Our (Almost) Edgeless Universities
Peter Bradwell of the UK-based think-tank Demos suggests that the university is becoming “edgeless”: “The university”, he writes, “is becoming defined by its function – providers and facilitation of learning and research – not its form. It’s influence, reach, and value extend beyond its UK campus.”
Well, it is and isn’t.
The report begins by describing this edgeless quality of contemporary universities, but the bulk of the report explains how the university “ought” to be edgeless. The latter is more accurate.
To achieve this state of edgelessness, the university must begin to make connections with the vast and rapidly growing informal learning opportunities available outside of the university. New partnerships with other learning organizations outside of academia are required; greater use of open content (e.g. MIT OCW) and social learning networks.
Bradwell offers a number of examples of innovative learning opportunities outside of the university, such as The School of Everything – a free web-based social learning network that helps learners connect with teachers. The School “is a model of how technology can support self-organizing of learning – and help people find an education tailored to their needs.”
A particularly interesting recommendation is to have universities assess and validate learning that takes place beyond university limits. Formal validation of learning is important. As more knowledge becomes readily available outside universities (and hospitals, financial institutions, news services, etc), more learning can and will take place outside these institutions. (I’ve looked at this issue from a slightly different angle in a number of conference papers in 2006 and 2007.) We’ve already seen a shift in how people acquire knowledge in their daily lives (see Google). And unlike the university model, this learning tends to be just-in-time and based on the learners’ specific needs.
Moreover, it makes sense that we use our existing institutions to play this role. “This is where a university’s values can reassert themselves. As more content is available, guidance and expertise in sorting and assessing it become more valuable.” For the university, this new role provides them with the opportunity to respond to the threat of alternative learning opportunities in a positive, productive fashion.
What’s My Motivation?
That there are reasons that universities should respond in this fashion doesn’t mean they will, of course. The proposed role for universities actually runs counter to some of the more fundamental properties of the institution.
Universities produce and distribute intellectual capital. They seek out the best faculty for these purposes. They then support these faculty so that they can produce more and better intellectual capital. Some of this capital is subsequently distributed in the form of teaching and publications.
The quality and volume of intellectual capital produced by each university is its evidence of success. The more successful the university, the more access they have to additional resources – in the form of higher tuition, better students (who then give back to the university at higher levels), research grants, philanthropists donations, and more productive faculty.
The practice of incorporating and validating learning and educational resources that are not produced within the institution will be interpreted, under the current institutional model, as inconsistent with university’s interests. If a university’s value is the knowledge it produces and then distributes, validating learning and learning materials outside of the institution will weaken their perceived value. It will challenge the role of academics as “the” appropriate source of knowledge. Even relatively mild reforms of this type have caused resistance within higher education: witness the response to universities that have external private sector vendors create online courses for use within the university.
Concern about the source of the knowledge is particularly acute in educational institutions because it is difficult to measure the quality of “output” in education – due to the nature of learning. And because relatively little work has gone into measuring output in higher education, we aren’t yet very good at it. We evaluate input, instead – the very activities and qualities that the proposed role for universities disrupts.