Tensions and tipping points in higher and distance education

The use of a particular set of metaphors or expressions during the First Unisa International ODL conference hosted 5-7 September 2012, prompted me to think about organisational change in higher and distance education. Though it is possible that other metaphors were used during this conference, I am specifically referring to expressions such as “the train has left the station, if you are not on board, you are left behind”, “the boat has left the harbour” and “we are at a tipping point.”

These metaphors and expressions reflect individuals’, and possible the collective sense of the delegates, that the context of higher and distance education has irrevocably changed due to primarily three factors. Firstly, there is the impact of the digitization of content, teaching and learning – changing not only higher education’s value proposition, but also our pedagogies, the skills faculty and students need as well as assessment and accreditation. There is also the impact of not only the use of and access to a range of mobile devices but also the impact of the mobility of learners and faculty on learning and teaching. The third factor shaping higher and distance education is the impact of open education (including teaching, learning, assessment and accreditation) and open scholarship. Interestingly, though none of the keynotes or workshop facilitators used the metaphors or expressions of trains leaving stations or tipping points, all the keynotes emphasized and provide ample evidence for the changing context and its impact on teaching, scholarship and learning.

Expressions such as “the train has left the station, if you are not on board, you are left behind”; “the boat has left the harbour” and “we are at a tipping point” signify a belief or sense that we have reached a situation where there is no turning back to a pre-digital, pre-mobile and pre-open age. Though this is, in general, true in the broader context of higher and distance education, I am not necessarily convinced that these expressions take into account the complexities and idiosyncrasies of different contexts and different powers with vested interests in either frustrating organisational change or actually, preventing it.

Quoting from popular science authors may lack academic decorum, but I want to use some of the thoughts by Malcolm Gladwell (2000) in “The tipping point. How little things can make a big difference” as starting point.” He explores how epidemics develop and reach a certain ‘tipping point’ after which there is no turning back. From the basis that there is a correlation between tipping points in epidemics and social movements, he then proposes some pointers for thinking about tipping points in societal change. Gladwell claims that there are three essential interdependent factors namely the role of a few extraordinary people, the “stickiness” of the message and the “power of context” (Gladwell, 2000, p.29).

The first aspect in understanding and creating tipping points is the role of connectors, mavens, and sales persons.  Connectors have their feet in different worlds and contexts, and mavens are not “passive collectors of information” but they share whatever they know with a range of others (Gladwell, 2000, p.62). Mavens are  “information brokers, sharing and trading what they know” (p.69) or “data banks” passing what they know through connectors to sales persons that persuade their audiences (p.70). The stickiness factor refers to the ability of the message to ‘stick’, to appeal, and to convince. The third factor is the role of context and community – where change happens and is sustained in “close-knit” groups. Gladwell suggests that underlying successful social epidemics “is the bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behaviour or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus” (2000, p.258).

I must confess that on first reading Gladwell’s (2000) book a number of years ago, I was taken in by the simplicity of his message. It seemed so simple – add, like the witches in Macbeth, the three ingredients, and voila, you have an epidemic or social movement.  I am afraid it is not so simple… There are some tipping points in society and organisations that bear testimony to the fact that change is not always beneficial or good. An example that comes to mind is the genocide in Rwanda where all three factors (connectors, mavens and sales persons), a “sticky message” (Tutsis are cockroaches) and  a particular context were all present with disastrous results. Interestingly, technology, and specifically radio played a huge part in creating and sustaining the systematic slaughter of close to 800,000 people (see Kellow & Steeves, 1998).

A second possible critique is that although the pointers Gladwell (2000) provides are useful in reflecting on tipping points in the past, it is more difficult to use his pointers to plan organisational change in higher and distance education.  We may have a few extraordinary people, and a “sticky”message but our contexts and the different realities and power-relations frustrate or prevent institutional change. Looking at the dramatic changes higher and distance education institutions are facing, those eager for change often express their intense discomfort with the slow pace of change, with expressions such as “the train has left the station, if you are not on board, you are left behind”, “the boat has left the harbour” and “we are at a tipping point.” Though I share many colleagues’ intense wish for less bureaucracy, more nimbleness in our institutional responses to the tsunami of change facing higher education and a bigger appetite for risk, I am afraid that we should not underestimate the impact of solidified assumptions and beliefs, institutional inefficiencies, institutional and personal ideological agendas and power-relations between the different queen- and kingdoms in higher and distance education institutions.  We can also not lightly think of our students as collateral damage in realising our dreams for fully online or distributed learning. Add to this witches’ brew the impact of broader social, economic and geopolitical forces and we are destined to be increasingly frustrated due to our lack of control as higher and distance education management structures seem to be paralysed by impending changes and the (im)possibility of change. As Laura Czerniewicz (University of Cape Town) pointed out during the conference, higher and distance education is and will be in-tension between different factors pulling us forward and holding us back (see her excellent overview on ICTs in higher education – some trends, opportunities and concerns – an African perspective).

In closing:  I have no doubt that the future of higher and distance education will be digital, mobile with an increasing number of pockets of openness impacting on the sharing of resources, assessment, and accreditation. Expressions such as “the train has left the station, if you are not on board, you are left behind”; “the boat has left the harbour” and “we are at a tipping point” therefore signify a belief or sense that we have reached a situation where there is no turning back to a pre-digital, pre-mobile and pre-open age.

I furthermore believe that many of our traditional classifications such as “digital natives” are outdated and lack the necessary nuances to explain and respond to our increasing diverse student and faculty profiles and different levels of preparedness. We need to find ways of telling stories that do not demonize those who are not ‘on the train.’ We cannot assume that those ‘on the train’ represent the creme de la creme of an institution while the ‘others’ are Luddites and backward. In our passion for change, we should embraced more nuanced views, of ourselves and of others.

