We like to believe that we interpret the world around us objectively, accurately, and consistently. But to a great extent, we make sense of the people, objects and virtually everything around us on the basis of the circumstances in which we experience them. Context matters. Art is the classic example. If we take a work of art out from behind the red ropes, away from the quiet guards, and out of the art gallery, the meaning and value of the art may change a great deal. So too might its’ monetary value; in fact, it may no longer be interpreted as art at all (c.f. Senie, Harriet).
Context is also crucial in commercial markets. Vendors go to great lengths to control the context in which their products and services are positioned. Television advertisers, for example, avoid placing ads in the middle of programmes that address unsettling topics; that evoke emotions and sensibilities that are not supportive of the product being promoted. “The Day After” was a bad made-for-TV movie in the 80s about the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the U.S. The film’s producers found it so difficult to attract advertisers that they were forced to run all the ads prior to the point in the film when the nuclear attack occurs. Apparently, convincing people that having fresher breath will make them truly, finally happy is more difficult after witnessing the end of the world.
What, if anything, does this have to do with higher education? Until recently, not much. Historically, higher education has limited what people outside of the institution could access to and, generally, held great control over how people interpreted the institution’s value. Compared to other types of organisations, colleges and universities are like remote islands, “all-inclusive” experiences, in which only enrolled students have access.
Educational Content in New Contexts
But the walls around higher education are becoming more porous; sometimes by design, sometimes not. Piece-by-piece, components of the university experience are becoming knowable outside of the university. Students rate professors on commercial sites like “RateMyProfessor”, universities set up Facebook groups in which all-comers can contribute, and ranking systems by the likes of US News and World Report are becoming common destinations, as well as easier to interpret.
But the most dramatic change involves access to instructional content. The Net is making it easier and, possibly inevitable, for instructional materials — normally held behind password-protected sites — to be available to those outside the institution. This puts the core of the institution on display in a way that we’ve not seen before, opening it up to evaluation and comparison.
We saw this first with OER — open educational resources. Individual instructors uploaded elements of their course materials for public consumption on platforms like MITx, Academic Earth, OpenStax and Merlot. Sharing instructional content publicly was a low-key affair; faculty often made the decision to share content on their own accord. Yet, even early on, we began to see how this sharing of content; this new transparency could lead to surprising repercussions. Even the most prestigious institution was now subject to criticism if what they shared publicly wasn’t well-prepared. For instance, Philip Greenspun did a rather biting minute-by-minute evaluation of a lecture by a high-profile, Ivy League professor, suggesting that it was a wasteful, self-indulgent use of class time.
I first wrote about this trend in early 2012. At that time, I suggested that if this trend continued — and there was no reason to think that it wouldn’t — then academic leaders would need to pay more attention to what is being shared, as these course materials ultimately represent and reflect the institution from which they come.
And Then MOOCs
Then . . . MOOCs happened. Suddenly, this small-scale sharing of instructional materials became a very big, very public matter. Not merely of interest within academia, MOOCs became a subject of discussion in the broader public through celebratory articles in The Guardian, New York Times, Huffington Post, and elsewhere (“Free Elite University Education!”). Regardless of their level of interest in online learning to-date, university presidents at elite institutions were now paying rapt attention. They knew that participating in this MOOC frenzy was a key means by which their university was going to define its identity in the broader marketplace of brands. The money spent on MOOCs climbed higher with every editorial in the New York Times or Washington Post. Soon, videographers, make-up artists, lighting crews and even actors were receiving invitations to campus to help create a more polished product.
It would be easy to cynically dismiss this as merely a marketing issue. But if we take a step back, I think we can see this as part of a broader trend toward greater transparency and accountability in higher education. As is the case in other fields, the Internet is increasing the amount of information available to the public. If so inclined, a student can gather an extraordinary amount of information about an institution, its faculty, students and, of course, its scandals. And, clearly, they want this information. Institutions would be best to be prepared.
Harriet Senie. Critical Issues in Public Art: Content, Context, and Controversy. Smithsonian Institution, 2014.
Keith Hampson, Ph.D. is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximising value.