I wonder what the distributed university will look like. For that matter, I wonder what the distributed education will look like. It’s not an idle curiosity. Like media and every industry and institution before it, the academe is waiting to be exploded by the internet.
Start here: Why should my son or daughter have to pick a single college and with it only the teachers and courses offered there? Online, they should be able to take most any course anywhere. Indeed, schools from MIT to Stanford are now offering their curricula the internet. Of course, these come without the benefit of the instructors’ attention — and without tuition — but it’s easy to add that interaction; there are lots of online courses taught by live faculty.
Similarly, why should a professor pick just from the students accepted at his or her school? Online, the best can pick from the best, cutting out the middleman of university admissions.
Now the next step: students teaching each other. My daughter and I have been playing with Livemocha, a language-learning social network that enables my exercises to be critiqued by native speakers in the language I’m learning; I do the same favor for people trying to learn English. It’s a great expression of the gift economy. (One complaint I have with them is that it was hard to shut off constant email alerts and there is no way to shut off invitations to chat I really wish my daughter did not get. I suggested they give more controls of this to users — and especially parents — and got back a snippy response from a customer-service rep who should have worked at Dell pre-hell. In any case, it’s a fascinating effort in collaborative education.)
Once you put all this together, students can self-organize with teachers and fellow students to learn what they want how and where they want. My hope is that this could finally lead to the lifelong education we keep nattering about but do little to actually support. And why don’t we? Because it doesn’t fit into the degree structure. And because self-organizing classes and education could cut academic institutions out of the their exclusive role in education.
So what if the degree structure is outmoded? What does a bachelor’s of arts really say you’re ready to do? Once you get a medical degree, if you practice, you’re required to take refreshers as the science changes. Shouldn’t we be offering journalists updates as new tools and opportunities emerge in their craft? (Short answer: yes.) And while on the example of journalists, what if it were easy for them to take a course in, say, accounting when they get assigned to the business section, or science when given the environmental beat? So rather than signing on for a one-time degree, what if I subscribe to education for life? Or what if the culture simply expects me to bone up because it’s so damned easy to (and I don’t have to go through tests and admissions and all that)?
The real problem with this for society is that it cuts out the core business of the university, which also produces research and scholarship. Professors don’t work as hard as, say, high-school teachers because they are expected to do that thinking and work that society needs. If education ends up handled by the Phoenix Universities of the web, then what happens to scholarship? The problem here is that the internet is unforgiving of needs to preserve old models and methods. It disaggregates ruthlessly.
So I think that education has a rude shocking coming unless it gets ahead of this change and figures out how to become less of an institution and more of a platform. I hear a lot of universities talking proudly these days about their going interdisciplinary within their own institutions — that is, enabling two departments to finally start working together offering courses. But that’s not nearly far enough; that’s like a media company talking about synergy. What they need to do instead is start thinking past their ivied walls to work with other universities and with networks of teachers and students, not to mention alumni who leave with knowledge and gain more knowledge they could and should share.
So what does the distributed university look like?