I took part in a very interesting meeting here at Mason the other day. After many years of a pretty hands-off approach to distance or at least distributed education, it seems we have decided to move into this market in a more coordinated way.
By “more coordinated” I mean that rather than reactively supporting to individual faculty members who decide to launch a distance or at least partially distance course, the University is going to throw some of its weight, that is to say funding, behind proactively encouraging faculty members to develop new approaches to high demand courses that will use new media to deliver content to those off site.
So far, so good.
Unfortunately, as the meeting wore on it became clear that this otherwise laudable approach—one that is anchored in student needs rather than in faculty whims—has a tragic flaw. This flaw will, in my view, make the entire experiment much less likely to succeed. The current version of the plan for promoting distance education at Mason restricts university support (especially funding) to courses developed for our campus course management platform. In our case, that platform is BlackBoard.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no BlackBoard hater. In fact, I’ll admit up front that I have never used it. However, I was a WebCT user for a number of years and finally gave up in frustration. I walked away and never looked back.
But that’s just me. I know plenty of people who are quite happy with BlackBoard, or at least happy enough. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that the tendency to centralize curriculum development around a single platform means that all innovation by faculty members will be restricted to the capabilities of that platform. Nothing is possible unless the platform allows it.
To take an approach to “innovation” closes off access to all the products of the open source and open access movements. Anyone who has been paying attention in the past few years can see that much, if not most, of the exciting innovation in software has come not from big companies like BlackBoard or Microsoft, but from the open source community.
Thus, it’s a real puzzle to me why we have chosen to choke off any possibility of innovation beyond the vendor we are locked into. And, given that open source solutions are almost always less expensive than single vendor packages, I am especially surprised by Mason’s decision at this particular moment of economic stress.
The better alternative would be to give any and all innovative approaches to distance education a chance, see which ones show the most promise, throw some money and staff support behind the ones that seem to be working, continue to monitor the results, and improve the products based on what we learn.
The center may hold for a while against innovation taking place on the margins, but I’m a believer that our decision to try to strengthen the center at the expense of a free and open approach to innovation means that whatever we develop here at Mason will be outdated even before it’s rolled out.
If I’m right, then we’ve just decided to put off real innovation in distance education for another five to ten years. If I’m wrong, I promise to write a mea culpa.