Art of e-learning

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.