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Culture A, B or C? The Experience of an ODL Module Designer


1. Introduction

One recent workday morning reading emails I noted that the accustomed number of automatically generated messages from FutureLearn had arrived in my inbox which usually indicated that I had new ‘followers’ for the course for which I was a tutor.  On this occasion there was a different email from FutureLearn which was sent to remind me that the online access to the digital course which I helped design was to expire soon and continued access would require an upgrade for a fee of £72.  I noted the irony of the situation, but realised that the message was simply computer-generated and I was not actually expected to pay for continued access to a course which I helped to write.  However, on further reflection, I began to see the email as symptomatic of some of the deeper problems I experienced designing the course and with Open/Online and Distance Learning (ODL) in general.

This article, which brings together the fields of intercultural education and digital learning, explores my experience in 2017 and 2018 of designing an ODL module for the FutureLearn platform and the University of Leeds.  An analysis of the development of a module on intercultural studies through a digital platform offers an alternative narrative to micro-managed messages and success stories increasingly made about the value of ODL within Higher Education (HE).  Additionally, I locate these discussions within the growing field of Critical University Studies (CUS) which interrogates neoliberal practices within the wider HE context and questions the increasing prevalence of managerial metrics and market ideologies (see, for example, Moorish 2018 for an overview of CUS).

The emergence of ODL and massive open online courses (MOOCs) within HE has raised a number of issues which are both practical and epistemological in nature.  These issues and my experience designing the module contributed to my conflicted opinion about ODL which continues to evolve.  While I have tried to keep an open mind, this article should nonetheless be read as cautionary tale against overestimating the value of ODL and against underestimating a number of issues including the resources required to design an ODL module and the epistemological consequences of this form of HE.  It is important to state at the outset that the staff I worked with in designing the module were kind, committed and enthusiastic and that criticism in this article is not directed towards any individual, but is purely a reflection of what was a fraught experience which provoked questions regarding increased ODL provision within HE.  This article is also limited to the design phase of the module and does not extensively address the subsequent delivery of the module which raised its own set of issues.

My connection to the ODL module began in 2016 when the initial ‘Discovery Theme’ Leader for ‘Languages and Intercultural Understanding’ suggested that a module in intercultural communication should be designed to support the theme and as part of the University’s outward branding the module should be a digital one.  University of Leeds readers will be familiar with Discovery Themes which are part of the UG Curriculum Enhancement Project (CEP).  According to the student-facing University website description, Discovery Themes ‘reinforce the value and interest of your degree by offering the opportunity to broaden your learning and pursue your own personal interests, while developing skills that will help prepare you for life at University’ (University of Leeds 2018a).   Given the intricacies involved in designing an ODL module and its ambiguous reception within HE, the project was slow to gain substantial momentum. For my part, I was both reluctant and sceptical, as were other colleagues, particularly in the face of optimistic statements about the benefits of ODL including the chance to provide learners with the opportunity to ‘engage, collaborate and learn in creative ways’ (University of Leeds 2018b).   However, in 2017 after receiving a number of reassurances regarding the value of the project and workload recognition, I committed to designing the module having very little idea of what I was about to face over the coming months which can best be described as a challenging, somewhat frustrating and extremely time-consuming process.

In considering the results of this experience, I recognise that some aspects of the project were positive including the personal learning which took place in the creative process, the previously mentioned collaboration with kind and generous staff within the digital team and the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues right across the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies (LCS).  Moreover, I continue to see ODL as having some potential for making education more inclusive to a range of users such as those in continuing education and I accept that this is a growing form of delivery which is not going to simply disappear.

