Online and Digital Learning

Reflections on Open Learning and its Role in the 21st Century (Durham Blackboard Conference 2012)

Part of a series of posts reporting back on the Durham Blackboard Users’ Conference 2012.

Part of a series of posts reporting back on the Durham Blackboard Users’ Conference 2012.

  • Keynote: Open Season: The Implications, Meanings and Risks of Openness in the Digital Academy
  • Presenter: Professor Ray Land, School of Education, Durham University

Land’s keynote was full to the brim of contrasting depictions of education and learning. I can’t do them all justice here, so have highlighted just a few key messages. Take a look at the slides for some useful quotes too.

Bound(less) knowledge

Land used the crests of established international universities to illustrate one of the key points of traditional views of learning: that of the bound text. Harvard, as one example, has three bound books with ‘veritas’ (truth) emblazoned on them. The interpretation is that truth lies within books, the printed work s sacrosanct. As Land explained “there is a quality, certainty, truthfulness in the printed text.” Yet, in the open education environment the internet is challenging the idea of the printed text being the definitive source of information.

Time, interactions and modern expectations

One of the messages that Land was keen to express was that of the 21st century becoming more “accelerated”. Information is in effect, immediate through internet access, but understanding and new knowledge runs on a different, slower time scale. Teaching institutions needing to find ways to cope with both ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ time, in order that the expectations of students (running on fast time) can be met with the complexities of critical analysis, research and discussion: fundamental to many learning processes in higher education. Land expresses this as the places for contemplation and reflection being invaded by ‘fast time’.

This is where the role of learning technology fits in. Land comments on how collaborative online spaces (e.g. wikis, blogs) and technology such as smart-phones, allow for immediate information retrieval, sharing and construction. Bridging the fast-slow gap.

However, the fluidity of online spaces and digital media in general was raised by Land, with reference to Poster (2003) who discusses the impact of losing physical representations of knowledge (books, written manuscripts) in a world now dominated by the digital. With the proliferation of digital information and records, one of our biggest challenges is to archive in a meaningful way so that we can efficiently search and refer back. In a world of the “instantly publishable” and organic searches from giants like Google and Bing, Land raises the thorny issue of the role of a University. I wonder if the implication is that universities then are still keepers of the real ‘truth’?

As was noted in other discussions at the conference, information alone is not enough, and the role of the teacher, expert, guide (whatever you wish to refer to), is still an essential part of educating students and the development of our understanding. However, the boundaries of those who should have access to this knowledge, how it is interpreted, are being broken down by the internet.

Points that resonated with me in this keynote


Land made reference to a comment made by Ernesto Priego (2011) that the previous generation “got degrees thanks to illegal photocopying.” Bearing in mind some of my time is taken up monitoring the legal use of digital copies, I found this rather amusing. This reflects also not only on book publishers, but the music industry, both of which see the digital world as a decline of their own archaic publishing models (read ‘income’). Part of this hype must surely come also from the transparency afforded by digital sharing that makes it far easier to track illegal copies and individuals who make or share them. How do we then embrace the power of digital sharing and openness, restricted by industries which exist for profit, not for enlightenment?

Content vs Conversation

Driving home the message of ‘content is not important, it’s the conversation you pay for’, we were entertained with a supporting video: Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University (YouTube, 2007). I will say no more, other than to encourage you to spend your next tea break watching it.


Finally, sorry I couldn’t locate the original source, but to summarise a poignant philosophical point that Land included, originating from Cable Green, Director of Global Learning at Creative Commons: If 5% of the world’s population have access to knowledge and learning, what if in that other 95% someone holds the cure to cancer. An argument for open learning if ever there was.


Poster, M. (2003) ‘History in the Digital Domain’, Historein, 4. Available online [PDF].

Priego, E. (2011) ‘Exploring open access in higher education’, Higher Education Network, The Guardian. Online debate, 28 October 2011. Available online.

YouTube (2007) ‘Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University’, YouTube (uploaded by messi19azzurtina, 23 January 2007). Available online.

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