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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?

  • Avatar

    The problem with the distributed university is that it has no value as a credentialing body.

    The dirty secret of higher education is that the students, by and large, are not interested in the “traditional liberal education” that is being offered to them. They’re there in order to secure a paper that will allow them access to a whole range of employment opportunities that is otherwise closed to them. That’s not to say that students don’t also enjoy the education or that it’s not a good thing that they receive it, but the education is absolutely secondary to the credential. Nobody gets hired on the basis of auditing a four-year degree plan!

    (On the employers’ side, they’re not by and large interested in that education either. They’re looking for an efficient proxy that states “this applicant is literate, can do what they’re told, will jump through procedural hoops, is reasonably likely to be on time, and can at least do arithmetic on demand.” Knowledge of the Iliad or of the history of European colonization is optional.)

    For distributed education to work – for education outside the university establishment to work at all, aside from the enlightenment of the individual – there would need to be a method for an individual to obtain a credential outside the traditional university model. Go in, spend a day or two sitting exams, what have you, and that body will certify that you are indeed versed in Roman architecture or calculus or postmodern cinematography. Collect a few certifications in this style and you’ll have the equivalent of a university degree, probably at significantly less time and cost.

    Of course, the universities are not going to be helpful in this respect. Fact is, they’ll let you come and watch their courses, learn from their professors, for nothing. Their product is -selling the credential-; if you don’t pay the tuition, the university won’t vet your performance in the class. The evolution of an independent body of certification, outside certain specialist professions, would strike directly at their revenue stream.

    The question is, would employers value the new credentials? It’s arguable that they would serve as an inferior proxy for the behavior an employer values from an employee, compared to a four-year degree. On the other hand, an impressive collection of credentials could indicate a highly self-motivated individual… or a dilettante genius.

  • JennyD

    Jeff, I think you are kind of right and kind of wrong. First, I’m not sure that high school teachers work harder than professors. Maybe some do, maybe some don’t, but that seems like too general a statement without evidence.

    I think you are mixing up professional schools and professional education with the liberal arts. They are different, have different requirements and missions both for students and professors. Medical education, for example, is vastly different from doctoral education in History or Literature or Sociology. The goal of the former is adequately prepare future professionals for their clinical work prior to licensing and professional practice. The latter prepares scholars to teach in the discipline and pursue scholarly research to build knowledge in the field.

    I’m not sure you’d agree that a disaggregated medical school system is actually the best way to train physicians. But perhaps this structure would help train future historians. At the same time, I’m not sure how the alumni of a university would be able to contribute to the knowledge of a doctoral student studying the role of teenagers in Colonial America, let’s say.

    Perhaps it’s not that everyone needs to network with everyone, or everyone offers knowledge. But some people might offer specialized knowledge, and that is valuable. So it’s not about everyone babbling together on the internet, but about selecting resources that bring the most powerful knowledge to the problem. I see the university, at least big research universities, as already engaged in that work. Thanks to amazing librarians and other knowledge brokers at these places, the world is at the fingertips of scholars, and is changing the way research is done and knowledge is disseminated.

    If I were to suggest a place for further thought it might be in the area of the “public intellectual.” Scholars in universities do a lot of thinking and knowledge building, but rarely share that work in ways that are easily accessible to the public. Why? I know that some folks at USC are working on something called the Future of the Book and they have explored the notion of the public intellectual. I wonder if the real role of the networked world is to bring products of scholarship out of the academy in ways that can be shared with non-academics.

  • One thing for certain – the age distribution will be a lot broader. This means that students will be a lot more challenging ranging from the precocious child to the amateur who has accumulated decades of informal study. Exciting times for students hard work for mediocre academics

  • Bill K.

    Buzz Guy sez:

    “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.”

    Ur mixin yer metafers here, Jeff.

    I can see using the cliched “rude awakening,” but to describe “shocking” as “rude” is using unnecessary adjectival voltage. Could there be such a thing as a “polite shocking”?

