In recent times, an issue that has come to occupy the interests of some academics and some of the senior leadership/management of universities in Australia1 is the emergence of new forms of doing Higher Education (HE) and, doing education more generally. These new forms are at the edges of the HE environment2. The appearance of a growing number of experiments in HE is one indication that things are shifting. Beneath these developments are technologies that continue to improve exponentially. Taken together, this makes for a new ecology for learning and teaching. In what we might call a digital educational tundra, the mega fauna that will come to dominate are unlikely to be universities as we know them.
Predicting things is always a risky move. Our experience, particularly when new technologies appear, has been to get things spectacularly wrong. As McLuhan so eloquently put it:
The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.
The rise of MOOCs and other related forms of doing HE has prompted a broad range of responses in universities. Almost invariably, the new is read in terms of what has existed for hundreds of years. Contemporary adjectives3 are routinely added to give the impression that the organisation has all of this new fangled stuff under control and can leverage it to advantage. Having lived through thirty years of technological change in education that has delivered such mind-numbingly conservative resources as the learning management system (LMS), it is easy to understand the complacency of many about recent developments.
If however, as some imagine, the development of MOOCs is a harbinger of the kind of disruption that mobile telephony brought to the telephone industry4, the mindsets of those who lead/manage universities are ill-prepared to see these developments in anything other than corporate university terms. The framings and logics generated by the traditions and practices of the modern university5 and, more recently, embellished by the adoption of practices from management science6 makes university responses predictable and reactive.
Credentialing may appear to be one of the elements of HE that could survive a rearrangement of the HE environment. But here also we can see more rear-view mirror thinking. Recognition of prior learning is suggested as part of a way to come to terms with the completion certificates being issued by some MOOCs. This positions the new as something to be adapted to and accommodated. Rather than tweaking the existing system, thought might be given to examining both the origins and current use of these things called qualifications. Attention might also be given to emerging practices in hiring. Relying on bodies like the AQF to somehow provide protection from what might develop would be naive. I am reminded here of the example James Boyle gave in his keynote address to the Beyond Broadcast conference in 2006. Boyle made the point that we allow those who have the current business models to rule whether or not a new business model is legal. As an illustration, he imagined asking the whale oil companies if the new technology for lighting, electricity, was legal.
Q: So is this electric light stuff legal?
A: No, no, no, no, no.
Disruption to qualifications is, I believe, a scenario that HE institutions need to rehearse. Of course none of this will happen overnight, but just as academic publishing moved from demonstrations in front of reliable witnesses7 to the now familiar peer-review process of publishing, so it is not outside the realms of possibility that new ways of credentialing and acknowledging learning will emerge to challenge the status quo. Denial is neither a robust nor sensible response.
Working towards mindsets that differ sufficiently from those that operate so successfully in the contemporary HE environment is not easy. Establishing a facility that could literally be allowed to think outside the box, uninfluenced by the bureaucratic controls of the parent company is a problem that is familiar to many businesses. A solution to this problem was developed during World War II by the aircraft manufacturer Lockheed. The name of that original project, skunkworks, has become a label for similar projects since.
The important point in all of this is that the technologies that support developments like MOOCs are improving, as I suggested above, exponentially. Exponential change is not something we are particularly good at thinking about. The improvements are accelerating, not improving at constant speed! We don’t need to predict what will or won’t happen. We can be sure that the reactive approach which currently characterises HE thinking in Australia simply won’t suffice. It’s horseless carriage thinking. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When all you have is a LMS …
- I am more familiar with the machinations of institutions in Australia than those in other parts of the world. [↩]
- Some of these experiments would not be recognised as part of the HE environment by some. [↩]
- The terms virtual, online and now, cloud come to mind. [↩]
- The work of Clayton Christensen and his colleagues and the notion of disruptive and sustaining innovations is important here. [↩]
- William Clark’s Academic charisma and the origins of the research university, offers a rich and detailed account of many of these. [↩]
- The oxymoronic nature of this term is lost on those who oversee the over management of universities in Australia. [↩]
- See, for example, Shapin, S., & Schaffer, S. (2011). Leviathan and the air-pump : Hobbes, Boyle, and the experimental life. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. [↩]