The selfish giant and the unlocking of the gates of elitist higher education (#change11)


[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?

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About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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18 Responses to The selfish giant and the unlocking of the gates of elitist higher education (#change11)

  1. Pingback: The selfish giant and the unlocking of the gates of elitist higher education (#change11) | E-Learning-Inclusivo (Mashup) | Scoop.it

  2. Pingback: The selfish giant and the unlocking of the gates of elitist higher education (#change11) « juandon. Innovación y conocimiento

  3. José Mota says:

    I mostly agree with your views, and I like the metaphor, but I think there is an oversimplification of issues.

    Saying that “pedagogical content is “unbundled” from residential and accreditation components” in these initiatives is a bad use of the notion of pedagogy, Which leads me to the other statement that we gain “access to the forecourts of the castles while the banquet tables of accreditation are for the selected few who could pay”. The thing is, the banquet is not accreditation in itself, it is the process through which you learn – in a socialized environment, within a specific culture, where there are knowledgeable experts that are supposed to guide and support you throughout the process (not that it is always the norm, but you get the idea). It’s the work of these experts – the teachers – that constitutes the “pedagogy” in the process. In traditional distance education, this “pedagogical practice” was embedded in the materials/resources – at least, to the extent that it was possible – since these were designed in a certain way to support self-study by instructional designers, who worked with the content specialists (the professors). It is not the case with the resources that are made available as “courseware”, hence pedagogy (i.e. the art of teaching) is mostly absent.
    To make open education more like a banquet, you need to add a lot more to it than just accreditation. You need to provide a social context, materials and resources better designed for online learning (not recorded lectures and poor Powerpoints, please) and some sort of guidance or mentoring from experts. at some points in the process. Only then would an accreditation earned through open learning have some weight and recognition, imo.

    • Joe Dillon says:

      “To make open education more like a banquet, you need to add a lot more to it than just accreditation. You need to provide a social context, materials and resources better designed for online learning (not recorded lectures and poor Powerpoints, please) and some sort of guidance or mentoring from experts. at some points in the process.”

      I would argue that the reason 58,000 people took an open course at Stanford was precisely because it had limitless social contextual possibilities because of its web platform. Some of the learners might be attracted to these opportunities because they can unbundle certain readings, lectures, webinars in order to have the social opportunities they choose, not necessarily the ones prescribed. We also have to compare the participant generated content to evaluate the learning opportunity.

      It all depends why the kids are playing in the garden. If they are there because it is a place to gather, play, hide, and wrestle, does it matter if the giant won’t let them take any fruit or vegetables with them? Dave Snowden made the statement that the reason he and a colleague were able to look at decision making and generate new insights was because they never pursued doctoral degrees and so they had a fresh perspective for research and data, rather than an institutional perspective.

      • José Mota says:

        @ Joe Dillon – I totally agree with what you say. You are talking about a course that was organized as such and presented the benefits you mention. There have been several similar open courses for, at least, five years (though not of that size) by people like Stephen Downes, George Siemens, Dave Cormier, Alec Couros, David Wiley, Ray Schroeder, Howard Rheingold, Inge de Waard and several others.That is totally different from simply making your content available online, i.e. courseware, which MIT and others have done for almost a decade.

        These open courses provide the social context, peer interaction, guidance and mentoring by some experts (although it decreases a lot when the number of participants increases), control and choice, user generated content, etc. that create great learning opportunities. If you look at them as such, it’s OK that some people learn a lot, that others learn something meaningful for them and that many simply quit – the drop out rate is generally very high. I don’t know how it was with the Stanford course, but I suspect that with 58000 people participating it must have been very high.

        Once you throw accreditation in the mix, though, things get a bit more complex. Even with a proper open course set in place (not just resources available online) you need to devise a proper assessment methodology to make accreditation recognized. And that is not easy in the context of an open course, let alone in the numbers that are being tried by Stanford.

        So, just to clarify, I think that in an open course you can get a learning experience that matches or is superior to what you might get in a university. For me, that is a very substantial part of the banquet, not just the accreditation issue.

      • @José @ Joe – great discussion!

        José, I like the way you map the complex and dynamic terrain regarding accreditation. Maybe one thing that we have not raised in this discussion is the fact that a crucial part of designing a learning experience is to determine the needs, prior knowledge and aspirations of learners.

        Many learners may not need or want accreditation. But I suspect many do depending on where they are in the life and career journeys.

        I think it is therefore a wonderful opportunity for designers and providers of open courseware to also consider providing an accreditation route with, as you indicate, an assessment strategy. If students have several options ranging from accreditation to non-accreditation (at various levels of pedagogical engagement and cost) then it may add to the sustainability and reach of such an initiative.