  • JT Carpenter

    All I have to say about this idea Jeff is that it can not come soon enough! Avatar above does make an excellent point about the “credentialing” problem, but if a solution can be found to that, then the road ahead should be paved and ready.

    And if the politicans really want to make a world class education available for all at a far more affordable price than is available today, it seems to me this would be precisely the way to do it.

  • Brilliant, Jeff. Keep challenging assumptions. We need you.

  • At the heart of the University is the creation and dissemination of knowledge, carried out in a manner that is not driven by monetary concerns.

    1) If University degrees, or whatever you call them, no longer include philosophy, sociology, psychology, literature, etc., then students learn to do a job, but don’t learn about transcendent factors in life – what it’s all about – and things that are much more important than how to carry out a set of tasks. The result would be that we would create a country of citizens who are even more likely to advocate war as a foreign policy, and be even more hated by the rest of the world.

    2) Professors with tenure and the scholarship they carry out are the closest thing we have to an unbiased and truthful view of the world. If we eliminate this profession, all knowledge will be generated by those whose primary goal is profit, and “truth” will come from someone who has to tell truth in such a way that it generates income.

    Universities are places where fundamental knowledge is created and disseminated, with much less of the agendas and biases that represent commercial interests. I believe this is crucial for a healthy and functioning society.

    The question is, how can this be maintained in the age of the internet and disaggregation? I love the internet and I love the academic model of knowledge generation and dissemination. I’m cautiously optimistic, that, in the long run, the web can actually strengthen this tradition.

  • COD

    Going back 12 years prior to college, why are our kids limited to the teachers and the school that the local governing body says is the one they have to attend? Our entire educational model starting at kindergarten needs to advance beyond the centralized bureaucratic model to something much more decentralized, and democratic.

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  • Jeff, what you are describing is exactly what we’re attempting to build at eduFire. I think it’s going to represent a massive shift in society when teaching is no longer bound by geography. Imagine a high school student having a Physics class in the morning from a teacher in Germany, an early afternoon Spanish lesson from a guy in Guatemala and a late afternoon math lesson from a lady in Sydney.

    Not only is that a pipe dream…it’s about to happen very soon.

    When you free up education from geographical restrictions (through flash/browser-based video chat, VoIP and other technologies) you allow people to not only have a tremendous variety of learning choices but also to participate in learning from a true cross-cultural perspective. It’s that last part that most people have underestimated the value of.

    Maybe it just crazy talk but I think allowing learning to flow in and out of borders as seamlessly as so many other things do these days (e.g., commerce, information, etc.) could literally change the world.

  • There are actually loads of social language websites (which are hard to find via Google etc). The best list I’ve seen is at Mashable, here:

    (The only one I’ve used is FriendsAbroad…it’s good, and they’ve taken some privacy steps…)

  • You can defintely do courses online easily and distributed. The problem is, do people want that? College as I am sure you know, is much more than learning, its a life experience. The demand for this experience will probably stop this distributed system from taking hold anytime soon.

  • Looking way out into the future (but, hey, Sam Zell is saying that nupes will be OK — in 30 years:, I wonder if we are rubbing up against forces that will expose the limitations of the free market as it relates to supply.

    If aggregators become the dominant publishers but do not participate in news gathering, what happens to reporting?

    If it is a practical truth that any movie or book can be obtained easily and at no additional cost to ownership of the pipe, who will make them?

    I don’t think Google is destroying the news business, nor to I completely agree with Michael Eisner’s oft-repeated rant that discounting DVDs ruins that business because it gets people used to low prices.

    But the market forces Jeff describes in this piece are real and they will have a real disturbing effect, even if some entrenched interests can postpone them.

    When the smoke clears will we all remain consumers, but how many of us will be creators?