I believe that technological and analytical changes are heralding immense possibilities for either decreasing the existing inequalities in the world or perpetuating and increasing intergenerational injustices. We cannot afford to speak lightly of those who cannot afford access to our dreams.

Expressions such as “the train has left the station, if you are not on board, you are left behind”, and “the boat has left the harbour” may therefore, depending on the context, only be partly true. We should not forget that, depending on the values and insight (or lack of insight) of those in the driver’s seats of our trains and boats, we have no guarantee that the trains and the boats are heading in our preferred directions.  After five to ten years, when we look back at 2012 will we be able to state that the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) movement, EdX, Coursera, Udacity, the Khan Academy,  or our institutional strategies were, in fact, tipping points.

But I have no doubt that the earth is moving beneath our feet… 


Gladwell, M. (2000). The tipping point. How little things can make a big difference. London, UK: Abacus.

Kellow, C.L., & Steeves, H.L. 1998. The role of radio in the Rwandan genocide. Retrieved from http://ics-www.leeds.ac.uk/papers/pmt/exhibits/2192/Rwandaradio.pdf.

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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18 Responses to Tensions and tipping points in higher and distance education

  1. Pingback: Tensions and tipping points in higher and distance education | Future of Learning | Scoop.it

  2. dkernohan says:

    Great post! The language around online learning is rapidly becoming “There Is No Alternative” – this is worrying me.

    • Thanks! You are right – the position that “There Is No Alternative” is almost as scary as faculty and administrators that believe that we can continue as if nothing has changed. Withing the broader scope of a digital, open and mobile future – there are a number of possibilities and alternatives – there is no one zize fits all. Having said that, I sincerely believe that we must find ways to prepare faculty and students for dealing with the ambiguities and possible increasing inequalities of teaching and learning in a digital age. Thanks for the engagement!

  3. Pingback: Tensions and tipping points in higher and distance education | academic literacy development | Scoop.it

  4. Not only are there tipping forward points but there are points at which a movement can tip backwards if you gt my meaning.

  5. clasqm says:

    Came back from the conference (very enjoyable, btw) to find out that the scheduled move of our honours degree courses to an all-online model for 2013 have been cancelled. Apparently the train is still building up steam …

    • Thanks for the feedback on the conference Michel. Except for my mild discomfort with the comparisons to trains leaving stations (and people) behind, I am even more uncomfortable with people having a picnic on the station…

    • Good point – and as I have alluded to in the post, there are some scary tipping points in history… I think what is frustrating for many faculty and administrators who embraced the fact that we are facing some dramatic changes in higher and distance education, is the fact that there are faculty and administrators who continue as if business-as-usual is still in order and where they actually torpedo initiatives and create backward tipping points.

  6. Pingback: Tensions and tipping points in higher and distance education | Technology Enhance Learning UK | Scoop.it

  7. Shana says:

    Coming in from a different context: the rising cost of education is a major pressure point in the US and the online model and open learning and even MOOCs are seen as the ‘solution’ to this problem. I do think that there is massive change coming in the higher education landscape as a result and institutions, faculty and even students are grappling with what this might look like.

    Is College a Lousy Investment?

    • Hi Shana – great point. Though we are not faced with funding cuts in South Africa (yet), the funding regimes are changing and I can imagine that cost is a huge factor driving the move to online education. Not that I necessarily agree that online teaching (outside the whole debate of MOOCs) are necessarily cheaper… The jury is still out, in my opinion, whether MOOCs will fill the gap…

      • Shana says:

        I agree. In my experience teaching online has different challenges and in some ways are more resource-intensive. And some employers don’t see online as being of the same quality as face-to-face. By the looks of it, South Africa – and Africa – can look at mobile learning support rather than simply online.

  8. Pamela Ryan says:

    Would love to continue with the metaphors as in ‘Hey, was that an iceberg`?’; “As the train left the station, a disgruntled group of educators decided they would rather walk”; sticky messages or fly-papers?; tsunamis, earthquakes … but what seems clear to me is that the closer we get to the tipping point, the greater the backlash of resistance. It takes resilience and determination to stay in the game.

    • Pam, love the metaphor! Would make a great title for a blog “Hey, was that an iceberg?” Reminds me of the words of that ill-fated Air France pilot whose last recorded words were “Shit, this is not suppose to happen…” – or something to that effect… (ala George Siemens’ presentation at the Unisa conference).

      • Shana says:

        When I went on a tour of one of the old mansions here in town built in the late 1800s it struck me to see how their refrigeration worked: men would bring chunks of ice (to stick to the iceberg metaphor;) on horse carts that would be placed in specially built chutes to keep the refrigerator cupboards cold. No amount of kicking and screaming and resistance would have helped those ice purveyors – electricity changed their world irrevocably and they were powerless to stop it. I am wondering whether there isn’t a lesson here somewhere… Perhaps this is a case of creative destruction hitting an education model that has largely remained unchanged for centuries.

  9. Hi Shana – love the comparison – reminds me of the Luddite Manifesto of 1812 – www1.umassd.edu/ir/resources/laborandsocial/l2.doc –
    “And we do hereby declare to all hosiers lace manufacturers and proprietors of frames that we will break and destroy all manner of frames whatsoever that make the following spurious articles and all frames whatsoever that do not pay the regular prices heretofore agreed to [by] the masters and workmen” and, of course, “God protect the Trade.”

    Some eerie resemblances to the opposition to change in higher education…

  10. Pingback: Tensions and tipping points in higher and distance education | technology-mediated learning | Scoop.it

  11. Pingback: Tensions and tipping points in higher and distance education | Innovations in e-Learning | Scoop.it

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