However, and to put it bluntly, there is no way to mask the fact that designing an ODL module is an arduous process which should provoke questions about teaching and learning within HE, work-load considerations, intellectual property rights and the degree to which MOOCS and ODL are truly inclusive.  All teaching staff working in HE, including those engaged in language teaching, would do well to be aware of the growing presence of ODL, particularly as at one point MOOCs were being touted as the future of teaching which included predictions of ‘an avalanche’ of high-quality, low-cost mass-scale online courses which would be at the forefront of a strategic and radical reform of HE’ (Barber et al., 2015).  It is fair to question the desirability of this type of future particularly given that MOOCs and other forms of ODL may serve as a catalyst for a substantially reduced teaching staff with less face-to-face interaction between tutors and students and students with each other.  Thus, an open and frank consideration of both the value of ODL and MOOCs as well as the possible dangers they present is an important exercise and the following section explores this growing debate.

2. The Uneven Trajectory of MOOCS and Unresolved Issues Regarding ODL

Writing in 2014 just a few short years after the introduction of MOOCS, Robert Zemsky noted, ‘They came; they conquered very little; and now they face substantially diminished prospects’ (2014: 237). Part of Zemsky’s assessment regarding diminished prospects takes account of the early promise which some suggested MOOCS held, including the New York Times which in 2012 proclaimed it to be ‘the year of the MOOC’ (Pappano, 2012).  Zemsky’s primary criticism of MOOCS was their boundedness and lack of connection to other parts of the university curriculum.  In this respect, Zemsky (2014: 237) saw MOOCS as reflecting the ‘fractured nature of college curricula’ and he compares colleges and universities to upscale restaurants where ‘customers can order anything they want in whatever order they find convenient’ resulting in what he describes as ‘a recipe for both educational and financial failure’ (2014: 242). These criticisms chimed with moves by some university staff to resist the increase in MOOC provision such as at San José State University where teachers refused to use a Harvard professor’s edX MOOC in their classes for fear of offering ‘cheap online education’ in a ‘pre-packaged form’ thus rendering themselves ‘glorified teaching assistants’ (The Chronicle of Higher Education: 2013).

Yet, it would be a mistake to consider MOOCS as a single monolithic and clearly defined entity which can be assessed in a simple meta-narrative as either successful or unsuccessful.  McClure (2014: 273) points out the many variations and adaptations of MOOCS which include BOOCS (big), LOOCS (little), SPOCS (targeted access and small) as well as other forms of online delivery including ‘flipped classrooms’ and ‘blended learning’ which all fall under the umbrella of online digital learning.  The intercultural studies module that I helped design is in fact an example of this last category where the module was offered to both University of Leeds students (who also had some in-person teaching) while simultaneously being offered to off-campus learners.

McClure presents a much more positive account of the potential which MOOCS and ODL offer particularly through their ability to consider ‘wicked problems’ such as ‘climate change, income inequality or generational succession’ through the democratization of platforms and ability to reach communities (2014: 281).  Moreover, there are numerous examples of creative online modules that span an impressive range of topics from ‘Digital Storytelling’ to ‘Understanding Dementia’ and ‘Buddhism & Modern Psychology’ (Porter, 2015).   Zemsky’s above claim of diminished prospects also fails to recognise the continual growth of MOOCS which were estimated in 2016 to be offered by more than 500 universities in over 4,200 courses with 35 billion students enrolled in 2015 (Bothwell 2016, 3).  However, this growth is not necessarily a barometer for success as class sizes in the thousands of students can raise questions about the extent to which any meaningful interaction takes place between learners and academics.  This reality may partially explain the very modest completion rates of just 7% as reported by the Times Higher Education study in 2013 and just 4% as seen in a University of Pennsylvania study (Guerriero, 2014).