        I think there is an increasing demand for “drop-off-and-go” open courseware while we should also consider a range of “pick-and-pay” or “pay-as-you-go” options.

        Getting back to the “banquet” metaphor – although this mooc does not involve accreditation, my engagement on this blog and with the readings provided has been an incredible rich and gratifying experience – a banquet in the true sense of the word.

      • @Joe – thanks for the wonderful discussion (with @José) and the points raised.

        In your response you state: “I would argue that the reason 58,000 people took an open course at Stanford was precisely because it had limitless social contextual possibilities because of its web platform. Some of the learners might be attracted to these opportunities because they can unbundle certain readings, lectures, webinars in order to have the social opportunities they choose, not necessarily the ones prescribed. We also have to compare the participant generated content to evaluate the learning opportunity”.

        Very good point and I agree totally with you. For many lifelong learners that is exactly the value to these open courses. Many of us don’t need (or are not interested) in another degree or accreditation (tell our employers) but learn as much (or as little) we want from various sources and open formats. As I indicated to @José below, I suspect that this is not necessarily true of many (most?) students enrolling in higher education. It is also not true for many (most?) employers. As I indicated to José – students and employers miss the point to think that accreditation is the most important step in the journey. But for many it is and will be.

        Though I foresee a changing of the role of accreditation in lifelong learning, I also think that the powers invested in the regimes of accreditation will continue to market accreditation as the final and most important value to be gained.

        Happy moocing!

    • José – you make very valid points and I agree with all (almost) of them.

      Your point regarding the fact that “accreditation” may not be the banquet hall – is a very interesting one.

      I spent another sleepless night pondering on the notion of accreditation as the culmination of many students’ studies. I suspect that though we as educators know that there are much more to studying and learning than “just” accreditation, for many (all?) students and most (all?) employers accreditation by a reputatble institution is the “banquet hall”. Many students and employers focus so much on the final accreditation and validation of learning that they forget that the real value lies in the journey (as you have pointed out).

      Maybe I will post something later today regarding my thoughts on the value of acccreditation in the 21st century higher education institution.

      Thanks for the engagement!

  4. Wow! What a beautiful way of expressing the current state of quasi-education in this day and age. I am sure we will bring the house down soon enough.

  5. José Mota says:

    Hi Paul :-),
    I think we’re having a great discussion because you wrote a very insightful post to start with. I think you are right about the importance of accreditation for students and employers – it is, for many (most?), the banquet. And for students I guess it is a very powerful force to keep them going through the harder parts of the learning process.

    So, I really wasn’t disagreeing with you, I was trying to express my concern that, because there is this perception of education and learning, focused on accreditation as the “banquet”, on the part of many learners and employers, we’ll start seeing “accreditation factories” built on open courses with tens or hundreds of thousands of participants with poor learning experiences and a disregard for other very important elements in the process. Courses built on this model will not be a positive change in education and certainly will not match or surpass the learning experience at a university, and the resulting accreditation won’t be much recognized.

    • José – your concerns about higher education becoming “accreditation factories” (great metaphor – will make a great title for a post – will acknowledge your copyright :-)) resonate deeply with me.

      I must confess that for many students, administration and faculty alike, higher education, especially distance education and mega open distance learning (ODL) institutions, have become nothing more than “accredition factories” and massive production lines. You can imagine how easily this happens in a mega ODL institution where some modules/courses have more than 25,000 students per 16-week semester. Add to two formative assessments and a final examination, sending out general guidance via print and posting online – then it is very easy to forget that the real learning is in the journey and not in the final assessment. Due to the hectic pace of teaching massive print-based courses in a developing world the focus often move away from pedagogy to administration and surviving the latest crisis of a postal strike, or a server that went down, or the prescribed text book becoming unavailable.

      I really think that most educators get bogged down by putting out (administrative) fires and dealing with crises – and then lose touch with why they joined the teachng profession in the first place.

      And the final result is that teaching and learning resemble a canteen in a dusty and noisy factory instead of a lavish banquet table.

      Thanks for the engagement.

  6. HentieWilson says:

    I love the way you all explored the “banquet hall” metaphor.
    “…that we gain “access to the forecourts of the castles while the banquet tables (of [with acknowledgment from the Head of Table equaling] accreditation) are for the selected few who could pay”. This banquet space is the interactive space allowing you “… the process through which you learn – in a socialized environment, within a specific culture, where there are knowledgeable experts that are supposed to guide and support you throughout the process … It’s the work of these experts – the teachers – that constitutes the “pedagogy” in the process.

