Some random thoughts on the supposed collapse of the university as we know it

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but as I head into what (I think?) is the end of the Bonk MOOC and after collecting a bunch of links on this, I thought I’d offer some random thoughts on the end of higher education as we know it.

Throw a brick out a window and you’re liable to hit an article like these:

I could go on, but you see the point.  Now to my random thoughts:

  • In a global way, I think Aaron Barlow says a lot of what I would say in this post and this post on his blog One Flew East.  As far as I can tell, education has been in a state of revolution that potentially eliminates the teacher since Socrates and Phaedrus talked about the dangers of literacy.  Books, print, cheap publishing, etc. have been available for learning without teachers or interaction with others for a long time, but as Barlow points out, “Only the rare person is a true autodidact.”
  • The fact that most of us (including me) lack the ability to intensely self-direct our learning (and I for one lack the crazily internal motivations for doing almost anything) is the key in understanding why both Thiel’s foundation and these various no credit MOOCs are basically a waste of time and/or a PR stunt.  Sure, if you hold a national contest attracting the best and brightest young people in the country and offer them $100K to develop those ideas, those folks can probably get away without having a college degree.  Sure, there are people– especially in the IT world– who are more or less self-taught and could be where they are without a college degree.  Sure, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs dropped out of college.  But the fact is most of us aren’t like that, and most of us are not Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or (insert your other anomaly genius name here).  Most of us need something a lot closer to a classroom and degree experience to succeed.
  • Wasn’t it just a few years ago that the popular press was running a bunch of articles about how it turns out that lecture hall discussions were bad and it was the interaction between students and teachers that fostered learning?  Wasn’t the whole “reversed classroom” thing the main topic of discussion just a few months ago?  So why on earth is an online version of a sage on the stage now seen as the solution?
  • Show me anyone writing for mainstream media that college is a waste of time and money and I’ll show you someone– that same writer– who has a college degree, and usually a college degree from a fancy-pants institution.  It’s the same argument I have about the coming revolution in digital scholarship:   I’ll agree that publishing in fixed manuscript form is over as soon as these folks publishing books about digital scholarship and the end of print start getting recognition for their actual digital scholarship and that work alone.  I think the days of printing on paper are numbered, sure.  But words in a row– even when those words in a row are about multimodality or digital rhetoric or what have you– aren’t going anywhere.
  • A few years ago, I did a project on correspondence schools in the late 19th and early 20th century, and a number of years before that and as part of one of the last classes I took in my PhD program, I did some research on elocution and the “home learning” movements of the 19th century.  Classes conducted via the postal service were a particularly big deal in the midwest.  William Rainey Harper, who has a community college named after him in the Chicago area, said in 1885 “the day is coming when the work done by correspondence will be greater than that done in the classrooms of our academies and colleges.”  Makes me think I should go back to those scholarly projects.

3 thoughts on “Some random thoughts on the supposed collapse of the university as we know it”

  1. I think you nail it with how many “autodidacts” are there really? The answer is, “very, very few”, and usually when there are, you found these people were simply getting what many people get formally, informally, perhaps via a parent or relative.

    Where you and I diverge a bit is that I see no reason for people to wait to be recognized or given credit for going digital. In this and other writings, I feel an undercurrent of an expectation that we should wait for institutions to catch up. Institutions, particularly lower tier institutions, will be punished for not catching the wave. The bottom line is that you have stay relevant. You can’t just sit there saying I only accept books copied by quill when the printing press is going full force.

    1. Absolutely Bud, and you know that I’m a digital kinda guy. And I’m all for online classes too– I would say about half of my regular teaching load nowadays is online– as long as they’re done well. For me, online class success hinges on a lot of interaction between all participants (and that includes the instructor), the use of a variety of tools that foster some sense of “community” (e.g., not just a behind the firewall course shell), clear guidelines on assignments and outcomes that can be assessed in a way that is analogous to face to face classes, etc.

      In other words, almost everything that is the opposite of MOOCs.

      As far as books go: as I said here, I think the days of print on paper are numbered. It’s been a long time in coming (I thought we would have had electronic textbooks a decade ago, frankly), but I think that print on paper is going the way of fountain pens: that is, a tool that was once the common standard for writing is now an expensive novelty/art piece, the sort of thing you might give as a graduation gift, or something only a ridiculously rich person could afford.

      But there are still going to be books in an electronic format, and they’re still going to be bought and sold as a commodity and they are still going to be seen as markers of expertise– as in “so and so has a book about that, so that person must know what they’re talking about.” The shape of the container and even some of what makes up the contents (images and snippets of video and audio) of “e-books” are evolving, and what we end up with in just a few decades is likely to be as unrecognizable to us now, much in the same way that I suspect a pre-Guttenberg reader would find a paper copy of Time magazine an almost impossible work of magic. But the basic premise of a book, of words in a row fixed in time, is just not going away, IMO.

      1. To an extent, I think the book as we know it is an artifact of the print publishing system we developed to deliver knowledge. I suspect we might find ourselves constructing books or curricula from much smaller chunks of knowledge.

        The long-form book won’t disappear, but we might find ourselves more often using something else. I think the defining feature will be whether you need a coherent story line woven across the written material as presented. Sometimes yes. Sometimes no.

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