Clearly, questions remain regarding MOOCS and their future may lie in smaller and targeted ODL courses offering learning potential through blended and interactive approaches. MOOCS and smaller ODL courses may also increasingly be used as a reference material which one can dip in and out of without the expectation to progress from start to finish.  Much of the potential hinges on the degree to which true ‘openness’ is provided by both MOOCS and other forms of ODL which could, in theory, provide alternatives to traditional education and allow greater inclusivity in HE provided costs to users are kept low.  Given rising student loan debt and increasing costs in tuition fees, many are looking to ODL in its various forms to provide an alternative to costly higher education.  These include what have been dubbed HARVARDS (Highly Accessible Rigourous, Very Affordable and Recognised Degrees) whereby an entire degree programme can be offered via ODL at a fraction of the cost of comparable campus-based learning (see Sharrock, 2015 for the example of Georgia Tech and more recently, Coughlan, 2018 for the University of London) and ‘unbundling’ where modules are no longer tied to entire degree programmes requiring full on-campus learning.  However, criticism has been voiced regarding the lack of transparency surrounding the business models between HEIs and online educational service providers.  Kroick (2013) argues that ‘recent deals struck with public universities reflect a business strategy that has little concern for the accessibility of education’.  The lack of transparency of the business module sits awkwardly alongside the reminders via email and prominent positioning on the learning platform of the opportunity to upgrade.

It is difficult to imagine anyone within the University countenancing the prospect of announcements flashing up in University lecture halls offering students the possibility to ‘upgrade’ their module and receive ‘bonuses’ such as increased engagement with their written work, increased access to teaching staff or hard copies of lecture handouts. Yet, the upgrade option which provides for long term access to FutureLearn courses is an accepted facet of the platform’s interface.  Given the current rate of fees for HE in the UK combined with the increased marketisation and neoliberal forces in operation, it is justifiable to be sceptical about just how free and open ODL courses will continue to be and how far removed the expansion of the ‘upgrade model’ into other University activities truly is.   The anxiety about the corporate and neoliberal influence on educational systems is, of course, not new and a rich vein of literature exists starting perhaps with Thompson’s 1970 study of Warwick University ‘Ltd.’ (see also, for example, Fairclough, 1993; Philipson, 2001; Molesworth et al., 2011; Collins, 2017).  However, the advent of ODL potentially allows a new avenue for neoliberal ideas to be touted in the form of modernisation, freedom of choice and convenience (‘access to education anytime and anywhere’). While these benefits should not be dismissed in their entirety, it is necessary to be attuned to the implications that these supposed values may be concealing.  These above concerns are not exhaustive and others emerge below through the consideration of my personal experience in the module design.

3. Practical Pain: Entering into a Time Vortex with a ‘Queue Breaker’

My starting point at the beginning of the course design process was admittedly sceptical, but because I knew very little about ODL modules I wanted to keep an open mind.  My scepticism reflected a general epistemological anxiety around whether an ODL module was an appropriate platform to teach my subject, intercultural communication. I was particularly worried that the course format would privilege a banking approach to knowledge within a behaviourist ‘teach and test’ framework. While these anxieties never fully went away and at times crystallised into an understanding of the competing tensions and incompatibility of the project as a whole, my main concern once the planning, writing and filming started was simply the sheer amount of time which the project required. This is not intended to be a tale of woe decrying the amount of work it takes to design an ODL, particularly given that I am surrounded by colleagues working at a rate which exceeds expectation and belief.  However, what never ceased to amaze me and my fellow contributors was the degree of resources required to design what was essentially a 10 credit module.

The shape of the module design followed a set template where the module was divided into what were confusingly termed ‘courses’. Each course, in theory, equated to 10 hours of learning following a prescribed pattern.   For the Intercultural Studies module, there were 5 courses of which 3 were designed by me, and 2 by other colleagues.  Once completed, the module was offered to University of Leeds students and distance learners via the FutureLearn platform.   The time requirements for the project were never fully spelled out and I did not entirely comprehend the extent of work required, despite meeting what seemed to be an endless succession of new people associated with either the project directly or who were part of the online and digital learning unit.  In August, approximately 10-12 hours were dedicated to face-to-face meetings to talk through a course outline with a member from the digital team.  This produced a course skeleton which bore faint resemblance to what was actually produced later.  Moreover, it was the first chance to encounter the course design templates which were essentially user-unfriendly boxes to be filled with ‘content’.  Much of the time spent during these summer months felt somewhat directionless and could have been more efficiently dedicated to writing the course materials or ‘scripts’.