  • I just wrote a blog post for a comment… and then decided it was indeed a blogpost. Education is my nerve end…. so I’ll rework my comment/blogpost and have it up probably late in the day. Serious childcare and road running commitments first.

  • chico haas

    The triumph of technique over purpose.

    Outside of the certain circumstances, the power of online education from ‘a German physicist’ or from anywhere is best utilized within the classroom experience. The idea is simple and two-fold: we learn together. We learn to be together.

  • One unrecognized problem that I think the disaggregated University could solve is that there is actually a glut of original thinking and “scholarship” in the liberal arts and probably in most social sciences. With every University instructor expected and demanded to publish original work, we get a lot of crap psuedo-scholarship and jargon-filled blather that can only be read by those in the specific field and has no impact on anyone outside it.

    Do professors really need to produce original work in order to teach the survey courses in English Lit, Philosophy and History, or even Psychology that actually create those mythical well-rounded graduates of liberal arts schools ready to engage with, steward, and improve their society?

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  • Merr

    Diversity is an important one, this blog kinda glazes over it ( ) but it should be more about just different sects of religion, but many kinds of people. Once you go into the real world there is a rude awakening for people who have no concept of diversity.

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  • Charley

    For starters, the distributed university does away with non-disciplines like journalism, whose professors are almost invariably untalented, unemployable pontificators.

  • If universities are to be disaggregated, we should ask what are the parts that form the current aggregation. Among them are at least:

    1. Teaching
    2. Testing (for certification)
    3. Research

    Each of these are distinct problems which require distinctly different skill sets to perform with excellence. Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised to see disaggregation over time. In theory, one should be able to build a set of complimentary functions (or organizations) that in the aggregate produce a richer and more effective university experience.

    In a disaggregated university, one would expect that all students would be taught by only the best professors, that certifications delivered by independent testing/assessment organizations would result in direct comparability between students no matter what universities they attended, and that partial completion of academic work would be meaningfully recognized. (Note: Certification on a course-by-course basis would make taking such courses vastly more economically useful than it is today.) Research would be performed as a dedicated function rather than as the parasitic function it is today. All good stuff… But, like with the newspaper business, moving from here to there will be a challenge…

    bob wyman

  • Guy Love

    Futurists have predicted for years that the centralized method of our educational system is outdated and will eventually succumb to information technology and be transformed into a “best of breed” product. Traditional educational institutions tied to large bureaucracies will have no better luck than the media and entertainment industries in preventing this type of change from happening. Why? Because it will be more efficient and greatly benefit the end users of the new system.

    While educrats debate and fight over this (much like editors of newspapers) the masses are moving on. All of this infrastructure (worth billions of dollars) is currently being created by the homeschool movement in America. Once companies realize how much money they can make by hiring top notch talent to cyber-teach independent minded students, the current school system will be forced to adapt or perish. The information age will transform every aspect of our society, and the industrial age educational system will be forced to reinvent itself.

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  • Paw

    Just one step closer to a world in which we sit in front of our PC’s/laptops/PDA’s all by ourselves and pretend we’re part of a global community. College isn’t mostly about learning; it’s about becoming who you really are, on your own and away from your childhood comfort zone. Does the term socialization have any meaning anymore? How about the term “fun”?

    As an individual, I wouldn’t give up my old school college years for any form of distributed university, no matter how wonderful the educational opportunities. As an employer, knowing how easily anything web based can be hacked and manipulated, I wouldn’t give the time of day to a candidate that showed me a bunch of collected “credentials”.

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  • Andy Freeman

    > 1) If University degrees, or whatever you call them, no longer include philosophy, sociology, psychology, literature, etc., then students learn to do a job, but don’t learn about transcendent factors in life – what it’s all about – and things that are much more important than how to carry out a set of tasks.

    Those things are so valuable that their greatest practioners can be found driving cabs and screaming that Oprah should have picked them.

    For all the hype, what have the folks in those fields done recently, apart from apologize for mass-murder that is.

