Unfit for purpose – adapting to an open, digital and mobile world (#oped12) (#CFHE12)

How important is it for a higher distance education institution to ‘fit’ into its local context? Is fitting into a local context more important than fitting into a global context? What happens when a higher distance education institution loses its fitness-for-purpose? What are the consequences when an institution decide to not fit in?

Since the early models on student success and retention, the question of ‘fit’ or integration was central to understanding student success and retention (e.g. Spady 1970 & Tinto, 1975).  The basic premise was that students drop out of higher education because they do not fit in. Tinto (1975) based his model on the theories done by Durkheim on reasons why people commit suicide. In the 1900’s Durkheim proposed that individuals commit suicide when they decide to permanently disengage from society because they do not fit. In later models on student success and retention (e.g. Subotzky & Prinsloo, 2011), the notion of ‘fit’ or integration was further expanded to include nuances that institutions may also not fit the aspirations and particular skills-set of students, therefore increasing the probability of non-fit and dropout.

This blog is however is not about how students fit or don’t fit into institutions of higher learning. I am curious to explore the question of organizational fit into particular contexts. Should organisations not fit, or no longer fit into their respective contexts, they will wither away and die. Disturbingly, organizations may actually decide to ‘not fit’ and thereby commit suicide. This type of organizational suicide is however more like suicide bombers taking not only their own lives but also the lives of many others. I would therefore want to propose that the question how organizations fit into their contexts is a serious question affecting many lives.

We should also remember that context is a layered concept including not only local and global contexts, but increasingly the interstitial or in-between space where global and local interact and impact on each other. Let us first explore how institutions fit into their local contexts.

For many years North Atlantic models of higher distance education have been upheld as the gold standard of what higher distance education should be. For example, the Open University with their professionally produced videos and intensive student support programmes was portrayed as “the great ideal” (Peters, 2001, p.193). This resulted that other higher distance educations institutions, often in the developing world, tried to copy these great ideals in an effort to keep up with the Jones. And frankly, they never could. Their contexts just would not allow them to provide the type of distributed support and engagement possible in developed world contexts. By the time these institutions were able to implement (however skewed) the standards and so-called best practices, the Jones’ have moved on and they were (again) behind.

A result of this copy-and-paste approach is that the ‘recipient’ organization may never have considered whether and how the particular practice fitted the local context. The particular gestalt of the copied best practice was not necessarily ‘best’ in a different context. Higher distance education institutions are complex systems with interdependent and mutually constitutive organizational architectures, business models, product qualification mixes (PQMs), legislative frameworks, student profiles, student numbers and links with employers, accreditation systems and quality assurance regimes. Often the best practices copied from the Jones’, are not fit-for-purpose in another context. In considering fit-for-purpose, local matters. It is therefore crucial that our pedagogical approaches and organizational architectures fit our local context. There is however another context to consider, namely the increasing globalized nature of higher distance education.

We can simply no longer ignore what is happening in the rest of the world. This is different from a copy-and-paste approach in trying to keep up with the Jones’. I am referring to a critical awareness that our choices with regard to what we offer, how we teach, assess and accredit are increasingly impacted upon and shaped by the globalised nature of higher distance education. We should therefore keep abreast with developments in international higher distance education. This however creates an interesting dilemma. As higher education institutions rush to join Coursera, develop and implement Khan Academy clones or start a MOOC (in whatever gestalt), it may, on the one hand, be an attempt to be seen with the Jones’ or it may also be an authentic response born from the realization that we can simply no longer afford to draw the curtains and ignore the Jones’. We cannot ignore the dormant threat of obsolescence and irrelevance in our institutional DNAs.  We can longer contest that our fit-for-purpose is also determined by global changes in higher distance education.

Realizing that there is a dynamic interrelated flow and interdependence between the global and the local, we should acknowledge the tension arising from global impacts on the local. Global trends in pedagogy and educational offerings demand a response, often despite the local context. Let me illustrate. There is no doubt in my mind that the future of higher distance education will be digital, mobile, and fluid  – with pockets of open curricula, assessment, and accreditation. We can simply no longer ignore the fact that graduates from developing world contexts, no matter how disadvantaged they have been or are at present, will increasingly compete with graduates from global contexts. These graduates may have systemic and digital literacies, have learned how to learn instead of to regurgitate learned content, and they can function in uncertain and ambiguous spaces where truths are contested, rephrased and recirculated faster than you can say “disadvantaged.” If we think that students in developing world contexts are disadvantaged at present, we have no idea of how disadvantaged they will be in 5-10 years’ time – if we don’t get our act together, and develop agile and responsive organisational ecologies and curricula. Not only will our graduates no longer fit into a globalized employment sector, but as delivering institutions we may be found wanting and unfit for purpose.