My colleagues and I were adamant that we did not want to be met with tight deadlines once the term commenced in September. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened.  While we were certainly not unenthusiastic about writing the courses, the deadlines came at a particularly busy time and there were constant reminders of the need to finish things quickly.   As one contributor put it:  ‘It felt a bit like being constantly hit over the head with a hammer.’   The time limits also meant the ODL module became regarded as a ‘queue breaker,’ as other pressing deadlines including teaching and supporting existing students often had to be pushed back so that another script could be written for the ODL project.  We were eventually offered a chance to slow down the process in November 2017, but by this point we were motivated by the prospect of finishing the courses.  These tight deadlines also ensured that evenings, weekends and holidays became dedicated to writing and editing scripts for each course.  Again, this is not to present a work-shy narrative, but to stress that anyone considering undertaking ODL design should be prepared for a significant input of time.

4. Epistemological Angst: A Glimpse into a Dystopian HE Future?

While there was clearly a degree of practical pain associated with populating pages and pages of templates with ‘content’, the real burning questions concern the future role of ODL in HE in the face of marketisation and neoliberal forces.  These concerns manifested themselves most noticeably in three particular areas.  They are firstly, the incompatibility of ODL with pedagogical approaches in discursive subjects within humanities, such as intercultural studies and intercultural communication; secondly, the erosion of the value of being together, and thirdly, the loss of criticality through, for example, the editing and marketing of the courses.

4.1 Interculturality and ODL: Real Engagement is Expensive, MCQs Are Not

Interculturality and the ODL template are not natural allies.  The field of intercultural communication has, in my own opinion, made advancements towards a more liquid and critical understanding of culture which represents ‘a shift from a focus on content and competence in dialogue to relationships and capability for dialogue grounded in ethics’ (Phipps, 2014: 122).  Intercultural environments are, as Stokoe and Attenborough argue,  diverse contexts where ‘culture is never just “culture” but is always “culture in action” and where much of that action is performed in and through the various identity categories that people invoke during local and contextually specific forms of social interaction’ (2015, 89).  This takes account of the need, in Piller’s words to analyse, ‘who makes culture relevant to whom, in which context for which purposes’ (2011: 5).  This also includes a critical analysis of how the notion of ‘cultural understanding’ can itself become packaged and commodified (Dahlen, 1997).

A focus on the dialogic co-construction of culture which emanates from all social interaction stands in clear contrast to culture seen as a collection of ‘cultural facts’ about particular people and places which can then be tested in a series of questions at the end of each activity. This tension between trying to adapt a problematising and critical approach to intercultural studies to the FutureLearn platform was apparent at a number of pressure points.  One particular source of friction was the use of MCQs and ‘type form’ questions to test intercultural ‘knowledge’ in a format similar to compulsory courses on ‘Manual Handling Safety’ which University of Leeds readers will be familiar with.  To some extent, this approach served to invalidate the course.  Instead of concluding each theme or activity with a more open dialogue, the course used a template which tested learners via MCQs and other ‘type form’ questions which then generated pre-programmed feedback on the answers.  The questions appeared to suggest a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ response which created a sense of closure and offered no right of reply from the learner.  More problematic was that these questions lacked any specific context which is crucial to influencing choices made during social interaction. Questions and answers were pre-programmed and responses were automatically processed by algorithms without any deliberation or discussion.  Where there was some opportunity for learners to produce a lengthier answer to a question, learners’ submission of their response received the following automatic message:   ‘Your answers have been perfectly sent’.  This is regardless of what type of answer the learner supplied (even a nonsensical answer received the same reply).

