Incommensurability of place

“What we are… is the long process of education of the will rather than the intellect… A well educated community, that is one with a disciplined intelligence, will be ready to take part in the new forum without serious disturbance.”

~ Robert Falconer, President of the University of Toronto in 1920 (as cited in McKillop)

As part of my doctoral program, this semester’s course is Research Methods. We started the course talking about incommensurability. The course discussions revolved around quantitative and qualitative research methods, but I found myself coming back to the word over and over again when considering the challenges involved when trying to integrate any elements of campus-based and open & distance learning.

I have found myself many times at a table with ‘campus folks’ and ‘open & distance folks’ saying almost the same thing, being so close to agreeing on what should come next, only to watch it all unravel as the ‘sides’ retreat into their deeply held, but not well articulated beliefs about education. I used to think that the issues were related to differences in processes and organizational history, but the more I thought about all of the obstacles that should have been solvable, the more I returned to the concept of incommensurability.

Over the past three years, I’ve worked with people who love physical, place-based universities. I have heard them explained as places so set apart from the rest of the world that they developed their own police departments. All of their structure and tradition are a means to protect them from the attacks of a changing world, and that they continue to survive is a testament to the strength of these traditions.

At the core of this explanation is a set of deeply held beliefs that universities are special places. They are stable places in an uncertain world. They are places of disciplined intellect, away from the less educated and popular distraction. It appears the founders of at least Canadian universities would largely agree.

Education should be “truly liberal”; but it should bring about a “moral conservatism.” The university should be a place of learning; but it must also be a place away from “the din of controversy.”

~ Egerton Ryerson principal of Victoria College in 1842 (as cited in McKillop)

Improvements in communications, the refinement of the technology of print, the resultant growth of monthly and weekly periodical literature—not to mention the daily newspaper—made the critical thought of the day the intellectual fodder of Everyman. The anarchy noticed by President Eliot and Principal Nelles was not, therefore, a result only of an increasing tendency of men to criticize subjects not hitherto subject to criticism.

~ p. 42, McKillop (2001)


But these quotes from the past also confirm that universities have been formed by other forces: a desire for moral conservatism, education of the will rather than the intellect, avoiding the popular media and fearing ‘intellectual anarchy.’ These foundational beliefs are also deeply embedded in the traditions of higher education.  Although I would have struggled to define them, these are the foundations I saw as an undergraduate and promptly quit.

For the next two decades, I meandered my way through a bachelors degree via correspondence and then a masters and found that I liked most of it. As it turns out, I love learning when it is connected to the world, my world. I developed a love of language not set apart, but reading the books from my children’s literature class to my kids at bedtime, (where they were written to be read!) My studies and family and work, intersected and interconnected, were defined by tightly woven connections of experience, exploration and relationship because they occurred within ‘din of controversy’.

There are relatively few universities who are focused primarily on online and distance learning. Yet, despite significant investments in online and distance education by many, many campus-based institutions, they tend to remain the leaders in the field. Why? Could it be because as a matter of survival they have discarded the myth of the university as place and embraced what is possible when we get past it. Could be that they do not need to contend with issues of incommensurability in the same way as dual-delivery institutions? Unisa began teaching exclusively by distance education in 1946 and offered education to students in South Africa irrespective of race, colour or creed, something that would have been impossible in a place-based campus.

For institutions that maintain the myth of university as place, online & distance is likely only ever to be an alternate delivery stream for campus-based courses to generate revenue. Sadly, that revenue tends to come out of the pockets of the most vulnerable and least able to pay (and too much of it tends to be used to build new buildings on a campus that these students will never visit). These institutions too often seek to replicate the on campus experience, relying heavily on synchronous delivery especially the need to see one another. I need to see my students to teach them. They then complain when video conferencing is slow, expensive and unreliable.

Another option, one that has been embraced by distance only institutions like Unisa, the Open University in the UK, and Athabasca University, is to look for ways to weave learning directly into a complicated and unstable world full of distractions. This approach tends to lead to creative approaches to learning like the Open University’s work with the BBC.  Reducing the barriers and access within these institutions has led to open admission policies and credit for learning in a variety of nontraditional settings. Like Athabasca’s three-year Bachelor of General Studies degree with no limits on transfer credit and extremely flexible requirements, they tend to meet people where they are and support the long process of the education of intellect, providing the skills to follow one’s own will.  These approaches may even support serious disturbance of our socioeconomic structures and cultural assumptions.

To be clear, I know that there are many interesting opportunities for campus-based students to go out into the world, what I worry about is the belief that they need to come back to a campus base to discuss, interpret and synthesize.

Back to the idea of incommensurability. Like with quantitative and qualtitative research methods, I’d like to think that both place-based and online & distance learning are deeply valuable. But like research methods, perhaps they also benefit from being approached separately, each developing its own varied approaches and applications in alignment with its goals.

Maybe campuses should focus on being set-apart and seek to realize the dream that so many in higher education believe in. And maybe we need more online & distance only institutions and organizations who should focus only on what the best possible learning opportunities look like when they are set-within. Maybe asking universities to address the issues of learning set-within the world is unfair to institutions who were never set up with that goal in mind.

But then my question is, “Who will?” There is tremendous opportunity to serve the currently underserved, those who can’t or won’t get to a university campus. I deeply fear the future of set-within, online & distance learning if we leave it to private for-profits and venture capitalists. Somehow, somewhere, I hope there is someone(s) willing and able to step in and step up.













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