Good-bye Institute of Learning Innovation, University of Leicester

On 31 December 2014 the Institute of Learning Innovation (previously Beyond Distance Research Alliance) will close down. This is the end of a significant chapter for me and several colleagues, and I would venture to say, also for the global distance/online learning community of which we have been a part since BDRA’s inception in 2004. Gilly Salmon brought me in to join the team in February 2009 and I had the privilege to be absorbed into a vibrant, multinational cast of characters (Ale from Uruguay, Palitha from Sri Lanka, Sahm from Ghana, Ming from China, Sandra from Bulgaria, Terese from the USA, Simon from England to mention a few) who were working on a range of exciting research projects around online and distance learning, innovation in learning technologies and pedagogies, open education, and learning design for higher education.

Gilly’s original concept for BDRA was a captivating one, wrapped up in a quirky metaphor: the Alliance’s remit was to collaborate with other researchers and practitioners on a range of studies, pushing the boundaries of research in the field and carrying out pilots to spearhead the use of new technologies in education – and the projects were all to be articulated within the overarching framework of the ‘Media Zoo’. The Zoo was explained in terms of a four-quadrant model with the axes of ‘New and Existing Technologies and Pedagogies’ and ‘New and Existing Markets and Missions’ . The four quadrants were Pets’ Corner, a Breeding Area, a Safari Park and an Exotics House, each with its own technological wildlife in the form of pedagogies and learning technologies. (Thanks to Matt Wheeler for the description.)

I was recruited to work on the JISC-funded DUCKLING project, being embedded as a teaching fellow in the School of Education’s Online MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL course team to investigate the use of new technologies in this programme. (I am still an e-moderator on that programme and thus will retain my association with Leicester University after my ILI contract ends.) Subsequent projects for me focused on open education (OTTER, OSTRICH, and my SCORE fellowship TOUCANS), and also learning design, in the form of the Carpe Diem process – I had the opportunity, for which I’m very grateful, to develop and run various versions of the Carpe Diem workshop for teams of academics at several institutions around the UK, and also for SAIDE in South Africa.

In late 2010, Gilly got an offer she couldn’t refuse in Australia, made all the more irresistible for her by the continent’s rich history in distance and online learning and its cornucopia of exotic wildlife. Leicester simply couldn’t compete. We welcomed Grainne Conole from the Open University as our new director in September 2011. Our name changed to Institute of Learning Innovation, and the Carpe Diem process evolved into The 7Cs of Learning Design. The nature of our work shifted towards EU-funded projects, including POERUP which I worked on in 2012, and the OpenCred study, which will be my last project at Leicester.

Back to the closure of the Institute, the obvious question is: why? We have been told by administration that it is for ‘cost-cutting’ purposes. In an email from the Registrar to staff and students of the Institute, the following explanation was given:

This has not been an easy decision for the University and as I have stressed to Grainne and Pal directly it should, in no way, be seen as a reflection on the good work of the Institute and the commitment of the staff who have been involved with it since it evolved from BDRA. The decision has been driven entirely by financial considerations.

Perhaps this reflects, in a very small way, the general upheaval in higher education in the UK since the implementation of the dramatic fee increase for students in 2012. The sad truth is that in a time where the survival of universities is measured in financial terms, a research institute like ILI is unable to justify its existence. We do not have undergraduate students, whose fees can amass to look impressive on an income sheet. We do have PhD students, but the high staff-student ratio for post-grads cancels out any financial value they may add. We do receive consultancy fees for services provided to outside agencies, but we are first and foremost a research institute, and our research projects often run at a loss because of the usual funders’ requirement for matched funding from the institution. If the Institute’s value were to be measured in terms of contribution of new knowledge to the field of open and distance learning, I think its future would look very different.

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About Gabi Witthaus

Learning and Teaching Facilitator for School of Business and Economics, Loughborough University; also consultant (Art of E-learning). Previously Research Associate at University of Leicester (Beyond Distance Research Alliance and Institute of Learning Innovation); Distance Learning Manager at Bradford University School of Management. Masters in Training and Development (USQ, Australia); Masters in English Education (Wits University, South Africa). Currently undertaking PhD in Higher Education: Research, Evaluation and Enhancement through Lancaster University.
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5 Responses to Good-bye Institute of Learning Innovation, University of Leicester

  1. Will Woods says:

    You have done great things and contributed a lot of this field of research and I’ve had the privilege of working closely with both Grainne and Gilly in past projects. There is a lasting legacy of the work that will remain and inspire however I’m sorry to see this go. A research intensive institute provides much more than numbers on a balance sheet in terms of the value to an educational organisation.

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  2. Paul Hollins says:

    Im very sad but not surprised to hear the news . I’ve worked with both Grainne and Gilly ( and Alex in other contexts) and have respect for them and their contributions , not just to Leicester but the wider TEL community, if indeed I can call it that.

    We face similar challenges here at IEC/CETIS at the University of Bolton. Since the cut and removal of core jisc funding over the last few years , we have had to diversify our research and development income and undertake external consultancy projects (to keep the wolves form the door). Internally, just as you describe, we do not have the “cushion “of substantial undergraduate funding, which in the wider context poses more real questions than answers about university finances but do have post graduate students. The metrics applied by many institutions generally seem to have more to do with “cost” than “value” or most tellingly “worth” and work is merely tolerated I’m really not sure where this will end .

    I do wish you all well , if redeployed at Leicester or should you seek a new role.

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  3. I am sorry to see the ILI being shuttered; high quality, useful and relevant work was undertaken there.

    The last paragraph of your post is particularly pertinent to the – long – list of education technology research, dissemination and support units that have been shuttered in the UK over the last decade or so. While some remain in a significantly altered form e.g. CETIS, as Paul describes, and CERLIM, others such as UKOLN, ILRT, CDLR, BECTA to name but a few are no more.

    I hope you, and the other researchers, find alternative employment which uses your skills and experience, and the research-based works produced by the ILI remain public, useable and used.

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  4. Will, Paul and John – thank you very much for your comments and your kind words. I have learnt so much from my work at BDRA/ILI and will certainly take that with me wherever I go, and I’m sure my colleagues would say the same.

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  5. Pingback: 2014 in review – a summary of activity on my blog by WordPress | Art of e-learning

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