A key ingredient in interculturality is that knowledge can be advanced through dialogue allowing for a consideration of multiple vantage points and fine-grained understanding of context.  However, in the ODL course, learning was largely rendered a faceless and automatic exercise with limited right of reply and done via a template which considers clicks as a form of ‘learning’ and with ‘content’ broken into small, separate chunks which are limited to 5 minutes maximum viewing or reading time.  This has the effect of creating a very linear, disconnected set of ideas which are not explored at any substantial depth which, although hosted on a web platform, discourages a more web-like or rhizomatic approach to learning.  For the sake of balance, it should be acknowledged that the digital platform did make use of interactive learner technology such as padlets and a discussion forum which offered a degree of active exchange, but these tools were not used to their full potential.  It is conceivable that these and other digital tools could be used to support a more active and critical form of ODL which encourages increased dialogue provided they were given greater emphasis.

It is important that teachers consider whether this model is suitable for their own (or any) fields of knowledge and whether this model is a future vision of education which should be subscribed to.  Behind this learning template is the allure of efficiency offered by pre-programmed responses generated by algorithms.  Additionally, the course template also suggests a misplaced ‘badging approach’ to interculturality and learning whereby someone is seen to be interculturally competent through selecting the correct MCQ, completing the course and gaining a certificate.  A more productive approach takes into account the continuous daily need to carefully reflect on our social interaction and how we and others are positioned through both discourse and power.  In this last sense, interculturality is never complete and course materials (or ‘content’) is but a mere starting point for dialogue, not an end product to be tested.

Finally, I was struck by how many of the tensions that took place during the design process reflected those which emerged in the anthropologist Tommy Dahlén’s study of intercultural trainers in 1997 in the US where the notion of intercultural communication was being commoditised by ‘intercultural trainers’(1997: 177).  Dahlén’s ethnographic account noted the over-simplistic approach to intercultural training models, particularly as a more nuanced view could undermine a paradigm which stressed ‘cultural differences’ as real and significant barriers.  These barriers justified the need for trainers who could help customers overcome potential cultural differences, thus further justifying their position and serving their vested interests. In this framework, the users of intercultural trainers (or ‘customers’) ‘need to be persuaded that culture is a significant, identifiable factor behind the conflicts and misunderstandings arising in their interactions with particular others’ (1997: 177, emphasis mine).  Dahlén’s recognition that the notion of culture must be kept ‘significant’ for the consumers of intercultural commodities is particularly relevant as it can deter approaches which offer a critical suspicion of narratives of cultural difference and solid cultures.  Throughout the process of designing the module, I felt as if I was both designing a ‘product’ while also fighting against both a learning template and approach that made nuance and criticality difficult, with the editing and marketing of the course underpinned by a paradigm where ‘understanding national cultural differences’ was kept both as an enticement to potential learners to join the course and as a way of seeing and ordering the world.

4.2 Face-to-Face Communication or Clicks: The Value of Being There

A second consideration which is pertinent, but not limited to the field of intercultural communication, is the belief that we learn to be together by being together.  The value and learning that comes with human contact, face-to-face exchanges and through what Massey (2005) terms ‘thrown togetherness’ should not be underestimated. One of the rewarding aspects of teaching is reacting to the unexpected and the unplanned and this is possible through the opportunity to communicate and interact with students and to encourage learners to bring in aspects of their own beliefs, values and commitment.  To observe when students are struggling or when they are flying with confidence is part and parcel of the alchemy of teaching.  Teaching is both provocative and reactive and being together in a physical space where you can observe the level of learners’ engagement is important.  In place of face-to-face contact, FutureLearn learners often interact with a one-size-fits-all template which includes pre-programmed answers and responses written by ‘content providers’ with learning activities designed for an unknown audience. The attempt to include more interactive learning opportunities such as a discussion forum is a step in the right direction but not an adequate substitution.

The one-size-fits-all template relies on a blocking, scripting and reduction of ‘content’ into small bite-sized segments which are artificial, non-dialogic, and lack spontaneity. It also suggests a ‘banking approach’ to teaching and learning, an epistemological framing of knowledge as a collection of ‘facts’ and a ‘teach and test’ template. This performance-based competencies approach to education resonates with Thomson’s critique of a ‘master narrative’ with a ‘distribution of knowledge-as-a-thing, where outcomes are privileged over purposes and processes, and learning is assumed to proceed in the same way for all’ (Thomson, 2013: 170).  This approach may lead to a ‘cost effective’ future for education, but it is also one where real engagement suffers.  Unfortunately, real engagement is expensive.

