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In Re.ViCa, the concept of liminality is beginning to be used when analysing countries' readiness for e-learning. It refers to the extent to which the country (or region) "lives in two worlds".


More general meanings

Liminality comes from the Latin limen - meaning a threshold. In social sciences it is used to signify a transition between two patterns of existence, such as a rite of passage - simple examples are the ceremony of marriage in most cultures, or the coming of age ceremony in many cultures (at 16, 18, 21 - whatever).

Some kinds of liminality are very short in duration - such as a kiss under the mistletoe (though the effects may last for a lifetime...); some a bit longer, like a shamanic or hypnotic trance; some longer still, like a marriage ceremony (which may last for some days in some cultures) and others several months - like a pilgrimage or exploration - or sailing voyage round the world. The modern western concept of "time out" in fact refers to liminality - and as such it can be optional, such as time out in a pop festival. It is perhaps no accident that one of the most famous pop festivals in the UK - Glastonbury - is also a place of pilgrimage and mystical experiences over many centuries.

Leading on to the next section, the period of liminality may last much of a lifetime. Indeed, individuals with this ability may in many traditions be blessed with particular knowledge and power - from shamans to e-learning specialists. As noted in the Lord of the Rings, but drawing upon ancient Norse tradition:

Those who have lived in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against Seen and Unseen they have great power.

Meanings in regional development, including for e-learning

In our analysis, we think more of the worlds being political, educational, cultural or regulatory, rather than mystical. Some examples:

  1. A country with de facto but not de jure recognition inevitably suffers social stress as well as the obvious political and business complexities - but could this in some circumstances be liberating - as possibly in Taiwan?
  2. A country whose universities feel compelled to conform to the US approach as well as their local approach may use this pressure to challenge local assumptions and overcome obstacles. There are examples in Central America and the Middle East. It may be in time that the Bologna Process leads to similar innovation.
  3. A country with two languages often has a confidence and relaxed view about languages absent in monoglot countries - where use of a second language is routinely seen as "a problem".
  4. A region without a traditional base in its containing region may seem to suffer in political terms but in fact can be liberated by overcoming the traditions of its location:
    • The city of Sheffield is at the edge of its containing region of Yorkshire and many of its decision-makers live in the adjacent region. This could be liberating not a problem.
    • The new city of Milton Keynes is at the edge of three regions - could this be a source of energy and facilitate the development of the UKOU?
    • Heerlen occupies a similar liminal position between countries - what are the links to the development of the Dutch Open University?
  5. A country with a strong lnflux of foreign students finds that its universities have to come to terms with different traditions of pedagogy and assessment and may produce a fusion better than either of the precursors.

Within universities

There is another and somewhat older strand of liminality within universities. This can refer to transitions between levels of understanding, languages (as in Welsh universities dealing with bilingual issues), types of student (national and foreign-born) and conceptions of space (physical and virtual). This work is particularly associated with the name of Maggi Savin-Baden (see Further reading).

Further reading

  1. What is liminality?,
  2. Liquid learning and liminal universities? Shifting Academic complicit-ness in the processes of disempowerment, Paper presented by Maggi Savin-Baden, 6-8th April 2009 DPR8: Power and the Academy, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK -
  3. Identity thresholds: Researching the socio-political impact of learning in immersive virtual worlds, Maggi Savin-Baden,

Unusually the Wikipedia article on liminality is much challenged.

> Glossary

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