    > 2) Professors with tenure and the scholarship they carry out are the closest thing we have to an unbiased and truthful view of the world.

    Not even close.

  • The vision of a distributed university starts with re-conceiving the learning process around the needs of students and not by iterating existing institutional realities. We don’t discuss distributed music halls, we talk about personal play lists.

    @ Jon Bischke
    Why only free up from geographical restraints and not free up from time restraints as well? Independant consumption of lesson input via podcasts followed up by an asynchronous discussion sparked by the lesson.

    Look for the new models to first emerge in the more market-orientated segments of learning (e.g. corporate training, adult education). Entrepreneurs, and not academics, are going to drive this change.

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  • The sooner the traditional universities are dismantled, the better. For decades, they have abused their monopoly on credentialling to promote left-wing political ideas that are immensely destructive to society.

    Just as the traditional media are losing their status as gatekeepers of public discourse, so will universities lose their status as gatekeepers of knowledge. It cannot happen too quickly.

  • anon

    Richard posted:

    “Professors with tenure and the scholarship they carry out are the closest thing we have to an unbiased and truthful view of the world.”

    Oh My Gosh.

    You really did the kool-aid didn’t you?

    Professors are whores who work for what ever institution pays them the most. The vast majority of them simply parrot what ever orthodoxy is currently in vogue with little or no thought to original research.

    Wake up Richard. WAKE! UP!

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  • Making and excellent education accessible for everyone is a noble goal. One problem that I suggest with migrating all content to online is that 1.) Not all learning styles can be met online. 2.) The learner must be self-motivated is critical for online classes. How can we expect students, especially those from K-12 who are used to being spoon-fed to function well in this environment? 3.) Not all professors are “whores” (anon – March 1st, 2008 at 12:27 am). A statement of this kind is a gross over generalization. Many of my peers care deeply about their discipline. I am currently working on my Ph.D in instructional design and care very deeply about contributing to the scholarly body of knowledge in my discipline. 4.) Some faculty do better at teaching and others research. I have held the opinion for some time that while a faculty member should always remain informed as to their discipline, some should be allowed to focus on teaching and others on research. 5.) The bottom line for universities has always been money. Money is needed to operate the physical plant, pay employees, and provide services. Student tuition, government funding, and donations are critical to keep the machine running. Even online institutions are moneymakers. They have seen the writing on the wall and understand the profitability of migrating to the online venue. Just take a look at most brick and mortar institutions and you will find a huge push to take courses online. With shrinking enrollment rates and funding cuts offering online classes is very cost-effective.

    Concerning a distributed learning system. Who will be setting the standards? Employers right or wrong look to some sort of certification/accreditation of potential employees in order to help them choose the best. Their are betters ways of determining whether a one person is better than another for a position, but I’ll leave that for another post.

    For me the big issue with online classes/education is that of creating an environment which is pedagogically/andragogically sound, uses new media and technologies appropriately, has an intuitive user interface, is engaging, and meets students varied learning needs. Current Learning Management Systems (LMS) are evolving and while I find none to be a best-case tool for synchronous/asynchronous learning, I do see newer technologies such as wiki’s, blogs, chat, etc. being adopted. The futurist in me hopes that someone will finally get it right by offering either an all inclusive platform, or tool that allows multiple components from other sources to be merged into one customizable interface.

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  • Avatar

    It’s nice to think that employers are using educational achievement as a way to select the best employees… but it’s probably not true.

    Educational success is not a great predictor of success in the workplace. However, it’s not a terrible predictor – and, importantly, it’s one that the employer has carte blanc to employ. Employers are prohibited from using categories like sex, age, race, what have you, and in this modern era, the value of referrals from past employment is dubious at best – too many companies give a good referral to all employees regardless of performance, to avoid catching a lawsuit from an ex-employee. The educational credential is what’s left – an easy tool that a potential employer can use to shrink hundreds of resumes to dozens, in a way for which they can’t possibly be blamed or sued.

