Here we are…there we are going

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.

14 Responses to “Here we are…there we are going”

  1. [...] I posted a few thoughts on my connectivism blog on who loses in open education and the disaggregation of the teaching role in universities: Here we are…there we are going. [...]

  2. Steven Egan says:

    Reading this a couple posts of mine came to mind due to the ideas mentioned therein. One repeatedly asks, “Why not both?” to the overly polarized discussions regarding education. Which leads me to the other post which focused on having two seperate systems in place. With the pillar concept it’s like having the pillar and scaffolding around the pillar to make it easier to work on, improve and maintain.

    I view the OER as a tool that people have become emotionally attached to, so that they miss the rest of the issue. Having the tool isn’t enough. Having an axe won’t make a tree fall. The tools have to be understood and used. Seems like people are too focused on creating content, rather than the systems to deal with the content and the forms of the content. It’s like having everybody design a car by first redesigning the wheel. Why not use the wheels that have already been designed till you have a good reason to create a new one? The reason to create and redesign the part will help you define your goals based on real world data.

    The posts in case anybody is interested:

  3. Mark Bullen says:

    Your call for a stronger connection to the reality of people who are new to the OER movement and less preaching to the converted certainly hits home for me. As somebody who is relatively new this version of the open education movement (I’ve been involved in the older version – open and distance education- since the early 80s), what dismays me about the discussions is that they often seem disconnected from the realities of everyday learners and instructors and they ignore the fact that most formal learners are motivated by the need for a credential. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a need to reform higher education. Distance educators have been arguing for this for years. But the OER conversation needs to be more inclusive. It needs to acknowledge the fact that most learners and instructors don’t have the time or inclination to experiment with new and untested tools but they do welcome practical ways of making learning and teaching more effective. OERs have tremendous potential but tying their success to a radical restructuring of the higher education system is a high stakes gamble that won’t pay off. We need to focus on the practical issues of how OERs can be successfully integrated into the existing system so it can be reformed from within.

  4. Excellent article – thank you.

    I was recently musing on what business schools are for, given the wealth of freely available quality content on the web. It is obvious, to me anyway, that business schools are not going away and that people will continue to pay for expensive business education. Despite all our fancy tools and communication technologies, nothing beats face to face teaching and learning together.

    The post is here, if anyone is interested:

  5. [...] is finally going mainstream in North America (read on this matter what George Siemens has to say here), in Portugal is too far from being a reality. I should add from my minor experience that even in [...]

  6. Geoff Cain says:

    The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn. – Cicero

  7. Very much in agreement here. I’d point out that your conception of pillars gets at this rather well — Higher Education, for all its faults still represents one of the few countervailing forces to corporate power in society. Over time this force has been weakened by conservatives who don’t want pointy-headed liberals bringing up questions of social equity, or dissecting the latest junk economics out of Heritage. Even more, they hate the idea of the campus, with its dedication to pushing people to live and deal with a variety of opinions in a communal environment. And most of all they hate the idea that a single public dollar would be wasted teaching a kid philosophy or art or anything that doesn’t make them valuable human capital.

    These people are engaged in a concerted hierarchy-based well funded campaign to destroy public education. But just as the campaign to destroy social security in the US was titled “Social Security REFORM” so too have these people realized the key is to talk much like — well, like edupunks. The trick is a fine bit of Bolshevism which has been effective throughout history — ride the wind of progressive reform, but once the the existing system is dismantled, step in, say thanks a lot ya hippies — and smoke a cigar over the grave of public education.

    Why would they celebrate? Because if the higher education system is dismantled, what will spring up is something very corporate, very anti-communal. Period. History shows very few models of major institutions being destroyed and replaced with things that challenged the existing power structure — because once institutions are dismantled it is the other forces, the ones left, which determine the shape of the replacement.

    Unless we want to be a part of that great swindle, we have to start from the assumption that if the HE system can be saved through internal reform we should save it. We can be edupunks, but I think we have to understand the political ramifications of glibly seeing the total collapse of HE as some sort of purifying event.

