Resilience and higher education

Weller’s notion of resilience is proposed as an alternative perspective on change in education systems and institutions that provides a generative alternative to the ‘education is broken’ narrative. For this, he draws on resilience in terms of the stability of ecological systems and the ability of systems to absorb change. 

Resilience is, therefore, not simply resistance to change but is about adaptation and evolution in a changing environment while retaining a core purpose or function. This conceptualisation of resilience is closer to Taleb’s ‘anti-fragility’ but without Taleb’s teleological assumption of constant improvement. 

In an educational context, resilience is about preserving the core functions or purposes of education while adapting to external changes. Weller explores the application of this model to the UK’s Open University (OU) and the evolution of their development of MOOCs leading up to the launch of FutureLearn. MOOCs are an effective case for examining resilience as they (a) are only possible in a digital networked context; (b) they represent both a threat and opportunity to traditional education practices; and (c) they exist now and are not an abstract or conceptual, but rather an actual innovation. 

The concept of resilience is modelled on four components from Walker et al (2004):

Latitude: the extent to which a system can be changed while maintaining its ability to recover. The example Weller cites is of the adaptation of the OU’s Supported Open Learning (SOL) model to new online modes of delivery starting in 1999. Yet MOOCs challenge this SOL model as there can only be limited support available for the student who then needs ia higher degree of learner competence and autonomy is required – the reason why MOOC participants tend to already be well-educated. But also, the financial and leadership challenges facing the OU since publication of Weller’s book points towards a more limited latitude of the institution’s processes to adapt to smaller units of resource-per-student and changes in student learning habits away from attendances at tutorial seminars, summer schools etc. 

Resistance: how easy it is to change a system. So the publishing and product development processes of the OU adapted to digital production reasonably straightforwardly with appropriate leadership. However, the agility required in developing MOOCs faced greater resistance within a process-orientated and bureaucratic institution which works well for more stable programme and course delivery. This (partly) explained the decision to move MOOCs over to a separate platform and organisation, FutureLearn. 

Precariousness: how close a system is to a limit or threshold. Therefore, resilience is understood as the distance of a system from reaching a threshold. Here, Weller argues that MOOCs do not generate a precariousness for the OU but are, rather, complementary. The challenge for the OU has and is in responding to reduced student funding and developing internal processes that match resources to individual modules. However, increasing numbers of HEIs are using MOOCs for the delivery of online and distance degree programmes. As a result, the OU may still be pushed into a position of precariousness. 

Panarchy: the influences of forces in the external environment (STEEPLE – Socio-cultural; Technological; Economic; Environmental; Political; Legal; and Ethical). Weller argues that the anarchic effects on all UK HEIs are strongly negative and these contextual forces continue to be challenging (think Brexit and the changing socio-cultural and political priorities and demands on higher education). 

Based on his analysis, Weller argues that “MOOCs represent a challenge to the OU, but one which it is developing resilient practices to meet” (p.182). Yet, wider UK and global trends continue to present significant challenges for UK HEIs and testing existing ideas of the resilience of institutions and the sector as a whole. So these current trends are pushing some institutions towards a threshold, the crossing of which leads to an institution being in a different state – including disaggregated and its assets sold off. This is the argument from Clayton Christensen that digital education enabling new entrants to higher education will push some or many incumbent providers into crisis.

Weller argues that examining disruptive patterns in higher education at a more granular level than the whole institution is a more fruitful approach. This might help explain the increasing prevalence of unbundling in higher education and the outsourcing of digital education provision to Online Program Management (OPM) companies. But if education as teaching and learning, is a core function of higher education, then the outsourcing of digital education seems to me to be directly undermining the resilience of the institution by attacking its core function and purpose and, from a strategic perspective, removing a clear notion of differentiation between institutions – if teaching and learning design can be handed over to an OPM then surely we can’t talk about an institution’s teaching and learning practices as unique. Which then leads to the question of what the university is really for. 

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