    Without the establishment of a credentialing system, though, online classes are going to remain toys. It’s important to teach an online class effectively, sure, nobody’s going to argue that. But at the end of the day, there needs to be a method of validating the knowledge of an area of study that someone has achieved regardless of the source – whether they cracked the textbooks themselves or downloaded lectures from Harvard or had it beamed directly into their noggin by space aliens.

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  • Avatar (March 3rd, 2008 at 9:20 am) makes some compelling and thought provoking statements. I concur with you that “educational credentials” are not the best way to assess an applicants potential success in a giving position. It is unfortunate that we seem to be stuck there and no other tool exists for better applicant-position matching.
    Some of these same issues have been felt by home schooled students who have no piece of paper that says they’ve met certain criteria. For most universities entrance exams are the qualifying tool. The downside to using some type of qualifying exam for applicants would be that a degree would mean less which would lessen the view of universities as holders of knowledge. Now that’s something to discuss…

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  • DJ

    It’s either Academia 1.0, or it’s nothing. There is no Academia 2.0. Without claiming for itself the right to decide who is elite and who is not, the university ceases to have a reason to exist. The credentialed of the past are the only measuring stick for the credential seekers of the future.

    The “trust” issue you have analyzed regarding the gatekeepers of the media is even more relevant in academia. The disaggregated model you outline assumes the products (i.e., professors) of the old model will somehow still exist. But who will a “professor” even be in such a system? No doubt, as one poster indicated, there is a “glut” of “crap” produced by current professors in the standard publish-or-perish environment. A web-based academic future would exacerbate rather than alleviate that problem.

    The open system of sharing knowledge via the internet without the interference of local bureaucracies has already been implemented. It’s called “Wikipedia,” and while it may be no more misleading than an average professor’s lecture on Shakespeare, it may not be a model for producing advanced scholarship.

    Credentialing will never disappear. In the decentralized model, it would become everything. You could learn wherever you wanted, as long as it prepared you to excel at passing the tests necessary to obtain the credential. Since excelling at the test would be so crucial, one can imagine that whole institutions would spring up to guide students toward achieving their credential-oriented goals….

    One other thing: “Online, the best can pick from the best, cutting out the middle man of university admissions.” It sounds nice in theory, but not every middle man is a useless parasite. That admissions crew performs a valuable function. Just how much time would instructors have to devote to culling “the best” if left to their own devices? Would there be any time left over for lecturing or research?

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  • Hi Jeff, many regrets for not contributing to this post much sooner.

    First, thanks for trying Livemocha. Glad to hear that you think it’s a game-changing model. So do we.

    Second, I hear you loud and clear on the sometimes irritating volume of email notifications. I am all over it. Expect big improvements very soon.

    Finally, I would be keen to hear your thoughts on the global, multi-lingual implications of your theory of “education as a platform”. I appreciate the insights you’ve shared thus far.

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  • Vernita Hill

    Very interesting question, and one that will be answered soon enogh, whether we have anything to say about it or not. The fact is that the distributed University is already in use, as is seen by the thousands of people who have gotten a degree online. Unless their experience with the college was amazingly good, most people wouldn’t feel any particular sense of being an “alum” and would just as easily choose another course in another field, in another school, as the requirements of their life demand.

    In the end, that’s actually a pretty good model for education that adapts with the changes in larger things than one person’s career, such as an economic decline, for example… What will the hundreds of thousands of people who need to retrain in order to become employable in a field in demand? I’m betting all the demand for health care professionals will cause the health science universites that offer online programs to explode in popularity. Why wouldn’t people choose an option that’s cheaper, involves no transportation cost, and in many cases is better suited to teaching the individual and providing them further study options?

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  • Well, some of this conclusion might already happening today especially that there are a lot of people who wanted to make education better and better as long as they have found some way on how to improve it.

  • U already told us.