Plus c’est la même chose?

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?

Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

8 thoughts on “Plus c’est la même chose?”

  1. I’ve had absolutely the opposite experience of working in academia. Academics tend to realise that actually, your work gets out there by people using it and knowing about it so the more people who know the more people who use it. The danger of people not stealing your ideas is far far far more serious and likely than the danger of people stealing your ideas.

    The other month I was writing a paper with someone who said I could not use a certain bit of maths because she came up with it first and she wanted to publish it first in a sole authored paper (it was a very minor idea and we were submitting to a very major conference). This is the first time in 16 years of collaborative research that I’ve had someone say that. Her supervisor gave her a rocket for it and I will be extremely reluctant to work with her again.

    In academia your ideas are only worthwhile as capital if you’re out there telling people about them, letting them use them and realise that those are the good ideas. In mathematics and engineering, with the possible exception of the super brilliant (who will thrive anyway), those who succeed are the ones who communicate their ideas well.

    1. Oh, absolutely, I agree, and overwhelmingly this is how academics work in practice, within their chosen network – but their sharing media are generally not blogs, wikis, Twitter and so on, never mind the more exciting Web 2.0 online services. It’s mostly face to face discussion and emailing documents between known collaborators. The stuff only opens up to the wide world towards the end of the process when it gets submitted to a journal or conference – and even then, usually only after it’s been reviewed and revised. Partly this is because many places still get sniffy about stuff that’s been published already (not entirely illegitimately), of course.

      1. True — but then there are better means. For software collaboration a revision control system is the best if you intend to be open source and attract collaborators. For putting papers online a list with links (to preprints) in good old html and put it on arxiv if appropriate.

        If you really want to pimp it then a blog mentioning the idea or new paper is interesting but if you want me to read your work, have it searchable by google and downloadable because I’m not going to trawl through a blog for it.

        A bit old school but for collaboration a wiki used right can be good and most of my projects have the associated wiki.

        In summary, most of my colleagues have some combination of blog or twitter and all of them have facebook — but for me it’s not a great way about finding out about their work.

        For group collab, a wiki and a version control system (if you’re coding or writing latex) and a list of papers on your website with them submitted to the relevant bits of arxiv. (I can’t recall EVER citing a paper I found on a blog).

  2. Doug, great notes, thanks for sharing them!

    You are absolutely right about the possibility of overstating the demise of the University – you are likely correct, your Cambridges, your Harvards, your Hiedelbergs aren’t going to simply disappear (just as your New York Times and your Warner Music labels haven’t disappeared.)

    I tend to go along with Anya Kamenetz’s argument in the first part of DIY U (recognizing it as an overly American argument), that the first losers will likely be at the publicly funded “community college” level (and I’d add, those programs that don’t have a specific voactional/professional/STEM bent).

    Indeed this is hardly in doubt; the economic threats to public funding are real and present (I’m not saying these result from competition from network learning), as are the pressures to eliminate or downsize certain faculties in our institutions. So while it won’t likely play out that the thing we call “the university” no longer exists, we may not be happy with what it resembles down the road unless we actively engage with its transformation. Perhaps I do a disservice by overstating the size of the pressures causing it to change, but I don’t think so; I do not long for a world solely focused on vocational or scientific knowledge, so my invocation to change towards an open approach is very much an effort to embed the many *other* aspects the University fulfils, the other forms of knowing it does recognize, more firmly into open network society with a view to preserving them (and along with them, potentially, parts of “the institution”, which I take as proxy for “the public valuation of these goods.”)

    Which takes us to this statement:

    “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”

    On a pragmatic basis, as a piece of advice to a young researcher wanting to get ahead, I can hear what you are saying. But this is precisely what strikes me as wrong for a great many reasons. Not only does it perpetuate a concept of a “knowledge” that can be abstracted from the specific material conditions, communities and values in which it is produced (this tautology being in part exactly how we got to where we are,) it ignores the increasing removal of barriers for participation by people outside the academy.

    I’m on a bit of a rant here so I will stop. I don’t think we’re actually in major disagreement; I can concede that I and others overstate the magnitude of the shift occuring (at the ed of the day, only time will tell) but for me, it is not simply a matter of responding to the changing environment, but of actually using those pressures to produce a positive transformation, because the status quo, for all its good parts, has also got a lot of bad which if uncontested may simply get amplified by current trends.

    1. Great talk too, Scott, thanks for doing it, with lots of interesting stuff in it.

      I don’t think we’re in major disagreement either – if there are differences they’re of emphasis than of substance, I reckon – I’d agree with pretty much all of you’ve said. I should’ve spelled out that saying that “what counts as excellent scholarship is what scholars treat as excellent scholarship” is – or should be – a profoundly liberating and challenging statement: we are scholars! It’s open to us to argue the case for openness.

  3. “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”

    Should surely read:

    “What counts as excellent scholarship is what the funding bodies/RAE treat as excellent”

    1. Yes, but the people doing the rating in those situations are overwhelmingly academics – peer reviewers on grant proposals and journal articles in the first instance, and panel members for funders and the RAE/REF. That’s not to say that there isn’t top-down steering from Government – there’s loads – but the people making the decisions about whether bits of research count as excellent or not are overwhelmingly academics. Which is as it must be – nobody else is in a position to judge.

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