  8. Another thing that worried me about the open education movement is how so many people think that we should follow the fragmentation model that we see in the entertainment industry. As much as I hate what the big record companies are doing, the fragmentation of the music business has ended up hurting musicians more than “the man.” Many have packed it in and taken desk jobs or whatever to pay the bills – jobs that don’t give them any free time to make music. Do we really want this to happen to the talented instructors at Universities? They have the smarts to get other jobs, but those jobs won’t give them much time to teach as volunteers on the side.

    There have been many attempts to make mp3s profitable for musicians, and for the most part they have failed. Instead of following other trends (for once) – why can’t education come up with it’s own way? Why can’t we blaze our own trails? Like Steven commented – why not both?

  9. Thank you for the thoughtful and sobering post. I agree with Steven above that we need to do both. We need to both support and change higher ed from within, but also offer legitimate alternatives from without. The latter, as you indicated, is an incredibly difficult problem to solve. We are working on it over at (and looking for beta testers!) and hope to launch an alternative type of open accreditation that helps get at this issue.

  10. [...] on Open Education Conference 2009. Michael Korcuska provides a list of the highlights for him. George Siemens weighs in on the future of universities and their relationship to open education. Tony Hirst shows [...]

  11. [...] later in the week someone in my Twitter stream linked to a blog from George Siemens reflecting on the the future of universities. He asks a similar question, “What does higher [...]

  12. Peter T says:

    Sorry, but I am going to be very cynical.

    I agree with George, universities are not going away. The have continued to slowly, oh so slowly, incrementally adopt to change and will continue to do so, but in the main I don’t see them fundamentally changing in the near future. They are too tightly embedded into ‘advanced’ western economies in all sorts of ways and unlike GM and Chrysler still sell a product that people see as valuable and want.

    My take on the oer ‘movement’ is that it is a movement that will be easily absorbed as an incremental change by higher, and k-12 education, without substantially changing core teaching and learning activities. In this it resembles the way technology has been absorbed by education, where the major impact has been powerpoint lectures, the lms augmenting classrooms online in very unimaginative ways, and now clickers in the classroom. Technologies that do very little to effect change in the education enterprise. (Yes, there are innovators doing interesting things but they are a small minority.)

    The mainstream move to adopt oer (if and when it happens) will be driven by economics, not a wish to change the teaching/learning dynamic. Sorry, but I don’t think the underlying social philosophy of oer will change the teaching/learning dynamic. It will just get lost as instructors and students will see oer as a cheaper alternative to textbooks. Even adoption on economic grounds is going to be tough hurdle to jump, as the publishing industry is a formidable force.

  13. Williamsja says:

    My comment is in response to Peter T suggestion that OER’s are cheaper than text based resources. This may be true perhaps but what gets lost oh so often (depending on the electronic resource) it can take up to 300 development hours to 1 delivery hour and most of who develop these types of resources don’t get paid extra. I work for an educational institute in Tasmania Australia as a Resource Development Advisor and the organisational push is for open, connected, flexible and applied learning. However have we got the types of resources that support these values? and who will be developing them if they can not be borrowed or brought? I talk to a lot of teachers and I am a trained teacher myself so I know that most teachers do not want to be burdened with additional hours for resource development at little recognition and reward to them.

    Also what about the differing learning styles, I don’t learn well from a text book but I do learn well from multimedia and the act of pausing, rewinding and playing again. I don’t like to sit in a lecture theatre catering for the teacher centred approach, but much rather respond to a student centred approach of active participation, group work, troubleshooting and problem solving.

    And isn’t this all about what value we have for teaching in regards to teacher centred v’s student centred?

  14. [...] contrast to the rather feeble review our article received, consider the quality and diversity of comments on this article I posted on this site last week. I do almost all of my article publishing on my elearnspace or [...]