A Kodak moment for Distance Education (DE)? #OMDE

There are many experts in higher education (see e.g. Davidson & Goldberg, 2009) and in particular, distance education (DE) (see e.g. Anderson, Boyles, & Rainie, 2010; Peters, 2010), who claim that we are on the brink of, or even in the midst of a Copernican revolution with profound implications for the way knowledge is produced, disseminated, validated and accredited. Yet there are many DE institutions that continue as if the systems of yesteryear will guarantee their survival in a digital age. Are they having a Kodak moment?

In stark contrast to Fuji Film who has been able to remain relevant in a digital age, Kodak filed for bankruptcy early in 2012 (see Schumpeter’s analysis in The Economist of 18 January 2012). What did Kodak not see? What did Fuji Film see that Kodak didn’t? What kept Kodak from seeing the danger signals? In which areas did Kodak invest resources in planning for the next 10 years?

I have a suspicion that many DE institutions have a Kodak moment. Despite general agreement that we are in the midst of a Copernican revolution, many DE institutions continue as if it is business as usual. Not only do they underestimate the immense implications of a digital age, these institutions continue to sustain and even expand legacy systems.  Legacy systems can be described as systems, processes or technologies that served the institution well but which are out of sync with current and forthcoming changes in the institution’s context. Examples which come to mind, in the context of DE, are the following:

  • Maintaining and even expanding massive print production systems relying on increasingly ineffective postal delivery systems.
  • Expanding office space for permanent faculty and administrative personnel.
  • Rolling out massive face-to-face tutorial support systems providing synchronous support to students at scattered locations.
  • The Medusian gaze of one-size-fits-all standardization regardless of discipline context, practical work requirements, student profile and access to resources.

If we look at our strategic and operational plans, it would seem as if we invest a lot of energy to keep existing systems in place as if these systems do not have an expiry date.  I further suspect that the reason why we keep those systems in place is not necessarily because we do not see the changes coming. I rather suspect that our investment in legacy systems is due to a total underestimation of the nature and scope of the changes that higher education will face in the next five to ten years as well as our inability to confront the power bases who have vested interests in sustaining and expanding the existing systems.

It is not my intention to provide a list of legacy systems that are sustained and expanded, but rather to point to and examine the belief systems and assumptions which provide a basis for investing in these legacy systems.  Beliefs that come to mind are the following:

  • Our concept of faculty as referring only to full-time tenured, on-campus academics who are responsible to do discipline-specific research and teach.
  • Our belief that all our staff should all be permanently employed and be on campus in permanent offices and centralized campuses.
  • Our definitions of and regulations regarding intellectual property rights and protecting our course content.
  • Our belief that all learners benefit from highly structured and highly interactive learning environments.
  • Our belief that all learners want to complete full programmes and that half-completed programmes are a waste of time.
  • Our continued belief that we can graduate students who are information and technology illiterate.
  • Our continued assumption that because I am a discipline expert that I will necessarily be a good teacher.
  • Our obsession with using neoliberal market ideological terminology such as “high performance organisations”, “lean and mean”, “penetrating markets”…
  • Our misplaced belief that sending students more and more printed tutorial letters or adding more resources online will make them understand more.
  • Our misplaced belief that (all) our students are independent and autonomous learners.
  • The belief that students and staff are mere passive recipients of services, instead of seeing staff and students as active agents making choices and having responsibilities.
  • Sustaining victimhood and suffering as identity – whether among students and staff. Yes, many staff and students have been on the receiving end of gross injustices based on gender, race, language, class, age, etc. But we should be very careful to sustain environments where victimhood and suffering become permanent and highly valued forms of social capital.

The above list is anything but a definitive list of beliefs that sustain legacy systems. Despite being incomplete, the list does provide a starting point to think about the choices we have and those we don’t have. As stated earlier, legacy systems are kept in place because individuals and groups either have vested interests in their permanence and expansion or have a lack of comprehension of the dramatic changes that are coming. Having vested interests in sustaining current legacy systems and a lack of understanding of the dramatic changes higher education are facing are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

There is therefore a real danger of having a Kodak moment and missing the urgency for change where some of the beliefs and the systems they sustain will keep us from responding appropriately and timeously to a future we cannot predict, and most probably don’t understand…

Schumpeter (2012, ¶3) writes that “How Fujifilm succeeded serves as a warning to American firms about the danger of trying to take the easy way out: competing through one’s marketing rather than taking the harder route of developing new products and new businesses.” New products and new business means letting go of treasured ways of doing that served the purposes of yesteryear.

Are we courageous enough? Are we humble enough?

[Image retrieved from http://ramp.ie/index.php/columns/top-tens/top-ten-obsolete/, 6 August 2012]


Anderson, J.Q., Boyles, J.L., Rainie, L. (2012). The future of the Internet. Retrieved from http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Future-of-Higher-Education.aspx.

Davidson, C.N., & Goldberg, D T. (2009). The future of learning institutions in a digital age. Retrieved from http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/chapters/future_of_learning.pdf.

Peters, O. (2010). Digitized learning environments: New chances and opportunities. In O. Peters, Distance education in transition: Developments and issues (5th edition), (pp.141-153). Oldenburg, Germany: BIS-Verlag  de Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg.

Peters, O. (2010). Distance education in transition: Developments and issues (5th edition). Oldenburg, Germany: BIS-Verlag  de Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg.


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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