2014 in my working world was split almost evenly in half. I ended my three-year secondment to running the OpenUCT Initiative, with the launch of the OpenUCT Repository on the 31st of July – a satisfying finale – although the team stayed on to transition the work to the UCT Libraries (see the farewell blog). The following day I took up the position of director of the newly formed Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT), catapulting me back into the teaching and learning in higher education frontline. My blogging has been more intermittent than ever, but as we all stop for the summer break, it’s a good moment to reflect on a few key personal realisations about the year.
The bitter sweet victory of open access
That open access has become mainstream is hardly debatable. From being an unknown, on-the-edge concept which needed explanation, the term is now commonplace. But along with this mainstreaming there has been a shift as that concept segued from being the vision of idealists who believed ( and still believe) in fair and equal access to knowledge production and dissemination to the language of bureaucracy as new policies quickly transformed great intentions into a mass of mind-numbing regulations. And now that commercial publishers have appropriated the term, many of my fellow academics have come to believe that open access equals “author pays” – a severe distortion of its values and intentions. The danger of an “author pays” approach of course is that it limits the potential of those who can’t pay to contribute to knowledge creation communities. (Participation in the global geopolitics of knowledge production is the reason why the launch of the OpenUCT Repository was a political activity). So, the open access battle has been won, and it’s been lost, and it is evolving into new forms.
Online online online
Coming back into the teaching and learning arena, it has been striking to me how online teaching is so central to discussions everywhere I have been: institutionally, regionally, and internationally. Maybe it’s because I have been a bit out of the loop, but it seems to have crept up on us; or maybe it’s like fax machines in times gone by or social media in the contemporary space where there has to be a critical mass before an idea takes off. Online did not used to be something we took very seriously in traditional research-intensive universities, and now we do. There are still a few voices protesting the actual existence or role of online in higher education, but largely the questions have not been “if” but “how” and “in which circumstances?”.
Which has meant a focus on a whole set of competencies which are needed in abundance and which are in short supply: strategizing about online; managing online; learning design for online. And curation, developing critical digital literacies – the list is long. These are not necessarily new competencies, but reconfigured versions of existing skills, needed in new forms and needed in new quantities. I realised this year after attending a summit for senior leadership in open and distance learning that online is quite new in much of that sector too. In distance education there is an extensive body of knowledge and experience which we need but there are very few who have deep knowledge of online and its iterations across various settings, especially the deeply unequal contexts in which we work.
There has been a wonderful upside. The shift to online, especially via those great Trojan horses, MOOCs, has provoked engagement with pedagogy and the makings of good teaching and learning in ways that educational developers have desired for decades. This is, quite simply, a good thing.
Higher education ‘s hybrid eco system
Of course, there does exist expertise about online in the sector, and it’s largely in the private sector, the dominant players in online education until recently. Other than textbook and database publishers, private sector providers have not really had much to do with my world in a public university though. But this too has been changing as the business models in higher education have become more complex; the shrinking of government funding that has been happening in other parts of the world for a while has started to bite us now too. This affects my Centre in practical ways. Simultaneously, I am mindful that the general disaggregation of teaching and learning sees various components of Higher Education increasingly in the hands of private providers; not just content but now also support, assessment, examination, quality assurance etc.
This year we have had private providers knocking on our doors offering to sell us entire ready-to-go courses, and we are developing MOOCs on private platforms. This is at the same time as we have worked so hard to enable and promote a whole gamut of aspects of open education, especially open content. I have thought a lot about the implications, contradictions and possibilities, especially after attending the Apereo Conference in June where I got to see how the open access community has succeeded with a healthy diverse mixed economy and to wondering if and how this might be possible in higher education generally.
Is it possible to make work? So many questions: where should the locus of control be; how do we ensure pedagogical coherence; how can Southern perspectives and local insights carry weight in a homogenised global curriculum? With the premise that access is only meaningful if it includes structuring enablements for success, how can access for students be made possible in a hybrid ecosystem?
The perfect storm
More than one academic in forums I have been in this year has observed that 2014 has been the year of the perfect storm, with major tensions coming to a head in higher education. But I am reminded of my mother who used to say “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”, the more things change the more they stay the same. The landscape is changing and the shapes shifting, but the same values are being contested. Inequality and exclusion have morphed into new forms in higher education in recent time, but they are more present than ever. The main challenge for me in 2014 has been grappling with the extent, nature and complexity of the changing landscape while reading those changes through the lens of those old solid values: democracy, citizenship, access and equity.
Image of Shifting sands. Borghy, Morocco. Alba sulle Dune di M’Hamid. https://www.flickr.com/photos/53191561@N03/15481831460, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)