I have just come home from the 14th – and last -Cambridge ODL conference. The theme of the conference was internationalisation and social justice: and the role of ODL in this. Social justice continues to be part of the rationale for ODL, but we are now worried that ODL is becoming as much part of the problem as part of the solution.
Cambridge conferences are always small: this year 90 international participants from ODL institutions and projects in Australia China, Africa, the Middle East, the USA and Europe, Pro-Vice Chancellors, practitioners, researchers and PhD students in open and scholarly discussion without the barriers of status or hierarchy that usually make international conferences so unsatisfactory. In themselves these Cambridge conferences have – for years- been examples of social justice – scholarly egalitarianism – in practice. Participants from poorer areas of the world have often been supported to attend – by partial funding.
This year we worked in the environment of a lovely Cambridge college: Madingley Hall. For most of us our day to day academic environment is nothing like the ideal Cambridge College, with its gardens and historic buildings. We increasingly work in open plan offices with the same facilities and working environments as any commercial office worker. In Madingley we had the rare opportunity to experience an embodied scholarly retreat, and at a cost lower than conferences held in hotels and purpose built ‘conference centres’.
Unfortunately this is the last of these conferences planned for Cambridge. After 28 years [the conferences have run every two years] the organisers are moving into retirement and opening the way for others to continue the spirit of this conference in other places in the world. The world of scholarly life – even in distance and e-learning has changed significantly in the years since the first conference. The ‘massification’ of higher education – in which ODL has played such a driving role – has changed the role of the professional academic/scholar in the system. The time and resources available to engage in embodied scholarly debate and discussion is so much reduced – as we fulfil our research and teaching output targets. Can the spirit of the Cambridge ODL meetings take root somewhere else in the world and be tended so it thrives for a further 20 years?