“How did you go bankrupt?”
“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
I’ve been involved in higher education for fifteen years. Most of that has been as a faculty member, researcher, and (to a lessor extent) administrator. While fifteen years seems like a short period of time, in the language of the internet, it is a lifetime.
The past decade alone has seen the rise of Google. Web 2.0. Social media. The development of the learning management system. Online learning has gained the attention of top tier universities. Students have traded in textbooks, first for laptops, then for tablets and smart phones. Content has been opened by universities around the world. Many, many classrooms have seen hundreds of thousands of dollars in technological face lifts. Wired internet has given way to wireless. Desktop software has given way to the cloud.
During this period of rapid transition, nothing prepared me for the now over-hyped Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). Stephen Downes and I ran our first MOOC at University of Manitoba in 2008. Dave Cormier joined in and promptly coined the term “MOOC”. The idea was simple: create an open, distributed learning experience…one that reflects, rather than fights, the internet. Since then, we have run numerous MOOCs on a variety of topics, including: personal learning environments, the future of education, connectivism, and learning analytics. Students of our MOOCs have since designed and run their own. We’ve development our pedagogical model and the software that we used to run these courses steadily over the past four years.
Then Stanford, 2011, happened. Then Coursera. Then EDx. Then an insane amount of hype. Rarely do educational ideals jump into mainstream media. MOOCs did, in a big way, with coverage in local and national newspapers, radio, and TV. I can comfortably say that I have never seen a trend in higher education spread as quickly or become as widely discussed in popular culture as MOOCs.
Change does not follow a continuous or smooth trajectory. It happens in fits and starts. Or in the language of Hemingway, “gradually. Then suddenly”. Information fields such as newspapers, journalism, and scholarship have experienced stunning change. Essentially, the internet, along with the power it redistributes to end users, has happened to those fields. After years of predications, and decades of false starts, change, it appears, has come to the university.
Education impacts all aspects of society. Part of this impact is felt in the development of a skilled labour force. Other impacts can be seen in the ideals of an equitable, humane, society. Still others are seen in the growth of knowledge that permits humanity to discovery new particles in physics or to land a rover on Mars. The centrality of education in society makes it an ideological battle ground. There is a familiarity to education that comes from the long acquaintance of primary, secondary, and post-secondary experiences. Because we have all experienced education, it is something personal, something about which we feel entitled to comment and pontificate.
I’ve sat in far too many lectures where the presenter pulls up that cliche slide: “this is the industrialized education system” “it looks just like it did 200 years ago”. The view that education is the same as it was 200 years ago is a gross oversimplification. Content, curriculum, peer review, library systems, IT infrastructure, and pedagogy have all changed dramatically. Yet even with the change HE has experienced, there are camps that are eager for more significant, more fundamental change. These camps include entrepreneurs, frustrated students, parents overwhelmed by tuition, and governments trying desperately to scale back the expenses to produce an educated citizenry.
The pent up, frustrated, demand for change in a system as personal as HE produces a zealousness to embrace almost any concept that holds potential for change. This potential has in the past come through the use of television for instruction (and prior to that, radio), or web 2.0 and social media for a new end-user empowered learning model. As each wave of hype dies down, a type of cynical disillusion settles for the survivors of another cycle of false hope. With MOOCs, we are today seeing the most recent instantiation of desire for change, for revolution.
Bill Gates supposedly stated some variation of “change is overestimated in the short term and underestimated in the long term”. I think higher education is at the edge, primed for significant change. My interest, however, is in understanding the fundamental source of that change. Tool-based views of change last about as long as a tool lasts. Getting to the essence of a transition requires deeper exploration. Change in higher education is not only about the tools we use.
With this xEducation book we want to explore what is the change that underpins the new technologies and tools. What is being ignored in the current stampede for MOOCs, tablets, alternative assessment, online learning, and numerous other drivers? My view is that we are witnessing a rare period where society alters how it creates, shares, and disseminates knowledge. The university’s main currency, its main product, is knowledge. As new things are done with knowledge, university’s face pressure to adapt to knowledge’s structure and flow. When we strip away MOOCs and whatever new trend will cause consultants and keynote speakers to fall into states of joy and glee, we find that we are standing on a platform of knowledge that has been shifting for decades.
Our thesis with xEducation is that the internet is happening to higher education and that successful universities of the future will be those that find ways to generate value for its many stakeholders that go beyond content provision and teaching. What exactly that value proposition is remains unclear. On the one hand, content and (recorded) lectures can easily be shared with limited costs. The internet scales content exceptionally well. The human, social, processes of learning don’t scale. Research doesn’t scale (yet). Regional and national economic value generation doesn’t scale. In these spaces where scalability does not work well, universities will likely find their new roles in society. Over the next six months, we’ll explore and test this thesis and place the discussion of higher education reform on a firmer foundation than the latest tool and popular hype.
We invite your comments, suggestions, and critiques.