Fifty shades of grey in higher and distance education (#oped12)

Not a day goes past without someone, somewhere claiming a new form of higher and distance education whether it is a new type of Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), a Little Open Online Course (LOOC) or various degrees of for-profit or free, accredited or non-accredited, open or closed, fully asynchronous or blended, etc. The notion of ‘open education’ seems to have gone viral with various permutations and shades reminding me of a recent book by James (2011) – “Fifty shades of grey.”

Considering that the book contains scenes featuring sexual practices such as bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism – I withstood the temptation to reflect on the notions of bondage/discipline, dominance/submission and sadism/masochism as lenses through which to view managerialist discourses in higher and distance education. Maybe another time? Presumably, the title of the book comes from a song “Night falls like a grand piano” – but I use the title to point to and reflect on the current flux in the state of higher and distance education.

The title of (and the picture used in) the blog also have another basis, namely the article by Raymond (2005) titled “The cathedral and the bazaar” in which he reflects on the history of Linux in the broader context of traditional software development. In stark contrast to the development of Linux as open software, traditional software development “needed to be built like cathedrals, carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation, with no beta released before its time” (para.3).  Contrary to this development style, the development of Linux resembled “a great babbling bazaar of different agendas and approaches… out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a success of miracles” (para.4). The combination of these two unlikely sources resulted in me adapting a painting by Brueghel (1559), “The battle of carnival and Lent” in a palette of different tones of grey. In the painting by Brueghel, the tensions, transitions and seemingly folly of abstinence and piety in a time of abundance are portrayed. Another parallel with the flux in higher education? [The original painting by Brueghel is rich in colour – see the picture on the right]

Before harvesting some thoughts from Raymond (2005) to serve as pointers for understanding the different shades of grey in higher and distance education, let me stop for a moment and reflect on the difference between higher education as a cathedral or as a bazaar. I don’t think binaries are always appropriate or useful – between stark black and lily white there are most probably more than fifty shades of grey. In the same way, I suspect there are a range of possibilities between higher education as a cathedral on the one end of the scale, and higher education as a noisy bazaar on the other end of the scale.

A long time ago (when bondage used to mean something else…), higher education institutions were cathedrals where the liturgy and sacraments of knowledge and eternal employment were served to those permitted into the sanctuaries, strictly monitored by canons and councils with different hierarchies of admission requirements and access to knowledge was protected, often at all cost. The discourses and epistemologies in these cathedrals were coded and the algorithms for these codes were not shared. Distance education changed some of these traditions by opening up the doors of the cathedral to those who would never have been allowed to enter. Needless to say that cathedrals frowned (and are to some extent still frowning) on distance education as somehow of lesser quality.

On the other end of the scale are recent developments in higher education as bazaar – full of noise, different stalls with vendors trying to outdo one another by offering a range of products and experiences ranging from massive open online courses or MOOCs (with all the different variants and hybrids), Little Open Only Courses (LOOCs, of anti-MOOCs), Udacity ( “a totally new kind of learning experience”), EdX (“The Future of Online Education For anyone, anywhere, anytime”), Coursera (“Take the World’s Best Courses, Online, For Free”), Khan Academy (“Learn almost anything for free”), Pearson higher education (“Always learning”) and a range of hybrids, blends, mutations and shades of grey. In this bazaar there are some stalls with agreements with cathedrals while other stalls are in competition with the cathedrals, opening up the sacrament of knowledge to those ‘on the outside.’ There are also, curiously, some cathedrals, with banners waving and choirs singing, joining the fray of the bazaar.

[On a side note: Making matters even more interesting, is the fact that many of the bazaars are hosted on the premises of the cathedrals (but never, o never on the inside…). Access to the sacrament of accreditation by these cathedrals is still for those carefully selected, hand-picked individuals – which may not be a bad thing – we don’t want to barbarians inside, do we?]

It is therefore interesting to listen to the noise of the bazaar as we try to define, claim and defend different definitions of distance learning, online and e-learning, distributed-, flexible and open learning, open distance learning (ODL), open distance and e-learning (ODeL), MOOCs, LOOCs, flipped classrooms and Bring-Your-Own-Device-Learning (BYOD) to mention but a few terms. It is as if the each stall tries to outdo the next stall in the marketplace by claiming uniqueness. Higher education theorists (those who have not given up on making sense of the cabal) are either paralyzed by the flux (the moment they define a term it changes into something else), or raise the alarm by defending the different definitions by meticulously listing the ‘true’ characteristics of each of these in-flux forms.

