[Images retrieved from http://www.marketoracle.co.uk/Article23541.html and http://www.youtube.com/channel/fK6RK4HFxJGXX1LxHHaH6w, 4 June 2012]
The notion of a ‘burning platform’ is the latest addition to ‘management speak’ in higher education and my immediate context as an open distance learning (ODL) institution is no exception. This term joins the ranks of other recent additions such as ‘disruptive innovation’ replacing notions such as ‘re-engineering’ and ‘restructuring’. And, I am not sure, at this stage, whether it is much different….
There is talk that we should stop supporting ‘legacy systems’ and that we should burn the bridges preventing us from a return to ‘outdated’ systems, ways of ‘delivering’ learning and the obsolete beliefs that keep the current systems alive. One way to ‘force’ the institution to move is to set fire to the platform and actually make any return to outdated organisational epistemologies, processes and systems virtually (pun intended) impossible.
There is however the eerie comparison between creating a burning platform and setting fire to Rome, while playing on a lute ala Nero. The proponents of setting fire to platforms often forget how setting fire to Rome also solved a number of problems such as getting rid of vermin (whether outdated systems, rats and certain classes of people) and blaming the vermin for stating the fire. It is then said that setting fire to Rome was the only choice… Any similarities?
Having said the above, there is another side to the story.
Delivering higher education and specifically open distance learning (ODL) in a developing country is increasingly complex. For years the University of South Africa (Unisa) relied on the posting of carefully designed study materials posted to students, in what Otto Peters (2003) describes as an example of the industrialisation of education. While the main basis for teaching was these printed and delivered materials; teaching was often supplemented with audio, video and satellite and group discussions at some regional centres. Students could also attend tutorial classes at these centres. The majority of students however often cannot attend synchronous support opportunities due to a variety of reasons such as working hours, family commitments and the cost of travelling to a regional centre.
Research in distance education contexts has also shown that the main issue affecting student success is non- academic. So despite all the cost and effort to provide more synchronous cognitive support; non-academic support such as administrative support and speedily resolving logistical issues regarding the posting of study materials sadly receiving less attention…
Which brings me back to the setting fire to Rome or creating a burning platform…
Since the 1940s Unisa relied on postal services for the delivery of teaching materials to students. And we still do. Looking back at the past, the institution (and some of our students) survived a number of postal strikes in the past. But the cost (more than just financial) of not receiving your study materials or tutorial letters due to a postal strike in a 16 week semester is just becoming too much and unnecessary. The latest research shows that the majority of Unisa’s students have access to the Internet at least once a week, often from a variety of mobile devices. Is it not time to set fire to the platform?
Before you set me on fire, let me immediately add that I realise that the cost and sustainability of connectivity are, for many of our students, bigger issues than having or getting access. I also acknowledge that we cannot just transfer the cost of the printing of study materials to students while we play on our lutes. Just transferring the printing cost would be just as immoral as relying on postal services… Another question to consider is: how does the amount of text we produce look at a mobile screen? Despite these legitimate concerns, advances in technology and increasing student access allow us to think differently regarding our stubborn reliance on posting printed materials.
The solution in an increasingly digital age is not to increase the number of regional centres or expand the existing regional centres. We will simply not be able to reach all students via the provision of a regional network. Surely our energy should be on increasing the access of students to the Internet, critically look at the issue of cost and reconsider our pedagogies for a digital age?
In addition to the supporting students, we also have to reconsider the way we support faculty to move towards teaching in a digital age. What type of programming support will they need to deliver interactive and well-designed learning experiences? In a digital age, how do ‘office hours’ look? How will we provide faculty with the necessary capacities to flourish in their changing roles as educators in a digital age?
The opponents to any proposal to end our reliance on posted study materials warn that setting fire to our platform may actually start a fire that devastates Rome…While some of their concerns may legitimate; we just cannot afford (in more than one way) to rely on postal delivery. Distance education provision has furthermore moved away from an industrialised mode of correspondence education to embracing interactive and engaging pedagogies made possible by a variety of technologies. The question is whether the time has not come to stop supporting and funding the “legacy systems” of printed and posted materials.
Anyone with matches?