I’m at Open Education 2009 in Vancouver. I’m enjoying the conference, in particular meeting up with many, many colleagues and friends. Much credit is due to the conference organizers: Scott Leslie, Chris Lott, Brian Lamb, and David Wiley.
A well-promoted pre-conference event included a dialogue with Stephen Downes and David Wiley (recordings – all six hours – can be accessed here). I wasn’t able to attend the session, but managed to catch a good portion of it via ustream. The conversation covered a large landscape: roles of teachers, self-directed learning, copyright, creative commons licenses, the role of liberal education in society, etc.
Reactions to the event varied (here and here). Open educational resources (OERs) are shifting to mainstream. When you have two early leaders (Wiley and Downes) the conversation can be expected to include a mix of idealism, philosophy, and technical details. My sense, as I listened to the presentation, was that the conversation needs to morph to better account for the interests of those who are only now entering the world of OERs. Downes and Wiley were largely speaking to “their own” – a group that is shrinking as a percentage of those who are interested in OERs.
Time to whine
I’m increasingly dismayed at the quality of thinking with regard to educational reform. OERs are, rightly I think, tied to reform. Opening up content is only a starting point. What does higher education look like when all content is freely available? Which systems of instruction and learning will we need to change? What will accreditation look like? The quality of discussion on this topic is not in proportion to the weight of the subject. I hear too many references to pop-psychology thinking (and am then accused of being elitist).
The importance of university reform should call us to do our best thinking.
But, what is the response by our community and quasi-researchers like Don Tapscott (see The Impending Demise of the University)?
Primarily rhetoric with a blend of nonsensical proclamations. Universities aren’t going anywhere. They are not going to disappear. Recent UNESCO (here and here) and World Bank publications (here) speak to the centrality of universities in international competitiveness.
Governments look to universities as the first pledge to participating in a knowledge economy. When governments want solutions to the big problems facing humanity, they turn to universities: global warming, H1N1, youth crime, addiction, nanotechnology, AIDS crisis, intolerance, and many others.
Are learners numbers decreasing? No. Higher education enrollment is steadily increasing (currently over 150 million). The next billion people to earn a degree will do so largely in universities and they will largely be from developing countries.
Universities – especially as research institutions – are centrally integrated structures, vital to democratic societies. They are staying.
What about the teaching dimension? Can the teaching function of universities be replaced by social networks, communities and alternative accreditation models? Absolutely. And, to a degree, it’s inevitable.
Managed and organized? Or chaotic, loosely joined?
During a lunch discussion on policy, the challenges were made clearer to me. Two views were presented: work within the existing system or create a secondary system. This tension is one that I’ve felt for quite a while (see this article from 2003), but it seems to be intensifying.
I would love to see courses more become more distributed and fragmented. Current conceptions of courses should be destabilized (or have a look at the online conference we hosted earlier this year: From Courses to Dis/Course). Classroom walls are useless.
Learning consists of weaving together coherent (personal) narratives of fragmented information. The narrative can be now created through social sensemaking systems (such as blogs and social networks), instead of centrally organized courses. Courses can be global, with many educators and participants (i.e. CCK08).
Courses, unlike universities, are not directly integrated into the power system of a society. Can decentralized networks of autonomous agents serve the same function as organized institutions?
But who loses, and what is lost, if the teaching role of universities decline?
Surprisingly, those people who are most active in advocating for the demise of the universities are the ones who will lose the most if it actually happens. I can’t provide exact statistics (though I know they exist), but liberal arts education is in decline – with the odd bump in increased enrollment, followed by decline again. Engineering, science, and technology have more funding and momentum than humanities and social sciences. Our world is becoming one of numbers, algorithms, and data. And of utilitarianism. Research=commercialization.
The biggest loser in the demise of universities would be socialism. I recognize that this sounds inherently contradictory – i.e. how can giving individuals control possibly equate with a loss of control collectively? Socially conscious thinking flourishes in universities like it does in no other public venue. The utilitarian focus of corporations has little tolerance for the more speculative discourse that occurs withing universities.
If universities are largely reduced to research institutions, the power balancing role of universities will suffer. Society is upheld by numerous pillars: government, religion, business/economics, and education. I’m not yet convinced that fragmenting the education pillar will result in a stronger, more just, more sustainable society. And, I am reluctant to support the notion that the remaining pillars of society will be able to absorb the pivotal role that universities currently serve.
Societies power pillars listen to each other. To have a seat at the table is to have a voice in policy and to have a greater prospect of influence. The argument can be made that government is comprised of people and therefore the values of a society will be preserved through democratic elections. So, even if education as an institution becomes distributed and fragmented, the will of the people will be reflected through general elections.
This view reflects a very idealistic orientation and largely ignores human nature. Many information structures are fragmenting – newspaper, music, movies – and many reform advocates suggest that distributed networks can do what organized structures have done in the past (such as Second Superpower Rears its Beautiful Head and through the network (of networks)). But the Second Superpower did not stop the war in Iraq. And the fifth estate Dutton proclaims has not yet proven itself to be sustainable other than for event-based functions – such as electing Obama. Once the task is done, the networks focus shifts. Obama would really like his network back now, I imagine, as he tackles health care reform. But the network arose only to serve a task (elect Obama). The constellation of factors required to activate the network to reform health care has not yet emerged. Hierarchical “government as usual” will have to attend to health reform.
The virtues that a society finds desirable are systematized in its institutions. However futile this activity, it helps society, and media, to hold people accountable, to devise strategies, and create laws so people feel safe. Similarly, results that are desirable (financial, educationally, etc) are systematized to ensure the ability to manage and duplicate results. I shared some thoughts on this systematization last year as a reason for the currently limited impact of personal learning environments (PLEs). Quite simply, even revolutionaries conserve.
Capitalism needs Marx
I have not encountered an effective and considered response to OERs. It’s not a situation where everyone wins. Openness has costs. Capitalism needs a Marx. Russell (or more broadly, philosophy) needs a Wittgenstein. OERs currently suffer from cute kitten syndrome – it seems almost unethical to have a negative stance. Scott Leslie has captured a few existing critiques, but I’d like to see greater analysis of impact. And to shift the discussion from “things are changing” to analysis of “what we are becoming”.
/Time to whine
I support openness. I support OERs (though I think the “resources” focuses too much on content and ignores the pedagogical dimensions of connecting with other learners). The research role of universities, due to its integration with government and policy, will morph and change, but will not disappear. Teaching is what is most at risk. Can a social network – loosely connected, driven by humanistic ideals – serve a similar role to what university classrooms serve today? I hope so, but I don’t think so. At least not with our current mindsets and skillsets. We associate with those who are similar. We do not pursue diversity. In fact, we shy away from it. We surround ourselves with people and ideas that resonate with our own, not with those that cause us stress or internal conflict.
Secondly, until all of society becomes fully networked (not technologically networked, but networked on the principles of flows, connections, feedback), a networked entity always risks being subverted by hierarchy. Today, rightly or wrongly, hierarchy holds power in society.