October 28, 2016

Time to retire from online learning?

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Working in my study

Working in my study

Forgive me for being personal in this post (well, it is a blog), but I also have a few important things to say professionally.

The context

I was 75 yesterday and as I’ve tried to do each birthday for the last 25 years, I spent the day skiing at Whistler. (A wonderful day: sunshine and still tons of snow, and a lot of terrain to cover). How to spend yesterday was an easy decision. The hard one is how to spend the rest of my life (yeah, welcome to the club).

In particular, I have decided to stop (nearly) all professional activities from now onwards. I want to go through the reasons for this, because the reasons are as much professional as personal. Also this change has implications for my blog in particular.

What I’m not going to do

In general, I’m not going to accept any invitations to do paid consultancy work nor to accept invitations to be a keynote speaker or a participant at conferences from now on. I will not be taking on any more thesis supervision or examinations, nor reviewing articles or books for publication, unless they are directly relevant to my own writing (see below). I say in general, because it’s stupid to be inflexible, but there will not be many exceptions.

Why stop now?

First, if 75 is good enough for judges in Canada to retire, it’s sure good enough for me, and after 45 years continuously working in online and distance education, I’ve certainly earned the right to stop. However, many people just don’t believe me (including my wife), because online learning and open and distance education are my passion and my life, and that’s not going to go away. As the day spent skiing illustrates, I’m really fortunate to be healthy and fit, so health is not the reason. But there are good reasons for me to stop now, and I want to share these with you.

The main reason for stopping now is that I want to stop when I am still at my best. I’ve been really on form over the last 12 months, as far as one can be objective about these things. But I have seen far too many great people who continued long after they should have stopped – and unfortunately it’s the later years that people often remember. Much of my expertise comes from having done things: teaching online, managing a department. But it’s over 10 years since I taught a full course, and a similar amount of time since I was responsible for a department. Given the pace of change, it is dangerous for a consultant to become adrift from the reality of teaching and management. It’s time to hang up my boots before I get really hurt (or more importantly, really hurt others).

Related to this is the difficulty in keeping up in this area of knowledge. It’s a full-time job just to keep abreast of new developments in online and distance learning, and this constant change is not going to go away. It’s tempting to say that it’s only the technology that changes; the important things – teaching and learning – don’t change much, but I don’t believe that to be true, either. Teaching in higher education is about to go through as major a revolution as one can imagine. This is not going to be easy; indeed it could get brutal.

Even the processes of learning, which used to be relatively stable, given how much is biological, are also undergoing change. Technology is not neutral; it does change the way we think and behave. Furthermore, I foresee major developments in the science of learning that will have major implications for teaching and learning – but it will also have major false directions and mistakes (be very careful with artificial intelligence in particular). So this is a field that needs full-time, professional application, and very hard work, and I just don’t have the energy any more to work at that level. To put it simply, this is not a profession where you can be half in and half out. Dabbling in online learning is very dangerous (politicians please note).

And then there’s MOOCs. I can’t express adequately just how pissed off I am about MOOCs – not the concept, but all the hubris and nonsense that’s been talked and written about them. At a personal level, it was as if 45 years of work was for nothing. All the research and study I and many others had done on what makes for successful learning online were totally ignored, with truly disastrous consequences in terms of effective learning for the vast majority of participants who took MOOCs from the Ivy League universities. Having ignored online learning for nearly 20 years, Stanford, MIT and Harvard had to re-invent online learning in their own image to maintain their perceived superiority in all things higher educational. And the media fell for it, hook, line and sinker. This is a battle I no longer want to fight – but it needs fighting. But my reaction did make me wonder, am I just an old man resisting the future? And that has definitely left a mark.

Lastly, I am concerned that the computer scientists seem to be taking over online education. Ivy League MOOCs are being driven mainly by computer scientists, not educators. Politicians are looking to computer science to automate learning in order to save money. Computer scientists have much to offer, but they need more humility and a greater willingness to work with other professionals, such as psychologists and teachers, who understand better how learning operates. This is a battle that has always existed in educational technology, but it’s one I fear the educators are losing. The result could be disastrous, but that’s a theme for a whole set of blog posts.

So yes, time to go, and to leave the good fight to the next generation.

What I will continue to do

I will continue to write. In particular, I have already started writing an open textbook on ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’, and when that is done, I will write a semi-autobiographical novel (only the names will be changed to protect the innocent). I will also complete any existing professional commitments.

I will also continue this blog focused on online learning, but it will be more journalistic and less based on my immediate and recent experiences in online learning. So I hope it will continue to be of interest and value.

And yes, plenty of golf, and more time with family.

Last words

This post has ended up being a bit too personal. But it’s been an incredible, wonderful 45 years. Open and distance education are honourable fields of endeavour, aimed at widening access. Online learning is an exciting field, constantly under development, and has huge potential for both increasing the quality of teaching and the productivity of higher education. Above all, though, the journey has brought me many marvellous and true friends and colleagues. It has been an honour and a privilege to work with such great people. Thank you all.