In closing: I hope I’ve made it clear that the issue is not and should not be to keep up with the Jones’, by cloning practices and pedagogies that do not fit into local contexts. On the other hand we can no longer ignore the Jones’.

There are many examples of organizations that became obsolete and unfit-for-purpose as their responses to changes in their environments were either ineffective or too late. They no longer fitted – and were discarded. More frightening are organizations that opt not to respond, or to keep emphasizing the constraints of local circumstances despite the fact that this actually means organizational suicide. Considering the huge numbers of students who trust us to offer them an education that will allow them to compete in and live fulfilled lives in a digital and mobile world, our refusal to change may constitute an act of a suicidal bomber.

Footnote: As I wrote this blog, I also realized that not-fitting into a current set of beliefs, assumptions and practices, is a characteristic of those individuals and institutions that broke the rules of what can and can’t be done. For those individuals and institutions, not-fitting was their claim to fame and they redefined fitness-for-purpose in a particular context.


Peters, O. (2001). Learning and teaching in distance education. Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge.

Spady, W.G. (1970). Dropouts from higher education: An interdisciplinary review and synthesis. Interchange 1(1), 64-85.

Subotzky, G., Prinsloo, P. (2011): Turning the tide: a socio-critical model and framework for improving student success in open distance learning at the University of South Africa, Distance Education, 32(2), 177-193. DOI: 10.1080/01587919.2011.584846.

Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: a theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of Educational Research 45, 89-125.

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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11 Responses to Unfit for purpose – adapting to an open, digital and mobile world (#oped12) (#CFHE12)

  1. mark says:

    I am actually moved by this blog WOW! Shared it in comments on this article.. https://theconversation.edu.au/mooc-and-youre-out-of-a-job-uni-business-models-in-danger-9738

  2. Pingback: Unfit for purpose – adapting to an open, digital and mobile world (#oped12) (#CFHE12) | New Learning - Ny læring | Scoop.it

  3. Pingback: Unfit for purpose – adapting to an open, digital and mobile world (#oped12) (#CFHE12) | Digital Delights | Scoop.it

  4. D. McCoy says:

    I was also moved by this blog. Take a deep breath and start to open your mind to the speed with which the environment is changing. It is like deciding to pop some color into your wardrobe or to take a different route to the grocery store. Let us not fear it, but embrace it as an opportunity to keep institutions fit for purpose – educating students.

  5. Imitate the Jones.
    Even universities are doing it . Vow .
    Yes my neighbor is doing it too.
    Unfortunately some Australian schools are joing the club. But at least one said ” no ”

    Please understand the MASSIVE ONLINE

    I do not say FREE. Nothing is free in the world .
    Why people are so stupid to go after free things .

    ONLINE Technology has a scale
    It requires at least 10,000 students per course per semester
    That can be achieved only by
    Being global
    Being best school of the world .
    Then cost per course is less than $ 1.
    Then school can charge a small fee of $ 10.
    Then project is sustainable .
    There is only one fitting to this model MIT + Harvard
    Good thing they are not for profit too.
    They are best schools of the world and attractğing global community .
    Quality of online courses are improving everyday .

    • Hi Muvaffak- you raise some valid points – thank you.

      One of the things I found interesting in your post is the issue that the for-profit organizations have not, yet, joined the stampede in offering MOOCs. I don’t think it will be long now for an for-profit organization to start offering MOOCs at a price with the promise of accreditation…

  6. Annemarie Bates says:

    Dear Paul

    I thoroughly enjoyed your blog and experienced it as both serious and entertaining. (I trust that this does not come across as a flippant observation.) Your heading, Unfit for purpose …, did not escape my attention. The way in which you describe the tension, yet also the interdependence between local and global contexts, highlights the complexities involved in “keeping an eye on the Jones’”.
    Your views raise a question in my mind: When, according to what criteria, can institutions classify themselves as world class?


    • Annemarie, apologies for only responding now. You do raise an important question. I suspect the answer to your question is multi-facetted. The current world ranking system favours research expertise as an important part of a broader set of criteria. The criteria are most probably a mixture of traditional epistemologies and views on the role of higher education, market forces, and geopolitical alliances.

      The way you phrased your question is also interesting. You asked “When, according to what criteria, can institutions classify themselves as world class?” (emphasis added). I think it is definitely one thing to for an institution to describe itself as world-class, and quite a different thing when they are ranked as world-class by an outside alliance. Claiming such a status for itself is most probably a fine balance between arrogance and marketing…

  7. Pingback: CFHE12 Week 4 Analysis: Blog post comments JISC CETIS MASHe

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