4.3 Replacing Criticality with Marketing and Spin

The marketing and editing of the course material raised further questions regarding the ability of ODL to retain criticality in its courses.  With regard to marketing, there was clearly an attempt to promote the course through references to culture which were incompatible with the aims and objectives of the course. While one of the course aims was to problematise the view of the world as a series of bounded, distinct and homogenous ‘cultures’, the marketing attempted to promote the course through this very framework combined with a celebratory approach to cultures which lacked criticality. An example of the disjointed approach between the marketing and the course aims were the visual representations which were frequently suggested by marketing to promote the courses.  These were often artificial images from Shutterstock such as a Japanese businessman bowing and a ‘Western’ businessman reaching out to shake hands or tourists takings selfies in front of the Eiffel Tower which presented a world view that was largely incompatible with the course aims.  This disjuncture even spilled over into the realm of my digital profile.   An internet search for my name (a narcissistic exercise which I do not often perform) now produces a top hit with the line:  ‘How do cultures interact and affect each other?’  While this is not exactly scandalous, it is also not how I would personally frame social interaction or ‘cultures’ and this line which, was reproduced from the course marketing material, now forever links my digital profile to a marketing strapline.

Another issue was the marketing suggestion to change the original name of the course to a new course name (e.g. Cultural Studies) which did not even match the field of the course.  New course names were simply suggested through sampling analytics measuring what produced the most internet hits.  A further example of the mismatch between the marketing (and platform) and the course objectives concerned the objective of asking learners to critique ‘consumer culture’ and ‘communication saturation.’  Given that much of the communication learners received was computer generated, offered limited real engagement and was packaged in a commoditised form with upgrades, the course itself became a perfect example of what learners were being asked to critique.

To compound matters, the course materials written by myself and colleagues went through the Digital Team’s editing process which at times resulted in the intended meaning being changed to one which was the obverse of the original intention.  This was not a result of malicious intent, but an oversimplification of a message to be conveyed to an invisible audience.  For example, attempts to challenge social practices were at times rendered into what sounded like a celebration or recommendation that these practices should be adopted.  It also resulted in inconsistency.  In one of the initial courses learners encountered the term ‘host culture’ which is challenged through the suggestion that it is unhelpful and nebulous, only for this term to be inserted in the course materials for another activity later in another course.  The effects of this were not only demotivating, but it resulted in selecting a least damaging option in the final editing processes and accepting difficult compromises.  All of this was done with very tight deadlines looming.

What was being erased by the marketing and was lost in the editing process was both criticality and learning potential.  While the endless hedging of academic writing can at times result in annoying jargon, hedging often goes hand-in-hand with a cautious and nuanced approach which is important in the consideration of interculturality and in understanding complexity. For example, when introducing a notion such as ‘cultural appropriation’, learners need to be given the opportunity to examine its conceptual strengths and weaknesses regardless of my own position which largely sees the notion of transcultural flows as a more accurate reflection of cultural practices.  Thus, the different connotations between a video script which states, ‘Dreadlocks could arguably be seen by some as a form of cultural appropriation’ versus ‘Dreadlocks are a form of cultural appropriation’ is significant.  The second option renders the statement a verdict or a fact to simply be digested.  Moreover, as this is a sentence to be digitally captured as part of a lesson, it suggests that it is also my own position and it eliminates the potential for learners to critically analyse the efficacy of the concept.   Too often this later style of presenting learning material as a series of facts was chosen as a way to ‘simplify’ content which resulted in eliminating the learning possibilities for students and creating a false impression of my own position.  These are just some of the examples of how criticality and learning potential were lost.