  1. Congratulations on a decision my wife keeps urging me to make – but I think she’s only kidding 🙂 I am only 73 (except when she forbids me to go to Nigeria any more – more atrocities recently).
    Anyway, if you keep writing, as you say you will, then that’s not retiring.
    I look forward to your next book.
    You look out for mine within the year. And if you are still editing the Routledge series for Open & Flexible Learning, please beg them to stop removing the cell borders in tables (gaps are not enough) and insisting on commas after authors’ surnames and full stops after their initials (gaps are enough in this case).
    Finally, I do hope the digital age does not continue to ignore the 66% of the population with no access to the Internet (World internet usage, June 2012, http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm), many of whom do have access to television and radio and cassette/CD players and postal provision for printed materials.
    My very best wishes

  2. Peter Sloep says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us on what must have been a difficult decision. There’s is something to be learned from your wisdom here, for many of us, myself not the least.

    But above all, thanks for having been so influential shaping distance education in its many forms and guises. We would not have been where we are now if it hadn’t been for you (and a few others ;-). If only the MOOCies would understand that ….


  3. Thanks for sharing Tony and thanks for everything–you’ve been a digital elearning mentor for years.
    Best wishes in retirement. Looking forward to your books!

  4. How does one decide when one is at one’s peak? Is it reallly age related? Some people peak in their twenties and some in their eighties. So we don’t necessarily agree with you there! Your astute insights and intellgent analysis are unique, there is no-one out there to take your place, which will leave those of us grappling with complex issues much the poorer without your observations to draw on. So, if youi decide to change your mind, after taking a break, we will be happy. If not, let me join the many voices expressing heartfelt thanks for your exemplary role as a sensible and nuanced analyst and a fine interpreter of the changing terrain.

  5. Hi Tony. Thanks for the advice you’ve given me in the last few years. I don’t agree with you on everything, but when someone you admire disagrees with you, it forces you to really critically examine your own views and that has been invaluable to me. Enjoy your retirement, but keep writing and keep us on our toes.


  6. Stephen Brown says:

    Hi Tony, you will be missed, but you have done more than your bit and you can be rightly proud of the impact you have had. It was a huge privilege to have the opportunity to work for you all those years ago at the OU and to have followed your work over the years. Thank you for being such an inspiration and wise guide. And best wishes for a happy retirement.

  7. Hi Tony,

    Now that I started with 49 years old a Master at UOC and I had you as my prefered guru you retired. I’m going to ask the University for refund my money 🙂

    As many others from Indonesia and Lebanon, I also invite you (and your wife) to come to Galicia (Northwest of Spain) not for skiing but for doing many other leisure activities.

    Thanks for all your research and for sharing your knowledge with all of us. Enjoy your new life and keep posting in your blog.

    Toni Soto

  8. Janice Picard says:

    Tony you were a significant presence when I started out in distance learning field in the early 1980s and I still recall how excited I was to spend a week with you at the Open University. You’ve accomplished so much over the years and have been an inspiration to many, including myself. I’m hope you’ll have time to celebrate your retirement over a nice bottle of wine, I remember your favorite, the next time I’ve in Vancouver. Hope to see you this coming summer.

  9. Gila Kurtz says:

    Thank you for the good work and your professional guidance. I learnt much from you.

  10. Josep M Duart says:

    Thnak’s for your you job, Tony, and for your guidance. I learned a lot from you!

    All the best

    Josep M Duart

  11. Online learning has no age. I was surprised to learn about yours. I’m glad you will devote your time to writing and doing service to yourself.

  12. Hey Tony!

    Happy Birthday! I trust that you had a great one, as always. I want to express my birthday wishes and also to add my voice to the very very many who will miss your thoughtful, highly informed and deep commitment to the field of online education as you have announced your retirement. I share their celebration of your contribution to our field and also the sadness that you are reducing your active participation, at least in terms of travel.

    The field will miss you. Terribly. Perhaps more than most can imagine or realize. There are so few voices with such honesty and such impact who have contributed so profoundly to online education. You have given your scholarship, your time, and your heart to the field. Man, we need more people like you, not fewer. I thank you for your great blog, your writings, your workshops and of course your wonderful speeches. I am certain that you have inspired a new generation of researchers and practitioners to take up the worthy banner of fighting for all that online education could and should be.

    I am so glad that you and I moved to Vancouver in the same month, year, (and street) 25 years ago so that I can continue to look forward to enjoying your company and conversation, with a lovely bottle of wine. And of course to follow your blog and your further thoughts and adventures.

    With great affection and respect,

  13. M Trucano says:

    Happy belated birthday, Tony. Even if you are officially stepping back from professional activities, a lot of us will still be in your shadow for a long time.

  14. Tony,

    Your blog posting on retirement is an inspiration to those, like me, who find ourselves in similar positions. I have admired your work for lo these many years and look forward to reading your insights in the years ahead. Congratulations!

  15. Thanks Tony for a significant contribution to online learning. Hope to see you in Oz again soon.


  16. Online learning is wonderful and it is one of the most convenient way of learning in the 21st century. Lot of the online schools are providing the best service. Thank You

  17. Loretta Teng says:

    Congratulations Tony. Thank you for all you have contributed in online education. Enjoy your well-deserved retirement. Hope to connect again.

  18. You’ve been an inspiration to us Tony. I hope you enjoy semi-retirement and I’m so glad that you will continue to write.

    Best wishes



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