Romanticizing the past in higher and distance education

How we miss the time when academics were ‘real’ professors, students could read and write, academics had academic freedom, Faculty had more staff than the administrative sections of the university, academics could teach what they wanted, higher education was a sanctuary of like-minded professors with a passion for free inquiry in search of the ‘truth’? This was the time before the hostile takeover and co-option by regulatory bodies, commercial enterprises, government intervention and the pervasive obsession with markets, profit, reporting cycles and technology. How we miss those times…

Looking back at those times, we are not only very selective in what we choose to remember, but we are also seemingly oblivious to some unsavoury elements in that same history such as the pervasive discrimination on the basis of race, gender, class and often religion.  We forget how only the selected few had access to these ‘sanctuaries of knowledge.’ We forget how wealth and power played a role in who was appointed, who was allowed, and who was promoted. We choose not to remember those elements of the same past we romanticize while mourning a loss of identity and bemoaning the fact that higher and distance education is no longer what it used to be.

Romanticizing the past stands in stark contrast to most of what I currently read which indicates that we are entering a phase in higher education, and distance education in particular, where flux and change will be the new normal. This flux and insecurity is not only endemic to higher education, but to most of our lives – whether reflecting on the continuing economic slump,  increasing societal unrest or the sound of the tectonic plates of geopolitical alliances moving and clashing.

Last week Friday, a colleague of mine, Chris Swanepoel introduced me to a video called EPIC2020. On her website, Nancy Rubin introduces the movie as follows:

“EPIC 2020, the movie, is a dramatization of the technology trends that in the remainder of this decade will eliminate college tuition and degrees. New innovative business models in online learning will generate revenues from the top 1% of students that enable the education of the rest of the world for free. Every student in the world with internet access will be able to be taught by the world’s best professors.”

Watching the movie, I had shivers down my spine and a mixture of feelings ranging from fear to excitement. Even if half of the predictions in the movie do not realize, we are in for a rough ride. Yet, not everyone sees and accepts that the context and character of higher and distance education has changed dramatically and irrevocably over the last number of years.  There is no turning back. There is no doubt in my mind that the current corporatization and commodification of higher education is the new normal – whether I agree with it or not. There is furthermore no doubt (at least in my mind) that higher education will become increasingly unbundled in the near future – where  links between tuition, assessment and accreditation will be severed.  The granularity of our courses we offer will change dramatically. There is increasing demand for just-in-time learning experiences offered in asynchronous formats allowing for immediate feedback and assessment. There is a need for agility and nimbleness, with shorter development cycles and continuous registration. I sense a move away from assessing outcomes to assessing learners’ competencies whenever they are ready to prove their capability. The diversity of our learner profiles with a wide range of educational backgrounds, skills, and aspirations makes the offering of a one-size-fits-all approach increasingly ineffective, and frustrating to both the institution and learners. There is no doubt in my mind that the future of higher education will be digital, open and mobile. We furthermore have the moral responsibility to prepare our graduates for this digital, open and mobile future. Castells (2009, p.25) warns that though not everyone is included in this network society, “everyone is affected by the processes that take place in the global networks that constitute social structure” (emphasis added). In this network society “the global overwhelms the local – unless the local becomes connected to the global as a node in alternative global networks constructed by social movements” (Castells, 2009, p.26). We therefore have a moral obligation to prepare our graduates to firstly understand the implications of this world, but also to participate in and where necessary formulate alternative counter-narratives. We have no choice. Romanticizing the past will not help.

Despite the sound of the winds of change, we romanticize how we used to teach ten (or more) years ago. With all due respect, how can we think that what and how we taught ten years ago will still be appropriate in the current (and future) era? What makes the tuition and production cycles of 16 years ago so attractive that we contemplate going back? Don’t get me wrong. The one danger is to romanticize the past. Another danger is to romanticize the future where technology will address all societal and educational ills. While both these types of romanticizing are dangerous, I will focus in this blog on the paralyzing impact of romanticizing the past.

Facing the current issues of corporatization and commodification of higher education, we have a number of choices. We can construct our approach to these changes as necessary counter-narratives aiming to disrupt and decentre academic capitalism and Managerialism.  We can also choose to be stuck in discourses of perpetual longing for an archival identity of higher education that, most probably, never was. Memory and tradition then serves as resistance to a future we do not understand and a celebration of a past that possibly never was as we remember it.

A third option for defining higher and distance education involves a palimpsest approach where the project is not to decentre and contest current changes in higher education but to embrace our historical and current identities as dynamically constructed and fluid at a specific time and place where  a multiplicity of subject positions become possible. Reflecting on the identity discourses in an African context, Kwame Appiah (1995, p.108) says:

“If an African identity is to empower us, so it seems to me, what is required is not so much that we throw out falsehood but that we acknowledge first that race and history and metaphysics do not enforce an identity: that we can choose, within broad limits set by ecological, political, and economic realities what it will mean to be African in the coming years.”

If I understand Appiah (1995) correctly, he does not contest the critical interrogation of the factors that shape our identities. Instead of a permanent oppositional stance, he states that “race and history and metaphysics do not enforce an identity” (emphasis added). While acknowledging that our identities in higher and distance education are shaped by broader ecological, political, economic and increasingly technological realities, we have a choice.

In conclusion: I firmly believe that there is a place to contest, to formulate counter-narratives, to disrupt and decentre dominant discourses. We should however be careful to romanticize the past as an unqualified good. While romanticizing our archival identities is an option, it will not prepare us for a future that is already here.

[Image retrieved from, 20 August 2012]


Appiah, K.A. (1995). African identities. In L. Nicholson & S. Seidman (Eds.). Social postmodernism. Beyond identity politics (pp. 103-115). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Castells, M. (2009). Communication power. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.


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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6 Responses to Romanticizing the past in higher and distance education

  1. Pamela Ryan says:

    Thoughtful and challenging post Paul!

  2. Pingback: Romanticizing the past in higher and distance education – Blog | Distance Education

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