Book Review: Flexible higher education: International pioneers reflect

I was asked to do this book review about a year and a half ago, and only finally got around to it.  In some ways, that’s a good thing–I would have probably had different things to say about it at that time.  My response to this book is very much influenced by the ed tech conversations of the last few years, so even though this book came out three years ago and has already had many other reviews, it’s kind of fun to read it and think about it in the current context.  It’s been submitted to the Journal of Distance Education, and it should appear in the next issue.

Burge, E. J. (2007). Flexible higher education: International pioneers reflect. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Current conversations around higher education, in particular those associated with the educational technology field, have not lacked energy, vision, and a desire to change all that is wrong with our current systems.  What seems to have been lost in many of these conversations is an examination or acknowledgement of distance education as an important force of change that existed parallel to or in conflict with ivory tower higher education.  Burge’s book brings this dusty past back to the fore, drawing connections with the past to the current, reminding us that distance education has always been about flexible education, where the student, not the institution, was the most important focal point. Through narratives of key distance educators, drawn from interviews collected as part of a larger research study, we are drawn into these conversations of the past and invited to reflect on their currency and relevance to our present.

The structure of the volume reflects its research origins, with the first part pulling together themes from the interviews with 44 international distance educators.  The second part of the book asks seven of the more prominent pioneers in distance education to comment on the themes of the first six chapters. It had me wondering whether Burge’s volume was trying to be too many things: part research, part meta-reflection.  Yet, ultimately this approach is useful in providing some distance from the researcher’s own interpretations, by allowing the commentators to extend the interpretations of the research findings, grounded in their own experiences and interpretive frameworks. Burge wisely makes use of many quotes from her interviews, and the voice of the educators, and not her own, is the one that dominates.

The book provides the reader with several clear takeaways that serve as useful reminders of how far we’ve come, or perhaps how far we’ve strayed:  distance education in its roots was idealistic, but well defined.  Providing access to education—in particular to a previously underserved population disadvantaged by geographic limitations and social status, to name a few—was the cornerstone of its mission.  New systems in higher education emerged, such as open universities or distance education (DE) units in traditional universities, to serve this population because it was the right thing to do.  The strength of this volume is in demonstrating that this was an ideal not only being taken up in Canada, but one that was shared globally, albeit in largely varied contexts.  It’s not difficult to observe that with the emergence of educational technology in both distance education and traditional higher education the DE mission has become blurred in the sense that DE associated with correspondence education is dated, while DE with educational technology is indistinguishable from other university educational delivery.  Through the often passionate reflections of the original DE educators, this book serves as a compass for distance educators who find it difficult to locate themselves in a field that is perhaps being defined by new boundaries.

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