Since childhood, the Olympic Games has been an inspiration. I love the real-life stories of grit, years of disciplined practice and sacrifice, achieving goals that first seemed beyond reach, grace under pressure, fierce but honorable competition, passion, excellence, self-discovery, teamwork, resilience amid defeat, humility in victory, and setting aside differences amid a shared love of sport and respect for one another. Of course, not every Olympic story fits these categories, but many do.
When I thought about having kids, I remember looking forward to experiencing the Olympics with them. The last Summer Olympics, my kids were old enough to be interested in the stories and competitions. So, I was disappointed to discover (in the last Summer Olympics and again in the Winter Olympics) that we have limited access to the events. I have a few hours in the afternoons on the weekend and then they have nighttime viewing where my kids can watch for an hour before bedtime.
In Canada and the UK, they take a different approach; live streaming the games for the public. In the US, to protect the massive financial investment of NBC, there are restrictions. So, only those who choose to or can afford a Cable or Satellite subscription are allowed full access to the events.
I’m not one to suggest that we should have free and public access to everything. I appreciate the contributions of the private sector and the financial realities. At the same time, I tend to put the Olympics into a category other than traditional entertainment. I see it more like the President’s State of the Union Address and other matters of significance to the people of my nation and the world.
Is this similar to some of the challenges we are facing in education today, especially higher education? We are having a public debate about whether higher education and credentials for learning should be closed (or at least partly so), controlled and costly. The information revolution combined with social media and communication technologies already opened access to people, knowledge and resources necessary for robust learning. It is just the credentialing and recognition of the learning that remains relatively controlled, partly closed, and sometimes costly (although I suppose you could argue that access to all of this requires a paid subscription as well, an Internet connection of some sort).
The difference between the current state of access to the Olympics and higher education is that one organization in the United States has a monopoly when it comes to Olympic media access. When it comes to higher education, the debates are likely to expand because there is room for competition. There are open courses, low cost community colleges, online learning opportunities, emerging competency-based course-less routes to degrees, a few of us experimenting with the use of digital badges in higher education, and alternatives to traditional degrees and credentialing. While government and accrediting entities continue to influence the debate by adding limits and restrictions, there is ample room for experimentation, innovation, and even potential disruption.
Full access to Olympic media is limited and includes a price tag in the United States, but such authoritarian, centralized control is less present in the higher education. There are certainly powerful and influential people in the higher education debate, but as long as we avoid an NBCOlympics-like monopoly, I see promise for the possibilities and innovations that emerge out of the current debates about higher education. After all, as much as I enjoy the Olympics, I also love the legends of learning; stories about grit, years of disciplined practice and sacrifice, achieving goals that first seemed beyond reach, grace under pressure, fierce but honorable competition, passion, excellence, self-discovery, teamwork, resilience amid defeat, humility in victory, and setting aside differences amid a shared love of learning and respect for one another.