higher ed,  PLE,  twitter,  VLE,  web 2.0

The long-awaited ‘education as fruit’ metaphor


I have just returned from the ALT-C conference in Manchester, where I held a workshop with Brian Kelly called 'Realising Dreams, Avoiding Nightmares, Accepting Responsibilities'. My role was to present the future, and then for us to discuss what the obstacles were to realising it, and the related issues for educators, learners and IT services. Here is my presentation:

In my talk I decided to use an extended (tortuous some might say) fruit based metaphor. It begins to get rather pained towards the end, but stick with it, I think it comes to fruition (ahem). It goes something like this:

Current higher education is about selling apples (the basic undergrad course). We have different types of apples, and they vary slightly in size, colour and taste. But it is still just apples.

If what we do is sell apples, then our current concerns are: Better apple packaging (the VLE may or may not be dead, but it's really just better marketing for apples); the costs of growing, distributing and selling apples; the quality of our apples; growing new varieties of shiny apples (someone is trying to grow a blue apple to appeal to kids). But it is still just apples.

Now if we consider the future of education, the key word is variety. It is not about perfecting one's apples, but accepting the whole range of possible fruits. With this comes a set of issues:

  • It comes in different sizes – not just the slight variation we have around apples (eg tweaking a three year undergrad course to be two years or four years), but the whole range of sizes ranging from the tiny Wolffia angusta to over-sized pumpkins, so we need to recognise and facilitate learning that takes ten minutes or involves extended participation in a community over a number of years.
  • It has many different types – obviously we're not dealing with just apples now, but kumquats, kiwi fruits, oranges, melons, etc. So this means recognising different types of learning and different content. We no longer determine the curriculum but it is now varied and open. It also has blurred boundaries, instead of the very definite ones we have now – the classic 'tomato, fruit or vegetable?' argument could also apply to learning. Is hanging around in a forum learning? Is game playing learning? The key is that we accept that the boundaries are now blurred and we seek to recognise different types of learning.
  • Any time – we don't just sell our apples during opening hours, but offer home delivery any time of day. The old dream of 'just in time' learning was something that was touted around when learning objects were new, and SCORM was being pushed. The difference this time around is that then it was based on automatically assembly of content, but now it is based on a human network. And it's not just a dream – any of us who have put a call out on twitter know how quickly you can get a response. But this could be extended further – access to a marketplace of accredited mentors for example.
  • Assembled/mixed/aggregate how you want – now we don't have just apples, we can all mix our own fruit salads, and with the full range to choose from, few salads will ever be the same. As a party host I can create my own fruit offering, just as an educator I can create a 'course' on any subject I want by mixing together resources, tools and adding in my own elements. Or as a learner I may have a core set of resources (a base fruit bowl) and can then add in from a wide range of selected content to create a partially personalised course.
  • Based around easy sharing – we all have access to so much free fruit now, we share it easily and without question. Sharing is now the default action online – we share jokes, content, links, views, activities, ideas. Any vision of future learning should have sharing as the basic action and build from that. I would go as far as to say that teaching our students how to be good sharers within their subject community is the number one aim for education.
  • Range of tools – we're not limited to tools that only apply to apples now, we can have the full range of tools and cutlery available. Whether we believe the VLE is a stepping stone to a world of wide-ranging tools, or should be abandoned now, surely any dream of future learning would embrace the growing panoply of tools.

So there you have it? I'm sure you'll tell me where the metaphor breaks down, but what I really want is examples of how we can extend it to a ludicrous degree. Metaphors are only fun when you really stretch them.


  • Sonja

    Actually, the metaphor is not half as tortuous as your introduction suggests, but totally stealable. I shall plagiarise it criminally. You forgot a pun about your five-a-day etc etc – work it into lifelong learning (5-a-day for the rest of your life)?
    Oh, what about something about the man from del monte, colonialism, globalisation etc…

  • Mark Smithers

    Nice post. I like the analogy. I wonder if we could take it slightly further and say that we won’t care how the fruit is grown or even what kind of fruit it is as long as when it is finished it is ripe, tastes nice and that we want more.

  • Martin

    @Sonja – yes, I think something about it’s essential for a healthy diet/lifestyle could definitely be worked in here.
    @Mark – I like it! Yes, we don’t set out the rules for who, or how the fruit is grown, we just use what we need.

  • David J A Lewis

    I’ve been at a conference where Gilly talked about the Smoothie as a metaphor for learning i.e. everyone puts in a bit of what they want to make what is for them a perfect smoothie – we also use the smoothie metaphor for our learning packs. I wonder if A.P.P.L.E. = A Pedagogic Personalised Learning Environment….sounds like a JISC project.

  • RB

    Just found this highly evocative article
    What happens when the fruit goes off? Anyone knows that a rotten apple in the basket will spread through the rest. Bananas – when they start going black and gooey my wife adds them into walnut cakes. So from fruit to cake – transformation of learning into workplace efficiency perhaps (‘having your cake’ etc…) Delicious.

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