At my school, fellow professors and deans been studying the MOOC and online learning trend--we call it "disruptive" technology. And we're strategizing about it. But some of us are not thinking that it is the apocalypse many predict. But we're thinking hard about what it might be.
For my part, I think many of the articles we've read in the press about the "end of the university" say more about what it takes to be a journalist these days than what is actually portended by MOOC's etc. One must write sentences like this: "In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it." [http://the-american-interest.com/article.cfm?piece=1352] This kind of journalism wailed that cassette tapes would destroy record albums, then said DVD's would end movie theaters, etc. Those aren't perfect analogies, but what is true is that new technologies always seem to erase from journalists' conscious attention all the qualities in the older technology (or social practice) that are *not* present in the new technology.
Ok, enough ranting about journalists. Below is a kind of "whoa there" meditation I wrote for university types worried about coming trends. It doesn’t dismiss the changes, but it emphasizes what will likely remain valuable in the face of change. I have changed my actual univerity’s name to “MyU” to make it generic.
Six Warnings to Keep in Mind While Envisioning Education's Online Future
(besides ”wear clean underwear because you never know when you’ll be in an accident”)
December 16, 2012
Socrates said he knew “nothing” — except that he did not know. But he knew enough to implore his fellow citizens to justify what they claimed to know and sought to teach them a way to investigate when they didn’t. Socrates was well enough loved and respected that his ideas live on today; he was also hated enough for Athen’s powerful to put him to death.
This is all just my pedantic way of lowering your expectations about how specific a “vision” I want to lay out for you in the next few minutes. Instead, what I’ll do is state what I take to be significant principles and warnings for MyU to keep in mind as it imagines the road ahead.
Here they are, in brief:
- 1. “Be yourself” (Authenticity)
- 2. “There’s no place like home.” (Location)
- 3. “Be nice to your kids--they’re going to take care of you when you’re old.” (Loyalty)
- 4. “Beware of Magic Beans” (and news reports of magic beans) (Autonomy)
- 5. “Fight the Good fight.” (Citizenship)
- 6. “Information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom.” (Pluralism)
“Be yourself” (Authenticity)
The struggle to define our “brand” will tempt us to look at how others are doing things. This is helpful, but can be dangerous. Our assets are real and specific to MyU; we must not lose sight of them as we envision our ideal and future self. No one likes a phony.
“There’s no place like home.” (Location)
One way to “be ourselves” is to remain mindful of MyU’s prominence as local-regional force. While we explore for new (and possibly distant) resources, we shouldn’t second guess the durability of our local mission.
MyU has been forged into a hardy alloy extending to a variety of audiences: local-metro/regional/national and international. The first two are our greatest strength — and will continue to be. People continue to move to my city, continue to want to work here, and our knowledge economy is growing. However we use technology to extend our “brand,” we must not harm our efficacy in providing an education for local people. As one of my colleagues put it, "We have naturally developed into a place somewhat different than our sister institutions” because we can provide “flexible, cross pollinated, hands-on degrees in an urban environment."
Let me sharpen my point just a little. Marshall McLuhan predicted that a “global village” would be the result of television. This has not happened. While millions of people are in greater contact than before, and there’s a generally more cosmopolitan awareness, the importance of face-to-face experience—of meaningful local and regional interactions—has increased.
“Be nice to your kids--they’re going to take care of you when you’re old.” (Loyalty)
Investment in location creates genuine bonds of loyalty. Education that is collaborative and humane (focused on issues central to being a “person” and not just an “employee”) creates bonds of loyalty and, somewhat ironically, longterm financial support. We must develop a vision that thinks through how to care about our students; put another way, striving for “student success” means striving to make “care” the central virtue of education. Reflect for a moment about the teachers who have inspired you. Your loyalty was inspired by the method and sensitivity of that teacher, not by the information delivered. If our university wants to cultivate an alumni community, we must enhance the experience of people who come to campus. We mustn’t dilute the message that care is core to who we are and what we do.
“Beware of Magic Beans” (and news reports of magic beans) (Autonomy)
Don’t be ruled by your tools. As imagine our future, we must remain aware that we are surrounded by a relentless “siren song” of technology. New products (and an industry of “news” about those products) trumpet the arrival of “revolutionary technologies” every single day. Neil Postman, an NYU educator and philosopher of technology sized up our culture as a “technopoly”. For Postman,
Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology. This requires the development of a new kind of social order, and of necessity leads to the rapid dissolution of much that is associated with traditional beliefs. (Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, New York, Vintage Books, pp. 71-72.)
In a technopoly, a surplus of information is generated by technology. This constitutes a problem, which technologist propose to solve with more technology. Society’s habituation to the patterns generated by information technology (problem-solution-problem) results in a historically radical shift in direction and purpose for society and individuals. We move away from, in Albert Borgmann’s phrase, "focal things and practices" toward a device paradigm. (Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry. University of Chicago Press, 1984.)
These philosophers are articulating common sense. We know it is often true that “more is less” and “less is more,” especially when you keep your eye on what’s genuinely valuable in the long term. Note that we typically never hear this from technology’s greatest proponents, because they have a financial incentive which prevents them from telling you “less is more.” (The cost of technology driven healthcare in the US is a case study on this point.) Note, too, that the PR value of technology isn’t lost on many administrators. They know that a picture of a beautiful new technology lab is much sexier than sinking investment money into people, where it remains, for PR purposes, largely invisible.
“Fight the Good fight.” (Citizenship)
We are a “public university”: of the people, by the people, for the people. We must not give up making the “public good” argument. After all, what we do is a public good, and unless the university is merely another business or a job training institute we will lose our mission (and our brand). We must keep educating people about this.
Yes, it is difficult to come up with a marketing campaign to highlight this function. But I think this is a question of strategizing our advocacy for the longterm. Our challenge is: how can we make the case for the public good of education in a technology-rich democracy? As we make a case for more democracy, we can adapt technology to suit our ends, rather than adapting our ends to suit technology. (Horse first, then cart!)
“Information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom.” (Pluralism)
The functions of a university are threefold: to collect data (information), organize it purposefully (knowledge), and to debate and formulate the best ends (wisdom). None of these functions need connote an “ivory tower.” Indeed, in a modern democratic and scientific institution like a university, it’s essential that we establish a dynamic relationship with multiple, wider communities to generate all three. Research and practice can only thrive in an ecology that engages the wider public.
The last point I want to make is a simple one: we cannot become just another middleman, and that’s what we become when we see ourselves as mere purveyors of information or vocational necessities. As Udacity’s co-founder (and Stanford alum) David Stavens conceded “I think the top 50 schools are probably safe,” he says. “There’s a magic that goes on inside a university campus that, if you can afford to live inside that bubble, is wonderful.” (“College Is Dead. Long Live College! Can a new breed of online megacourses finally offer a college education to more people for less money?” By Amanda Ripley, New America Foundation; October 18, 2012 | TIME Magazine)
I think Stavens is wrong about this--you don’t have to be one of the “top 50 schools.” You have to be known in your region as a “top” place and you have to keep your costs down. We’re already there--and now the challenge is to strengthen our position and build outwards.