Re-reading Manifestos

I’m definitely overdue a number of blog posts about where the heck I am and what I’m doing these days. I’m in week 7 of a new role as Deputy Provost of Athabasca University and week 8 of living in a whole new country. My heid is burstin’ as we might say back home, and I’m so tired most days I don’t have much mental energy left as I go through one of the most intensive learning experiences I’ve had in a long time. I don’t want this to turn into one of those cliched blog posts that’s all about how I’m not blogging enough, but I will blog more in the future, so in that spirit I’m going to snatch a quick reflection from the air and fix it here in words.

One of the things I packed in my vintage traveling trunk to come over here (as well as a bunch of yarn) was a copy of the 2016 Manifesto for Teaching Online.

Picture of the print copy of the 2016 Manifesto for Teaching Online
2016 Manifesto for Teaching Online:

This is work that was done by my dear and much missed colleagues in the Centre for Research in Digital Education at Edinburgh, and which I have referred back to many times in my career. Coming to a fully online open university has changed how I read this text. Where previously it was a clarion call to think different about online education in the context of a campus-based University, now it’s a reminder that without teaching online there is no University. Literally “we are the campus”.

Athabasca is a university in transition; this is why I’m here. It’s very rare in a career that you get the opportunity to help transform an institution with the kind of societal and social mission that Athabasca (and all other open universities) has. It’s a lot to live up to, and only time will tell if I do good, but I know I find the text above a continuing source of inspiration and guidance. It keeps me straight, but doesn’t make my thinking narrow.

Ahead of me (amongst many things) is working with the team here to replace our Student Information System, our Learning Management System and to introduce a Customer Relationship Management system. “Place is differently, not less, important online” and we see this set of technologies (our Integrated Learning Environment) as our new digital campus. Of course technology is no magic bullet. “There are many ways to get it right online. ‘Best Practice’ neglects context”. As we modernise our legacy IT it’s important that we check our thinking, and take the opportunity to update some of of our ways of working too.

Athabasca is also celebrating it’s 50th anniversary this year and for those that know their history, it was founded shortly after and inspired by the UK Open University.  Last night by coincidence I read an fantastic Twitter thread about Jennie Lee* and the birth of the UK Open University.

Reflecting then on Jennie Lee’s aspirations for the Open University and the opening line of the Manifesto – “Online can be the privileged mode. Distance is a positive principle, not a deficit.” – is a powerful combination and a useful touchstone reminder for the work to come.

* Not just a Scottish woman and University of Edinburgh alumnus, but also a Fifer, fae the Kingdom. As all the best people are.

8 thoughts on “Re-reading Manifestos

  1. It’s great to have you here Anne-Marie! I’m very glad you could join us.

    Proudly trumpeting the wonderfulness of AU I believe that, technically speaking, it was developed independently of and at the same time as the OU UK, opening only months later. The OU did get there first, but we were both in the same race at the same time, sharing much the same inspirations and ambitions. We were and are much littler, but we have always been leaders, not followers!

    1. Hi Jon – thanks for the warm welcome to AU!

      I’m still learning about the history and formation of AU, but it was my understanding that it opened first as a more traditional campus based institution, and the development of distance learning and the open admissions policy came afterwards? A distance learning pilot in 1972 and a subsequent change in approach and mandate? I also believe there were some early thoughts about the roles of indigenous scholars and students which were there in the conception of the institution, but perhaps not realised in it’s founding. I’d love to find a bit more info about all of this though (will someone just lock me in the archives for a week or something? I’d be happy as a pig in the proverbial!)

      The stories we tell about ourselves are so important (for example the Library at the University of Edinburgh predates the University by a couple of years and 400+ years later we haven’t heard the end of it!).

  2. The story was told to me when I first arrived at AU by perhaps biased, likely unreliable, and definitely drunk sources, but I like it. Your story is *factually* correct, but mine is truthy 🙂

    Part of its truthiness comes from the fact that, though AU wasn’t a distance institution, it did start life with a mandate to do things differently and it experimented with quite a few novel approaches before settling on its long-standing Otto Peters-style industrial distance model for way too many years. I love the delightfully and informally written ‘notes on academic designs’ from September 1971, for instance, at (access limited to AU members), that are filled with very smart and quite modern ideas, including a great deal of learner control, individualization, self-paced learning, micro courses, in-situ learning, distance learning, and so on, most of which would not be out of place in our current strategies (especially the ‘beyond place’ stuff). The naive beliefs in proficiency testing, programmed instruction, and computers as arbiters of success expressed in parts of the document are a bit painful to read, though. That said, the same is true of a lot of the mainstream learning analytics stuff from today, some of which has hardly progressed from the 70s and much of the remainder of which ignores what came in between, like intelligent tutoring systems, user modelling, and adaptive hypermedia.

