Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Education 2.0: The Unbundling of the University

I have previous mentioned about a Facilitated Network Model of education, where modern learning technology - of cheap communication and rich media - transform the education to a more asynchronous, personalized yet collaborative process. I argued that the model of education as we have it today, is increasingly out of sync with our life.

This is not just because of technology. I say this because of wider social changes, primarily (a) withering of all certainties in life and (b) breakdown of the stages of life. One can possibly argue that the quest of knowledge does not get affected, at least too deeply, by the changing social rules But, the idea of the university is not about just quest of knowledge. It is primarily about connecting human knowledge to life. And, in the context of a rapidly transforming landscape of life, today's universities are inadequate facilitators of the stated purpose.

One can possibly argue that the nature of knowledge itself is changing. Being a blogger myself, I have keenly followed the 'cult of the amateur' debate, the reasoning that the Internet is disruptive to human progress because it creates a chaotic, often unreliable, mass of information. Not just that, the reasoning goes that by making available such unreliable information at a fraction of a cost, the Internet is decimating the knowledge industry - professional journalism, book writing, and yes, teaching - and creating a huge wave of misinformation instead. However, I do think this debate is based on a dated assumption of what knowledge is. In the context of this debate, knowledge is perceived to be that distilled mass of information, carefully put in the context through well thought out processes of peer review [or editorial review], which then needs to be passed on, in a controlled form, to the seekers of knowledge, willing students or the wider public.

However, one can say the social context of knowledge has itself changed. One can see technology, of communication, transportation and presentation, as a development outside the social processes [driven by individual pursuit and invention], and essentially an external force which helps shape our social context. And, one can add to that the accumulation of human experience, which can be roughly termed as Historical Consciousness, which acts on the social context from inside and help shape our social context. Assuming a static nature of knowledge and its dispensation is to deny these two active influences on our lives. It is possible to see that the availability of technological tools, and accumulated experience leading to the requirement of use of such technology to disseminate knowledge, has fundamentally changed how human knowledge is created, stored, accumulated and put to use.

So, I shall argue that today knowledge resides in a Network rather than the distilling processes of peer review. Now, this is not a monkeys-on-the-typewriter view of knowledge, a belief in random chance in the process of creation of knowledge. The process of creation of knowledge was, and will remain, in the domain of individual thought and inventiveness. However, the process of distillation and contextualization has become more inclusive and universal. And, in this journey, the knowledge itself does not reside in the process, but in the network of expertise, interests and perspectives.

Wikipedia is a rather obvious example of how this works. There was the whole process of rigorous review by expert editors leading to the creation of an encyclopedia. Wikipedia flipped the model by creating a network of expertise, interest and perspective around each subject area. Consequently, there is a significant difference in the content of Wikipedia, as against the traditional encyclopedia. The traditional encyclopedia content attempts to achieve some kind of finality, while Wikipedia is always work in progress. One may scoff at such incompleteness, but all knowledge, by definition, is incomplete, because they are always based on certain assumptions. In that regard, Wikipedia's work-in-progress and the environment of dynamic accumulation merits as as accurate as journey towards the truth as that of any encyclopedia. Besides, one area where Wikipedia will beat the other encyclopedia hands down is in currency and context, and in a rapidly changing world of knowledge where everything is uncertain, the currency and context are the two key attributes we want our knowledge with.


On the subject of Wikipedia, however, one last vestige of the old-school process still remains, in defining the subject areas itself [one can see that Wikipedia recently listed out certain subject areas for deletion]. This will possibly remain for some time to come, and I shall say that this is why we may still need universities to define 'what we need to know' rather than how, where, when we need to know.

This shift of knowledge creation as a process to knowledge creation in a network will fundamentally redefine the knowledge industries, despite Andrew Keen's protestations on the contrary. This is already changing newspapers and magazines, which has now come to terms with this inevitability, and incorporated user-generated content in their offering. The experiment, one can now safely say, enriched the newspaper content and not taken away anything from them. Blogs today are an essential part of our knowledge universe and in many areas, especially where context is at least as important as the content [and one can cite many areas of knowledge where it is such], one would feel more comfortable referring to a blog than a 'balanced' academic article. And, in relation to such shift in the nature of knowledge, we shall argue that the universities need to transform, unbundled, themselves.

It is possible to visualize an 'unbundled' university as a library, but libraries lack the necessary definition of 'what' in their pure form. This is where universities, as a guide for the seekers, will continue to exist. However, the other elements of curriculum planning, where, when, who and how will become less important, or at least be fundamentally different questions than what it is today. The universities will become a global congregation, of expertise, interest and perspectives, which the students will not only learn from but also contribute to.

From a societal point-of-view, this university as a network will better serve the needs than the existing university as a place and a process model. As all stated certainties of life, including house ownerships, standard heterosexual families with kids, the standard shape and scope of employment, and the usual cycle of income and saving, disappear, the learners will need a lifelong engagement and the learning as a process will be replaced by learning as being a member of a network.

I shall argue that this is not an techno-utopia, but the shape of things to come. My post coincides with, but not triggered by, Peter Mandelson's announcement of huge spending cuts in Higher Education, which will restrict university places in Britain, and create larger class sizes and more difficult to cope up with schedules. This is just one isolated event, but part of a larger trend. The governments worldwide is at a loss about how they can possibly function with the short-term considerations of the bond traders but yet continue to serve the social needs of university education and long-term imperatives of innovation and research. Their solution so far was to look inside the box, preserve the industrial era universities but just change the funding models through private business participation. That is, however, unlikely to solve the problem. Worse, that solution is likely to create a knowledge poor class, which is an observable trend in America, where the rising costs of education is coming in the way of American dream and increasingly creating a deeply class-based society. This will more deeply hurt the developing countries, as they struggle at the bottom of the ladder to achieve the twin objectives of progress and citizen participation. The skewed education process will pervert the course of democracy and justice, and will eventually make societies dysfunctional.

We shall need to reverse the process. Now.

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