garden after seven years just to find that there are kids playing in the garden, having a lot of fun. Disturbed by this, the Giant said- “My own garden is my own garden,” said the Giant. “Anyone can understand that, and I don’t want anybody to play in it but myself. “ So, he built a high wall round it, and put up a notice: TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED”.
From the next day onwards he had the whole garden for his own pleasure – except for the fact that there was not much pleasure left. When Spring came to the surrounding areas, Winter, Snow and Frost reigned in the walled garden. In Autumn the trees bore no fruit and the only visitors to the garden were Hail and Frost.
One morning the Giant was awoken by the sound of laughter and joy. Children had crept through a little hole in the wall and were playing like always. “And the Giant’s heart melted as he looked out.”
The story then takes a different turn, but for the sake of using this story as metaphor, let us stop here.
Let me immediately acknowledge that using metaphors to illustrate an issue is often a minefield of elements that do not transfer well to the main focus, or elements that are interpreted differently. Despite these constraints I could not help of thinking of Oscar Wilde’s story.
Walsh et al share a number of case studies of elite universities who have embraced “online courseware”. Online courseware refers, according to Walsh et al, to “initiatives in which traditional degree-granting institutions convert course materials, originally designed for their own undergraduates, into non-credit-bearing online versions for the general public” (emphasis added)[ see Walsh et al for a very interesting distinction between how this impacts on traditional residential and distance education institutions]. The authors refer to the fact that pedagogical content is “unbundled” from residential and accreditation components. Online courseware strip away many of the interactions characteristic of traditional and distance education teaching and the emphasis is on sharing content, nothing more, nothing less.
While registration in these courses is open, there is no tuition, often no formal interaction between lecturing staff and students and no accreditation (unless the same course is accredited at a cost at a particular institution). These courses are offered “for enrichment only, [and] the nature of the exchange becomes far more subtle – and complex”.
Walsh et al indicate that the institutions surveyed in this study joined the online courseware initiative for their own (often diverse) reasons, such as increasing access, building their brands, as part of community outreach and corporate citizenship amongst other reasons. Despite these laudable reasons Walsh et al point to the following: “At the same time, by offering course content – but not the university credit that has typically accompanied it – to nonmatriculated students, these elite institutions maintain a key barrier to entry that keeps their exclusivity intact” (emphasis added).
Though the “unlocking of the gates” by these “selfish giants” are laudable, and though it does make a difference to the lives of students that are allowed a temporary respite inside the hallowed walls of crème de la crème institutions; the walls remain intact. The opening of the gates only provides access to the forecourts of the castles while the banquet tables of accreditation are for the selected few who could pay.
That is why I could not sleep last night. I just could not (and still cannot) get my head (and heart) around the joy of the unlocking of the gates, and on the other hand, the sadness of standing on the outside of the banquet hall looking through the windows to those who had enough money, power, social standing, (possibly also be of the right race) and connections to be on the inside…
Or should we rather focus on the fact that there is a small hole in the wall through which we can get in? And maybe the small hole in the wall is the start of bringing down the walls?