    Also, albeit from 1973 so hardly seminal, I really like Tim Byrne’s introduction to the first newsletter, at (same proviso), in particular:

    “Our campus will not be a place but a system, a system that will include people, concepts, materials and procedures interrelated by flows of information. The Athabasca campus is and will continue to be an exceedingly open system.
    No formal academic requirements for admission exists other than an interest in learning.
    One major concept is a close relationship between people (students and faculty) even though distances may be great. The instructional materials produced by Athabasca University locates one point of the campus within the home. These materials are not, however, sufficient within themselves. We need a variety of contacts if the campus is to function within a communication network.”

    Not bad for a time before microcomputers, let alone the Internet.

    The more things change….

    1. Yes – this reflects a wider history in open education that we seem to have forgotten about these days.

      Viv Rolfe did some work digging into this back in 2015/16:

      Tannis Morgan dug into it some more specifically from a Francophone perspective:

      Martin Weller, Katy Jordan, Irwin DeVries and Viv Rolfe published an excellent citation analysis in 2018:

      I’d love to see us excavate more of this history and tie it back to the bigger picture. AU was certainly of it’s time, and that time was more radical than we think.

  3. It would be interesting to take that broader outlook on ‘open’ a little further and do a bit of cluster analysis of related terms and papers over the decades. I reckon that ‘freedom’ might make an interesting point of comparison, given that this is the main driving force behind both modern and historical notions of openness, and that it (and related issues of autonomy, self-direction, control, etc) is the central distinguishing feature of all distance learning. With that in mind, I like Morten Paulsen’s hexagon of cooperative freedom ( because he starts to pull apart some of the dimensions of control/freedom/openness from a *learner* perspective that (apart from the free-as-in-beer aspects) tends to go missing in many modern conversations. Though we all pay lip service to learner freedoms, most of the literature and much of the driving force behind OERs, open content, etc now tends to be focused on *teacher* freedom, albeit that some of that relates to the freedom of teachers to ‘give’ freedom to students and some of us haven’t forgotten who should drive it. Really interesting observations from Viv about the motivations of the earlier writers (slide 12) that don’t seem so obvious in a lot of recent work. I see that very strongly in those 1971 AU notes on academic designs, too, notwithstanding a little behaviourist claptrap here and there. We haven’t forgotten it – it’s very much there in AU’s Imagine plan – but it’s not so centre stage any more.
    When Terry Anderson and I revisited Morten’s hexagon a few years ago and added a few facets to it (, we removed ‘access’ from our list of freedoms because all the rest relate to learner choices but, from a learner perspective, ‘access’ seemed to us to be a prerequisite starting point rather than a choice. Thinking about it in the light of the broader perspectives Viv’s, Martin’s, and Tannis’s work uncovers, we might have been wrong. If we’d looked at it in the same way that those early writers were thinking about it we might have kept it, I think. I’m pretty sure Morten – who is of that generation – was thinking along those lines.

    1. Fascinating discussion, and of course it’s one that is close to my heart.

      Jon, I agree a cluster analysis of related terms and papers over the decades would be interesting to explore. This is something that Viv and I tackled in a small way for our OER18 presentation ( ), where we took related terms like open pedagogy and self-directed learning and mapped them on a timeline for English and French literature. What is observable is these terms emerged and peaked in their respective languages at different times, pointing to another area where our blind spots may be (which obviously is the same point I was making in my earlier blog post about open pedagogy).

      Why should we care about this? I’ve been thinking a lot about how blind spots can impact a discipline for decades. For example, the 2017’s version of open pedagogy is arguably a much blander version of 1970’s pédagogie ouverte. Suzan Koseoglu has a wonderful piece of research that she talks about in this blog post ( about how there were 3 decades of feminist perspectives on ODL that largely went ignored. I think about this every time I hear about transactional distance, community of inquiry, connectivism and how it has taken a social justice turn for us to look at our field in a different way ( I think about the impacts this may have had in very practical ways, not only for those of us working in this field, but also for students. Importantly, this is not a case of new ideas being discovered, this is a case of ideas being heard, cited, and included especially from and for those who continue to be decentred. This is the space that needs to acted on and it’s debatable whether we are leading or innovating anything until that happens.

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