Let us now return to Raymond’s (2005) article “The cathedral and the bazaar” in which he highlights a number of issues we may want to reflect upon. He writes:

  1. “Good programmes know what to write. Great ones know what to rewrite (and reuse).” This seems to eerily remind me of the obsession of many faculty to attempt to write so-called original materials while there are so much excellent materials, content and objects already out there. As more and more of the cathedrals gracefully share their excellent materials, the majority of faculty should embrace the re-use, remix and contextualize those materials and codes. In higher education as bazaar, the value proposition of many higher education has changed from content creation to the mediation of learning.
  2.  “Treating your users as co-developers is your least-hassle route to rapid code improvement and effective debugging.” In open higher education, peer review is often immediate and often much more thorough and open than traditional peer-review systems of accrediting bodies and editorial boards.
  3. “In the cathedral-builder view of programming, bugs and development problems are tricky, insidious, deep phenomena. It takes months of scrutiny by a dedicated few to develop confidence that you’ve winkled them all out. Thus the long release intervals and the inevitable disappointment when long-awaited releasers are not perfect. In the bazaar view, on the other hand, you assume that bugs are generally shallow phenomena – or, at least, that they turn shallow pretty quick when exposed to a thousand eager co-developers pounding on every single new release.” The medical community’s response to new mutations in viruses where knowledge is shared by a global range of researchers is one example of this sharing and collaboration. How much more can our understanding and sense-making improve as we open up the hallowed spaces of knowledge production?
  4. “Often, the most striking and innovative solutions come from realizing that your concept of the problem was wrong” and “When you hit the wall in development, it’s often time to ask not whether you’ve got the right answer, but whether you’re asking the right question.” Maybe someone should tell management and faculty?
  5. “It’s fairly clear that one cannot code from the ground up in bazaar style. One can test, debug, and improve in bazaar style, but it would be very hard to originate a project in bazaar mode.” This point is sobering. Don’t we expect the wrong things from our workshops and think-tanks where management often await the group to develop code from afresh?

In closing: I realise there is a vast difference between the world of programming and the complex, messy and noisy world of higher and distance education as bazaar. Despite these differences, I think the current bazaar-like state of higher and distance education prompts us to rethink many of our assumptions, definitions and traditional defences of higher education as cathedral. The noise from the bazaar heralds in a new age of flux and fifty shades of grey…

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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8 Responses to Fifty shades of grey in higher and distance education (#oped12)

  1. Pingback: Fifty shades of grey in higher and distance education (#oped12) | Notícias TICXEDU |

  2. clasqm says:

    Raymond’s piece is seminal in the FOSS world, but it should really be read together with Stephenson’s “in the beginning was the command line”:

    Have you looked at ? It could work, if they made creating and locating material just a little easier. The site was created by electrical engineers and, Lord, does it show. User-unfriendliness R Us. Still the basic idea is sound: create little bite-sized modules, and combine it with other peoples’ bite-sized modules (optionally editing them) to create a PDF textbook.

  3. Pingback: Fifty shades of grey in higher and distance education (#oped12 … | Distance Education

  4. Shana says:

    To carry on with the software/OS development analogy: using agile development (an adaptive model of iterative and incremental development as opposed to the traditional predictive structured analysis where specifications are complete before development starts) is gaining ground in industry. However, companies have found that agile development is ideal for some types of development, for example, front-end data extraction and delivery, but not so great for others, for example, back-end data integration to create the platform from which the front-end projects extract data. So I would imagine that the situation would be much the same with the development of course material but getting to the point of knowing when to use which approach or when to cut over from one to the other is the issue for higher ed right now. For an operational model that hasn’t changed substantially in centuries the disruption is clearly major and potentially discontinuous… I also think that the time has come to recognize that the knowledge and skill of faculty lie not only in the foundational knowledge but also in how it is applied in a particular (i.e. their local) context.

    • Shana – thanks for the response. You said “…companies have found that agile development is ideal for some types of development, for example, front-end data extraction and delivery, but not so great for others” (emphasis added). Absolutely. I think what fascinates me is that I think agility and responsiveness are increasingly becoming crucial in the higher and distance education sector. The ‘bazaar’ is here to stay and we just cannot develop and deliver learning experiences as we used to when we were all cathedrals. Our structures, hierarchies, processes and systems are left-overs from a previous era when the future and the higher education landscape was much more predictable and stable.

      If we don’t adapt agility as a core characteristic, we may well become obsolete.

  5. Pingback: Fifty shades of grey in higher and distance education (#oped12 ... | Linguagem Virtual |

  6. poojamittal says:

    thanks for sharing this very useful information.

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