Just how much of a disruption are Universities facing?
A conversation at the end of Scott Leslie‘s talk just now has challenged my view a bit. Scott had given a great demonstration of and argument for an open approach, and someone (I didn’t spot who) raised the point that this model might not work for everyone:
If you’re a young academic mindful of publication record, competitive environment, you might not want to distribute your ideas really widely, that’s your capital.
Scott came back with:
This is the major argument in academia. Wow. The only place in the universe where your value is increased by being more obscure. Every cultural/content industry is going through this transformation. Music is interesting where it hit early on. Efforts to create false economies of scarcity where you control flow of ideas are rearguard actions that are bound to fail. Ubiquitous access to knowledge is not a small disruption. This is of a large order.
The rest of the exchange was interesting too (scroll down to the bottom of my notes)
In my field, there are plenty of people who embody an open/online approach – Scott of course is one, but there are loads of others – your David Wiley, Stephen Downes, and closer to home your Martin Weller, Tony Hirst, Gráinne Conole – and in this online blogging/tweeting/mashing up world, they’re the stars, the ones who really count. But in the world of journal articles and the sort of research that gets counted by the RAE and REF, it’s a different set of people. The big names are, by and large, not online in any open way beyond the now-standard web page with lists of publications in peer-reviewed journals and invited keynote speeches. Indeed, getting the slides from those keynotes is unusual (depending on the conference).
To caricature grossly, there seems to be two separate groups of online academics. Firstly, there’s people who already have a full professorship/tenure, and took up blogging after that. Secondly, there’s people who are doing lots of online stuff but who – in the immortal words of an old staff rewards document “have not yet met the criteria for promotion”, which are based around traditional measures of excellence in research (and teaching if you’re lucky). And there are far more people in the second category.
This may be changing, slowly – the OU in particular is changing promotion criteria to explicitly allow this sort of work to be recognised and rewarded, led by a strand in Martin’s Digital Scholarship work. But the entire structure of a university is to be a community of scholars, and what counts as excellent scholarship is what scholars treat as excellent scholarship. And for now, overwhelmingly scholars don’t treat blogs (and other online activity) as excellent scholarship.
As I was fond of saying when I was a manager, if you’re choosing what to do as an academic, it’s almost never a mistake to produce more peer-reviewed articles in high-quality journals and get more research funding. Of course one can argue that working in the open can help you do that – and I’d probably agree on balance – but there are serious tensions, not least of time.
To return to my main point – just how big a change will universities see? Will it be as big as the change that’s started in the music world and has yet to resolve?
I still think not. Universities have been around in recognisable shape for quite some time. As John Naughton likes to point out, the only Western institution that has lasted substantially longer than Cambridge University is the Catholic Church. That’s quite a record of persistence. On the other hand, I skimread Lucky Jim the other day, and although there are many recognisable components, the academic world portrayed there seems profoundly different to the one that John and I inhabit now. So it’d be rather ahistorical to suppose that the next half-century or so will not see at least as profound change. And there are plenty of drivers for change beyond the informational transformation wrought by new technologies – not least of which is an increasing demand for a a formal university education.
It’s almost as if the explosion of access to information is making educators more, not less important. Who could’ve predicted that in 1994? Er, well, nearly everybody who was talking about education and the WWW (as we called it back then), apart from a handful of real iconoclasts.
I do think there will be a huge growth in activity round the edges of what we currently think of as universities. This is already happening – Wikipedia, P2PU, the Connectivism/CCK courses, increasing private sector activity. What a university does is being disaggregated and reinvented left, right and centre. There are opportunities to make lots of money here, but also huge opportunities to do socially-valuable and cool things without costing much.
Scott made this call to action:
Let’s transform universities – if we don’t actively engage with these forces they will disrupt us and wash us away.
I’m not sure I buy a serious risk of universities being washed away. But I do wholeheartedly support a call to transform universities by engaging with the forces of openness and near-ubiquity of access to knowledge. The potential for improving students’ experience of learning is huge.
So I think we can change Universities and make them much better. But how fundamental a change will it be?