Universities should act while they have the chance

From David Wiley’s blog (“Iterating towards openness) – David is founder of OpenContent.org. After a general discussion about free-being-inevitable (reviewing reviews of Chris Andersons upcoming book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price he moves to higher education:

Competition! Massive amounts of almost-no-barrier-to-entry competition. Much of it will be poor. I suppose you can take some comfort in that. But some of it will be very, very good. And that should scare existing institutions silly. The education game is about to change, and you (your institution) have three choices:

1. Innovate your way forward. If you allow your business model to become flexible and responsive, you can feel your way forward, influencing the emergent educational context as it simultaneously influences your business model. (A dynamic system!)

2. Wait for others to innovate their way forward. Let them shape the future educational context without your input, and hope that 10 years from now higher education is still a place where your institution is relevant. (If it isnt, youll have only yourself to blame.)

3. Ignore / deny that anything is changing (or will ever change). Higher education is too important, too deeply woven into the fabric of society, too critical for employers, and too big a business to fail. (See you on the other side with GM and AIG.)

[…] but higher education will have to deal with [Chris’s] thesis as surely as Im typing this post. As Lehi taught, there are two types of things in this world things to act and things to be acted upon. The day is close at hand when each university will have to decide which they are.

I had been planning to blog about universities and their attitude to the digital world, so this gives me the incentive. The points are general…

In 1992 I got very excited about the power of digital learning and embraced many of the startup ideas. These included the Globewide Network Academy which is a voluntary organisation (much the same dynamics as Wikipedia, but nearly 10 years ahead). We used MOOs to create VLEs and Marcus Speh ran the first Virtual course on the Web (Object Oriented design using C++) – the material fell foul of copyright Mordor even then. It won a best-of-the-web in 1994 at WWW1.

These were heady days. I thought the world was changing before my eyes. And I was invited to a Chair in the University of Nottingham to run a virtual course in Computer-Based Drug Design for the pharma industry. It was a technical success (highly rated by the Teaching Quality Assessement) but it didn’t have a sustainable business model and after a few years it closed down and I moved to Cambridge. But I have been looking for that spark elsewhere in Higher Education and I haven’t seen it.

By contrast, go back to 1970 when Harold Wilson initiated one of the great British achievements of the twentieth century, The Open University. That was stunning. The vision led the technology by a long way much of the material was posted paper, you could get online access to computer over a teletype (110 baud) for 2 weeks a year, and in some cases people had to climb a mountain to pick up the BBC signals. But again it changed my vision for ever. Anyone could, and did, go to the OU. Even if you couldn’t the programs were often stunning. The maths used graphics which for 1970 were miles beyond chalk-and-talk.

And now? Where are the universities changing the face of the world? Where communication is infinitely cheap. Where students are wired up with more power than the whole of the world 30 years ago. Where the Internet is changing democracy where are the changes in academia? Why, at least, are there few substantial discussions about what education means in a distributed world? It’s too easy to see the reverse where education is simply a branded deliverable contract between a customer (student) and a supplier (university).

Well, the internet changes that business very quickly. So unless there are some radically new ideas, Universities may find that others are eating their lunch.

In a later post I want to address the complex and depressing cycle between research and publication and the role of universities.

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3 Responses to Universities should act while they have the chance

  1. Laura says:

    Good to see the OU mentioned here. We are working on a platform which combines the best of the values and approaches found in the new social web technologies with those of higher education. This will create new modes of recognised and supported learning experiences.
    SocialLearn is predicated on a number of assumptions:
    * There is a major shift in society and education driven by the possibilities new technologies create for creating and sharing content and for social networking.
    * Higher education, to date, has not really addressed how to engage with these fundamental shifts and their impact on the core business model of higher education.
    * There is educational value in the application of both the technologies seen in web 2.0 and the approaches they embody.
    * The status quo is no longer feasible or advisable; we need to apply the best of our expertise and experience to address the necessary change.
    * Competition in the learner sphere is ever more complex, multi-faceted and fragmented; If higher education doesn?t address the issues this raises someone else will.
    * The principles embodied in SocialLearn reflect the essence of the proposal ? harnessing social networking for learning and include adopting an approach which is open, flexible, disruptive, democratic and, most importantly, pedagogically driven.
    We’d love you to sign up for an invite to the beta at http://www.open.ac.uk/sociallearn.

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