What’s in a name? Reflections on the way we describe our teaching… (#OMDE601)

[Image retrieved from http://news.howzit.msn.com/quotes-of-the-week-may-11?page=13, 28 May 2012]

In the beginning there was … correspondence education, then distance education(DE), then open distance learning (ODL), then open distance and e-learning (ODeL), then bring-your-own-device (BYOD) learning, then flipped classrooms … – and so the list continues. As our descriptions of teaching and learning change; so we rush to ensure that our institutions’ marketing strategies and web pages reflect the latest, the most original, and the most avant-garde term. Who still wants to be known as ‘just’ a DE institution or an ‘ordinary’ ODL institution?  These descriptors not only seem outdated, but also seem to reflect a past that we try to forget…

In a wonderful essay on the role of memory in identity discourses in postwar East-Central Europe; Esbenhade (1995, p.72) starts his article with a quote by James Young – “Memory is never shaped in a vacuum; the motives of memory are never pure”.  Esbenhade (1995) reflects, inter alia, on how new regimes attempt to erase from memory certain histories and ideologies by removing monuments and changing street names. The old street names are then marked by a red diagonal slash creating a sense of flux – “neither truly there nor fully absent, the presence of an absence, memory markers of a most ambiguous, yet eerily appropriate, kind” (Esbenhade 1995, p. 73). He further quotes Kundera (1981) who refer to street names that were changed five times in a particular century – “They just kept changing its name, trying to lobotomise it” (Esbenhade 1995, p.74).

Foucault (1972; in Esbenhade, 1995, p.87) said

Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.

In the broader context of distance education (DE); names or descriptors provides an indication of who we are and what type of learning we deliver; but also, according to Foucault, the means by which we sanction certain values, and distinguish between true and false. These descriptors are often changed due to a number of factors such as a change of guard in management; a new fad or fashion; or a change of direction. Name changes therefore indicate new “regimes of truth”.

Looking at the history of distance education (DE); it would seem as if the notion of ‘correspondence’ education lost ground (and status) as ‘distance education’ as descriptor became the dominant narrative describing a type of education where the institution and its students were quasi-permanently separated. In these institutions a range of technologies were and are used to teach and learn. Often the change from ‘correspondence education’ to ‘distance education’ said more about the technologies used for the ‘delivery’ of teaching than changes in pedagogy – albeit sadly so. Despite the hype about the name change; not much may have changed in the way educators actually taught and students learned.

As the convergence between traditional residential universities and other forms of higher education continue to become more apparent due to the impact of, amongst other things, technologies, funding formulas, the internationalisation of higher education, etc; the traditional distinctive characteristics of face-to-face and distance education may continue to disappear. What does ‘face-to-face’ mean if students and educators meet in virtual spaces no longer separated in time and ‘place’? What does ‘distance’ mean if both traditional and distance education institutions explore delivering teaching to students not on campus? Why do we still have these descriptors? Is it possible that these descriptors are remnants of a bygone era and no longer valid descriptors of the reality of higher education in the 21st century?

While traditional different systems in higher education (such as distance education and/or face-to-face education) are possibly kept intact by funding regimes and institutional and/or national policy landscapes, etc.; are there any other reasons why these distinctions are still used? As more and more higher education institutions open their “virtual doors” to explore mass education opportunities such as Stanford and MIT; what unique descriptors are still viable to describe individual institutions? Or are we moving into an era where our descriptors indicate a discomfort with being  “neither truly there nor fully absent, the presence of an absence, memory markers of a most ambiguous, yet eerily appropriate, kind” (Esbenhade 1995, p. 73).

Which brings me to my final point. This seeming obsessive pursuit of embracing the latest and the newest descriptors is distracting from the real issue – how do we teach in an increasingly networked but also increasingly unequal world? So the latest descriptors we use to define what and how we teach may just be, in the words of Foucault, just the latest in a particular regime’s claim on truth and possibly, sadly, nothing more.

“Memory is never shaped in a vacuum; the motives of memory are never pure” (James Young as quoted by Esbenhade 1995, p. 72). Maybe this can be said of chosing institutional descriptors and names?


Esbenshade, R.S. (1995). Remembering to forget: memory, history, national identity in postwar East-Central Europe. Representations 49, pp. 72-96.

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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3 Responses to What’s in a name? Reflections on the way we describe our teaching… (#OMDE601)

  1. laura says:

    Your point is very important, as names are of course not neutral but represent interests and battles over emerging fields. I like the use of Foucault, unusual in this field, unusual! Bernstein is also helpful for explaining how battles over names echo deeper differences regarding the nature of the field itself ( see for example http://www.cet.uct.ac.za/files/file/2010/Mapping%20the%20terrain%20of%20ET%20-%20Czerniewicz%20-%20April%202010.doc). Great blog!

  2. Dear Laura – thanks for the response and the sharing of your article – looks great. Will engage with it today and get back to you. Zygmunt Bauman (1998) wrote beautifuly on the the power and role of the cartographer in his book “Globalisation. The human consequences” (a wonderful book). Bauman explores the “battle of the maps” and states that the person or power who controlled the cartographic office was the most powerful (1998:31). All space had to be subordinated to “one and only one, officially approved and state-sponsored map”. Where the cartographic office started off by officialising space, as it were, by mapping it, maps became important tools in the hands of the powerful to “reshape” spaces. “Before, it was the map which reflected and recorded the shapes of the territory. Now, it was the turn of the territory to become a reflection of the map, to be raised to the level of orderly transparency which the maps struggled to reach” (Bauman 1998:35). Bauman (1998) then continues to explore the architecture of Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer – riviting stuff.

    Thanks for the engagement.

  3. laura says:

    I like that! The power lies with s/he who controls the cartographic office! Bernstein’s points are less about who controls the naming, representation and the rules of the game, than about how differences over names are indicative of the knowledge structures of the fields themselves

    Bernstein (2000) refers to “syntax” and “grammar” to discuss how overt and how blatant the features of the terrain are. A strong grammar visibly announces what it is ……A field with a weak grammar may not clearly announce itself. ….The most obvious example in educational technology is the existence of a multiplicity of terms. A new language is therefore being negotiated and created as the field develops in both specific “locations” and across different “communities”. Different theorists use the same term to refer to different things and different terms to refer to the same things. (From the paper I mentioned

    And of course the terms change in response to and as a reflection of broader social and educational issues…I wonder what the next term will be? Ubiquitous Learning?

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