When I was young, in the 70s/80s we used to ‘make’ our own bikes, which went by the generic label of tracker bikes. These generally consisted of a second hand frame, usually no gears, knobbly tyres, massive cowhorn handlebars, and short (or no) mudguards. They were cheap, individual and occasionally dangerous. The handlebars of one of mine sheered off at the base midway down a hill once, leaving me holding them helplessly waiting to crash (I often marvel that any child of the 70s made it to adulthood).
These largely died out with the advent of standardised versions, notably the Raleigh Grifter, and then the ubiquitous mountain bike. These, like mass produced skateboards, took their inspiration from the messy culture of home made, customised versions, which was often working class and innovated through necessity. The mass produced ones were in many ways superior, you had gears on the Grifter, they were more robust and you were less likely to die.
But the advantage of the DIY culture was a sense of ownership and individuality. When we would meet up no two bikes were the same. You would add tape, grips for the handlebars, spray it, but they also bore the scratches and dents of their history. Each was an extension of the owner’s personality. They were also affordable, and didn’t really require expertise – we weren’t bike nerds. The bespoke bicycle movement now is, I expect, a more expensive, and rarefied pursuit, and as bike production has become heavily industrialised, you can now buy a very good mass produced bike cheaply, so the need for the homemade version has dwindled.
I was talking about these to someone at ALT-C last week as a way of thinking about open degrees (it made sense after two beers). As I’ve mentioned I’m now chairing the open programme at the OU. This is an open choice. pick n mix degree programme, so students construct their own degree, choosing modules across disciplines. We’ve been looking at the module selection data, and I expected there to be a handful of dominant pathways but that is not the case. There are thousands of combinations, and students really are shaping degrees to suit their interests, circumstances, opportunities.
Now, like the tracker bike, any mass produced named degree with set choices may be superior in some ways, for example getting specific jobs. Although as this piece highlights, the large majority of employers are degree agnostic, so a specific degree may not be the boon many assume it is (unless it is very vocational focused). The open degree, like the custom track bikes are individual, each one reflecting the personality and the context of the learner. This allows for a greater sense of ownership over your learning. Additionally, one feature of our tracker bikes was that they were also very modifiable – you could add bits and change them over time because you weren’t locked in to the standard provider. The open degree similarly provides the framework for a learner to extend certain elements, and change them as they progress, often changing their plans in response to social or personal changes.