Change in distance education: Burning platforms or burning Rome?(#OMDE601)

[Images retrieved from and, 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that we should stop supporting ‘legacy systems’ and that we should burn the bridges preventing us from a return to ‘outdated’ systems, ways of ‘delivering’ learning and the obsolete beliefs that keep the current systems alive. One way to ‘force’ the institution to move is to set fire to the platform and actually make any return to outdated organisational epistemologies, processes and systems virtually (pun intended) impossible.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platforms often forget how setting fire to Rome also solved a number of problems such as getting rid of vermin (whether outdated systems, rats and certain classes of people) and blaming the vermin for stating the fire.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?

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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7 Responses to Change in distance education: Burning platforms or burning Rome?(#OMDE601)

  1. Pingback: Change in distance education: Burning platforms or burning Rome … | Distance Education

  2. Mpine says:

    Hi Paul
    I agree with you – as far as exploring and harnessing the potential for using new technologies in supporting distance learners. However, I do not agree with burning bridges because the past always help us chart the future. We may need the bridge to go back to the past to find out what worked and what didn’t work so that we learn from mistakes.
    Throughout the history of ODL, technology has defined what distance education is. The nature of ODL compels providers to use mediated forms enabled by different technologies of interaction to support their students. It is therefore important to look at technology in terms of how it enhance teaching and learning in a distance education context. Technology in education serve the same purpose, however different technologies support different types of pedagogies. It is therefore important to look at the pedagogy first and what you want to achieve with it and then choose the technology that is going to support that pedagogy. Terry Anderson (2011) argues that technologies have a major impact on the pedagogy in that “the technology sets the beat and creates the music, while the pedagogy defines the moves”. Both technology and pedagogy are intertwined and therefore it is important to look at how they work together to support different models of learning.

    • Hi Mpine – thanks for engaging with the blog. You said: “However, I do not agree with burning bridges because the past always help us chart the future”.
      My point is that in sustaining past practices such as printing presses, making use of courier services (which cost much much more than our unreliable postal service) and requesting students to post (yes, post) back their written (ouch) assignments which we then meticulously scan and digitise, mark electronically, then print again in order to post back to students – all of these just does not make sense in a digital era.

      I agree totally with you that we should put pedagogy first before we think of technologies to mediate learning; but what about the potential of technologies in the administrative support we offer to our students? Also see Simon’s comments below.

      Another thought is that it is not a question of setting fire to the platform but realising that the platform is already burning. It is time to jump…

  3. Simon Kear says:

    It’s a bold proposal, Paul. I wonder if Mpine’s point could be addressed if the pedagogy were able to move us away from reams of text-based content and really exploit the digital world, albeit with the acknowledged problems of access and bandwidth. Write-and-post is an easy option for many in HE, although it might be not be serving the learners in the best way any longer.

    The matches are in the post – I can’t say when they’ll reach you, though 😉


  4. Thanks for the response Simon! You raise good points.
    I am on record saying that technology does not necessarily make bad teaching better; it just allows bad teaching to spread faster :-). Our seeming obsession with the industrialised notion of distance education where the so-called independent and autonomous learner was king or queen (if they ever were)…, prevents us from making use of the affordances of technology. Of course, as Mpine has said, our decisions should be based on sound pedagogy – but what makes as think that 2 assignments in a 16 week semester is good pedagogy? Why only 2 assignments? Because we must allow for postal delivery… This is quite bizarre, actually.

    Our commitment to thoughtful and appropriate pedagogies should actually make us realise that the platform is already burning…

  5. Pingback: Change in distance education: Burning platforms or burning Rome? | Transformational Leadership |

  6. Jefferey says:

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