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Super-selection creates a monoculture that does not benefit society

7th January 2012

Tim Blackman, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Open University: in response to the article by Baroness Blacktone in the THE: says,

It’s interesting that selection has always been a hot topic in secondary education but widely accepted in tertiary education. Just as selective schools are our ‘best’ schools because of very little to do with the teaching but a lot to do with who they keep out, we should start to question just what makes a ‘top’ university.

What do you think? My take is as follows:

Life is messy; selection based on consistency of performance suits a type, not simply by background but by character. We gain when everyone is able whatever route they take to satisfy their desire to learn, indeed there may be greater appreciation and gratitude of the worth of education for those who haven’t gone through via the conveyor- belt of privilege. The caveat is to respect those who not only don’t want to study: they like to learn by doing, but who seek out to learn in a way that suits them and their circumstances. Flexibility has been the watch-word for this group until now; ‘personalised’ learning that turns an education into a carefully tailored and personally adjusted garment is the next step.

The thing that binds the extraordinary diversity of students at the Open University is ‘the desire to learn’, something that I find most humbling in those who have been imprisoned for their crimes and find salvation in learning, invariably through the OU, others, ‘prisoners’ of circumstance, can equally find the OU offers a way out and on, if not up and into parts of society that had shunned them because they not dine things in the right order and at the preferred time. Increasingly, in this century, courtesy of personalised learning through mobile devices the OU model of flexibility and ‘distance’ or e-learning could be picked up at secondary, even primary levels, something that is perhaps being demonstrated by the Khan Institute in North America, indeed happens anyway vicariously through learning in social networks or in online games.

The shift towards increasingly personalised, flexible, online and even mobile learning can only be achieved by self-selection; in the case of learning this becomes the point where the individual’s desire to learn is ‘activated’ never mind the advantages or ‘disadvantages’ of their prior life opportunities. The ‘system’ will improve and benefit more by valuing this moment and therefore nurturing those who make it to a course or through a qualification via what is currently thought to be a ‘different route’. To which I might add that ‘who you are’ at and during a short or extended period of learning matters more than the grades you were able to achieve in your youth, ‘privileged’ or otherwise. For many OU students the opportunity to learn, whoever and whenever they make a start, can with the nurturing and supportive environment and ‘personality’ of the OU result in countless extraordinary stories of lives being enhanced, turned around, given meaning, value and even status.

A final thought, I had this ‘converyor belt of privilege’: boarding prep school, public school, Balliol College, Oxford yet my love and respect for learning has only come from the Open University; I am a better person for it.

Might I also suggest that this perceived selection process leads to expectation that someone with such an education (not their choice but their parents’) is then possibly obliged, like it or not, to continue into the Foreign Office, MOD, Banking, Law or Accountancy instead of developing a sense of how they are instead of what others want them to be?

REFERENCE

Tim Blackman, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Open University: in response to the article by Baroness Blacktone in the THE:http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=418423

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