    What I miss is a discussion around the structural cohesiveness that is embedded within a Higher Education programme and qualification where a group of courses/modules (10/20/30) together strive to give a well-rounded knowledge base. Where the “pedagogical content is “unbundled” from residential and accreditation components” in these initiatives is a bad use of the notion of pedagogy,” as the pedagogy knowledge is missing in unbounded concept- or skill-focused presentations. Back to the metaphor, it is like the giant dishing out apples with a mumble out of his garden, but there is no experience of play and enjoyment and getting to know the garden (alone), or with others in the garden, and kids do not know what the shade under the tree, or even the tree, looks like. Some researchers postulate that the new media and small bits of information is starting to cause a skewing in cohesive maps of life/disciplines/fields. On the one hand some individuals can make mental maps that are sufficiently cohesive to have innovative insights, but many people grossly misunderstand complex systems. To this aid pedagogy directs (or should direct) students to negotiate the structured space efficiently and effectively and find value in that negotiation. Does a discipline have a knowledge structure? Is it important to know? What practices are associated with this negotiation of knowledge structures? How to we include or exclude students from this (diversion and layout of foods on the tables to constitute a balanced sustained diet)?

    • Hi Hentie – glad you enjoyed reading the different posts – they are great.

      You make a very valid point regarding the cohesiveness of the curriculum on programme level when one element or some courses are “unbundled”. I suspect that it is true of all forms of higher education – whether residential or distance, and e-learning. Cohesiveness in a curriculum consisting of a “basket” of courses/modules (often with a range of electives) is an element that is sadly lacking and often non-existend. Add to this the use of a range of social media and platforms/experiences – and the possibility of fragmentation increases exponentially.

      Your post raises an issue that have not been mentioned so far and I think it is extremely important to take cognisance of the cohesiveness of the enacted curriculum – especially when some elements are unbundled.

      On the other hand…. 🙂

      Exploring the metaphor of the garden and the banquet tables further makes me think of the curriculum possibly as a great, collective, fun-filled Easter egg hunting experience where we roam the garden looking for the hidden goodies! Mmmm, this sounds like something I want to design!

  7. edmusings says:

    Thanks for stating that delivering learning online, within or without the walls of academia, is complex. I had the simplistic dream when I entered into the world of online education that we could deliver programs, etc. to deserving people worldwide. And without them facing the challenge of relocating to North America and its barriers, costs and weather (I live in Canada :0).

    You are correct – open, formal, and distance education are complex entities that require such discussions as these. I love the impact social networking is making on education, but at the same time I hope it doesn’t devalue it by masses insisting on easier, shallower education as those required to obtain a degree, or perhaps better labelled as expertise.

    One thing that struck me in the presentation by Richard DeMillo, Ashwin Ram, Preetha Ram, and Hua Ali was the notion of providing experimental learning with innovation as the outcome. Imagine innovation as the key component to evaluate for each student. Difficult to assess unilaterally but invigorating and challenging for students.

    • Thanks for you response! Mmm, never thought of the weather as a determining factor in students’ choice of higher education institutions! 🙂 Will have to add that to my list…

      At my institution there is a constant battle between staff (often in management) who say that we should not make things so complicated and complex. According to them, developing curricula and choosing for online delivery and appropriate pedagogies are actually simple processes. I do believe that there may be “simple” elements to teaching and learning in an open distance and e-learning contexts but the different inter-relationships and interdependencies result in anything but simple. That is why Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework makes such a lot of sense to me – it allows for the simple, but it also acknowledges that other layers such as complicated, complex and chaotic.

      Your remark re the danger that online courseware may result in a devaluation with the ” masses insisting on easier, shallower education as those required to obtain a degree, or perhaps better labelled as expertise” – is an interesting one. My experience is that online courseware and moocs require more than attending lectures – it is not an easy (or shallow) option. The second element that is interesting is the fact that we assume that face-to-face teaching is always deep and of more value – and from my undergraduate years I know this is anything but the case.

      It is as if we require “higher standards” of online delivery and moocs than we require of face-to-face tuition as if the latter is the gold standard?

      Thanks for your remarks about the presentation by Richard DeMillo, Ashwin Ram, Preetha Ram, and Hua Ali – I am so sorry I missed it. Time zones and cost of bandwidth impact hugely on my ability to participate. Watching an hour long recording afterwards often just get lost in “more important” and immediate things to do 😦

      Thanks for sharing and participating. I enjoyed reading your comment.

  8. sheiba says:

    What figure of speech is used on the line” the flowers were looking up through the green grass laughing”?

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