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distance education and ford….

February 3, 2015

lisa hammershaimb

Or rather Fordism, which though based somewhat on Henry Ford who we all know and love doesn’t actually mean that it’s education you can do in your car (though legit, who doing an online program hasn’t “been in school” while in the car? Indeed when I was homeschooling in high school I completed a lot of my work while in transit on trips and outings or in the words of my mom the “real stuff of an education” but anyways….)

Fordism is a system based on industrialized/standardized mass production. In layman’s terms, it’s factory precision and predictability. It’s also proven reliability at a reasonable price, able to equip the masses with consumer goods and not bankrupt them in the process. The beauty of Fordism is that whole swathes of people who were previously out of the loop now have purchasing power and provision.

Post-Fordism is, as the name suggests, what happens after Fordism and is the era that we may of may not be living in now. In post-Fordism, the production aspect doesn’t go away instead a world of specialties and specialists emerge. Rather than the factory notion of workers popping out products in rigid lockstep, there is a focus on distribution, separation, and pleasing the individual. In Fordism, it seems it was enough to just get stuff. In post-Fordism…there’s attention to the unique human element of individualism and personal choice. I think this distinction makes post-Fordism pretty amazing but also adds in all sorts of temperamental complexity.

Education–as is often the case–has followed these themes as well. Where once the “Fordist” values of getting it done prevailed, now we’re a bit more into the post-Fordist space where we must not only get it done but allow people to be changeable and specialize and do all the quirky things people tend to do. I again think post-Fordism a good thing in theory but it’s a rough thing for education, particularly education that is distance distributed.

Kanuka and Brooks in their chapter, Distance education in a post-fordist time: Negotiating difference (from the book An introduction to distance education: Understanding teaching and learning in a new era you can see a preview here and read it because it’s an amazing chapter) discuss these things extensively paying particular attention to distance education and its desire to be “both-and” when it comes to the Fordist debate. Distance education has the potential to be pretty much sponsored by Ford in that it can be a factory churning out content for consumers who never before had educational access. Distance education also has the potential to be the poster child for post-Fordism because with the anytime, anywhere, 24/7 availability, it can be as specialized as you need it to be.

But here’s the tension….it can’t be both. In fact there is this great somewhat zen-like proverb that says distance education can achieve two of the following three:
1. flexible access
2. a quality learning experience
3. cost effectiveness

but….it can never achieve all three.

[insert sobbing here]

I honestly don’t know where to go from here. (Well, that’s a lie, I do know where I hope to go but don’t know how feasible it is….yet.) This chapter was a great one for me as I felt like had it been possible to highlight all the things, I would have. I think that we’re stuck now in distance education on this wheel of trying to get all the pieces together….achieve that magical trinity of parts…and it’s not working and apparently it never will work. This revelation feels like both a downer and a total liberation.

Professionally I honestly have no idea what this means but, my instinct is to do what I’ve always done in the face of Fordism, namely retreat into the small batch world of local community and wish that that too could be a reality for education. I read a great blog post by Lisa Lane on the idea of “artisan courses” in distance education which are the educational equivalent to small batch whiskey and no surprises, I was smitten. Lisa says, “These [artisan courses] are pedagogically and philosophically the opposite of the canned, instant-feedback, publisher-created “packages” and team-built classes and MOOCs that are now pervasive. Like artisan breads and hand-made cabinetry, these courses require more work to make and are individual in design. Their quality cannot be determined by a list of “best practices”, but by the love and attention that goes into their creation, and the passion and dedication of the teachers who are teaching within their own design.”

I want to make a school like this. Or at least, I want to make a program like this. Would it work? Anyone’s guess but it would be pretty amazing to try…time to add another page to my thesis ideas….

official citation for chapter referenced above: Kanuka, H., & Brooks, C. (2010). Distance education in a post-fordist time: Negotiating difference. In M. F. Cleveland-Innes & D. K. Garrison (Eds.), An introduction to distance education: Understanding teaching and learning in a new era, 69-90. New York & London: Routledge.

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