5. What ODL Potentially Can Offer: Some Positives

This piece should not be seen as a categorical denial of any value in ODL and the issues covered above may to some degree be influenced by disciplinary concerns related to the field of intercultural studies.   There are clearly positive aspects of ODL and potential for engaging learners across the world.  I have been impressed by some of the online discussion which has taken place on the course by learners from a wide range of locations, although the lack of knowledge about these learners or face-to-face interaction with them reduces this advantage.  Additionally, the courses have attracted interest from a group of universities which see the digital material as having the potential to act as a catalyst for facilitating face-to-face dialogue between students who are starting a year abroad programme.  This discursive approach is a much more compatible one for intercultural education.

The opportunity for collaboration between colleagues is another benefit which ODL provides. The ODL team includes animators who are able to creatively illustrate points in ways that are much more visually appealing than the standard Power Point slide.   The ability to record discussions or interviews which can be used in course materials provides a very useful pedagogical resource.  This also allows course designers to digitally capture the experience and expertise of a range of University staff and students to be used for teaching and learning.   The ability to send a camera into the community can convey examples from everyday life from outside the confines of the University, although this benefit is limited by the constraints around copyright and image rights and the very cautious approach taken by ODL to critiquing corporate discourses.  These advantages, along with the ability to attract a diverse range of learners, are all important and offer considerable potential.  This is one of the reasons why it would be a mistake to completely dismiss ODL.  However, it may be what ODL is seen to offer in the eyes of management, such as a ‘leaner’ University with lower costs through ‘staffing efficiencies’, which are what ultimately drive the University investment in ODL.

6. Conclusion: Is it just me?

I started the process of ODL module design with an open mind, but the gradual unfolding of understanding resulted in a much more sceptical position. The initial stages included trepidation and anxiety over an inability to gain a bird’s eye view of what the ODL design process entailed and what the finished product would look like. Once the reality began to emerge, serious issues became apparent.  While the practical workload could be described as very substantial given the amount of meetings, planning, inefficient processes and demands on producing content, the real concerns went much deeper than a sheer sense of worry about hard work.

These concerns are broader ones which question the role of ODL in HE and specifically relate to areas such as how ODL templates affect the approach to teaching and learning, the ability of ODL to retain criticality in its course material, the substitution of face-to-face engagement to one mediated by algorithms and the neoliberal model of HE as exemplified by ‘upgrades’.   This is not by any means an exhaustive list of concerns and teachers who are employed to teach languages may also want to reflect on the implications of increased ODL activity particularly with the addition of other forms of digital language learning tools such as Rosetta Stone.  I have also increasingly noted comments suggesting MOOCs on academic writing to be a better option than a more expensive campus-based pre-sessional course.   An important question in this debate is what teachers offer in the classroom setting where face-to-face learning takes place within a community of learners.  What do teachers offer which cannot be replaced by an algorithm?

Not everyone’s ODL experience will be similar to mine and some of my concerns could be much less relevant for another discipline.  There are aspects of the ODL course which I believe are very good and can engage learners, particularly where other staff and students made contributions.  There also appears to be a great deal of momentum behind ODL which includes some creative and innovative approaches to module design. These apparent successes resulted in my own self-questioning regarding the validity of my objections.  I frequently began to question whether I was being too sensitive or whether or not I was simply out-of-step with the rest of the University.  McClure’s position has been helpful where she argues that, ‘[t]he critical issue for HEIs is to make MOOCs useful before MOOC technology turns into competitive weapons wielded against them by someone else’ (2014: 270).  That sense of usefulness has to include an ability to retain the critical edge which should be at the heart of HE. It is clear that there is a need for an open debate regarding the role of ODL within the University which includes issues such as transparency in the business model, workload, non-negotiable templates and processes. It should also take account of theoretical concerns such as the importance of retaining criticality in HE and what counts as real engagement in teaching and learning.  However, given the current momentum behind ODL, the lack of an engaged debate seems eerily disquieting.

Address for correspondence:



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