Professor Robin Mason died peacefully on 15th June 2009 as a result of secondary complications from her recent illness. Professor of Educational Technology in the Institute of Educational Technology at The Open University, Robin was a specialist in the research and practice of online teaching and learning. She was one of the early pioneers in developing the medium of computer mediated conferencing (CMC) for distance education and completed her PhD in 1989. Her first book, ‘Computer Conferencing – the last word’ (1992) turned out to be far from the last word from Robin, who went on to publish ten more books and numerous influential papers. Reflecting her very broad interests, one of her more recent books included ‘Bhutan: Ways of knowing’ (2007), which she co-authored with Frank Rennie (UHIMI).By the early 1990s she was already playing a leading role as evaluator of several large EU projects in computer mediated conferencing. In mid-1990s she began a long-standing involvement in policy matters as an advisor to EU, the European Parliament and UNESCO - and later, to HEFCE.
Robin was truly a global scholar. Born in 1945 in Winnipeg she studied for her bachelor’s degree at Toronto, and her MA at Madison, Wisconsin, but her most influential work stemmed from her doctoral studies. Based at the Open University, she travelled widely and influenced many. In 2003 she was Australia’s Scholar of the Year, and spent that year sharing her expertise at universities across that continent. More recently she has led or worked on transnational projects supporting technology enhanced learning in places such as Africa, the Caribbean, the South Pacific and Nepal.
Robin worked extensively on the global OU’s Masters Programme in Online and Distance Education (MAODE), as course chair and author for several of its courses, and on more than one occasion as Director of the Programme. Although she was not the originator of the MAODE, she developed it into the kind of programme that made an international reputation for innovation and originality of thought. In 2000, she conceived of the idea of a Virtual Graduation for the first cohort of global online Masters students and developed the concept with the Knowledge Media Institute.
Through her ground breaking work, she changed the careers and lives of hundreds around the world. Many students past and present have written in to speak of their shock and to say how much Robin has impacted on them personally – particularly through her research, her writing and her advice. Her support was evident not only while they were students, but in helping develop their careers beyond this.
Research contribution to Computer Mediated Conferencing
The pioneering nature of her work back in the mid-1980s cannot be overstated. Robin began her PhD on computer mediated conferencing in 1985. There were many safer areas to tackle, but the fledgling attempts to link students online, to enable distance students to engage in the cut and thrust of academic debate that had been a very occasional luxury until then, was a wonderfully exciting, if risky, research issue to explore. It is hard for us now to remember what it was like. The fact that students were communicating asynchronously through text offered the huge research advantage of, potentially, masses of data of deep intellectual discussion captured and available for analysis with almost no effort. But as the data came in, there was the constant worry of whether we would ever get beyond the "Hi everyone, I've finally made it, after three hours of juggling wires, computer and modem..." stage.
Robin's insight was to see whether these early stumblings held the promise of a genuinely different, more learner-focused, learning experience. She persisted and solved the problem of persuading the more reluctant (understandably) technology-averse students to embrace it (by linking it to the assessment). In 1988 she produced her first publication on computer mediated conferencing as 'a contribution to self-directed learning'. This was where she first identified what it would take to make this the powerful contribution she knew it could be. Eventually, the technology has caught up with her vision, and it would be unthinkable now, for distance students, and indeed any students, to be without it. That early insight made a tremendous contribution to the field as a whole, and to establishing the Open University among the most technologically innovative places to study.
Research Contributions to the field of Learning Technology
In her career she made stellar contributions to the field of Learning Technology. Some of her contributions, for example on evaluation of large projects, still form a benchmark for new researchers. Others, like her mid-1990s work on virtual campuses, still has relevance at the policy level for current EU projects and in the national context as the underpinning of one part of Sir Ron Cooke's paper to DIUS (now part of BIS) on "Online innovation in Higher Education".
Her standing in the field of education led to her membership of the Education RAE panel where she served our community with distinction. Robin also played a very influential role in the development of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT); in particular, as the founder chair of ALT’s research committee and as one of ALT’s trustees. Her immense standing in the field and her wealth of contacts, in the UK and overseas, together with a “no nonsense” approach meant that she was invaluable in ensuring that practitioners and policy makers understood the need for decisions to be grounded in proper research. She worked solidly to this end, taking part with enthusiasm in many activities to promote Learning Technology as a discipline in its own right. She was especially supportive of early career researchers who like herself had taken up a career in Higher Education later in life. ALT nominated Robin to the Education RAE panel and the results suggest her success in transforming opinion of Learning Technology in that area. Robin has been a great and supportive influence for a large number of people in the Learning Technology community as well as more widely.
The hallmark of Robin’s style was hard work, a willingness to take risks, and most of all, a sense of humour when it went awry. She always trod the right balance between scholarly activity and practical application, and just plain having fun with new ideas. Occasionally described as a ‘maverick’, Robin’s lack of regard for what she regarded as unnecessary administration, coupled with her quirky sense of humour, meant that colleagues were often reduced to helpless laughter in committees and formal gatherings as Robin went straight to the heart of the matter with a perfectly pitched laconic phrase - or sometimes just "a look". Summing up her approach in one of those memorable phrases – ‘once over lightly’ – Robin never wasted her precious time on bureaucracy and form filling.
Her free spirit is captured in many stories told by colleagues. One illustrative example describes Robin, who was a keen swimmer, swimming across a very chilly Norwegian lake during a break in an international conference programme. Her colleagues sat wrapped in warm jackets on the shore looking after her clothes watching anxiously as she disappeared into the distance. They all thought hypothermia would get her and that they would never see her again. It was a great relief when she eventually swam back into view and emerged dripping and smiling, and not in the least frozen solid. Robin’s two children Lydia and Quentin were a source of enormous pride, and their own academic successes delighted her. She also managed to find time for her hobbies, especially her delight in gardening.
Her experience and her leadership in our field will be so sadly missed by very many people across the world, but also so warmly remembered. She would have been very pleased by that and in that way she will continue to be a presence in our lives and in our projects as educational technologists.
Tributes are coming in from all over the world – if you would like to see them, or leave your own, please visit http://iet-public-wiki.open.ac.uk/index.php/Robin.