Beyond The University

“More than one-third of the world’s population is under 20. There are over 30 million people today qualified to enter a university who have no place to go. During the next decade, this 30 million will grow to 100 million. To meet this staggering demand, a major university needs to be created each week.” —Sir John Daniel, 1996 in John Seely Brown Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0 (EDUCAUSE Review) | EDUCAUSE

In Can “The Least Of Us” Disrupt and Change Education for “The Rest Of Us?” Rob Jacobs writes: “Disruption will come when the poor of the world figure out ways to educate themselves and their neighbors via the Internet. Of course this education won’t match the focus, rigor, and quality of Western schools, but never the less, the drive and need to learn will create a youth movement in these developing countries for using the Internet as a tool to educate themselves and others.”

By ‘disruption’ I gather Jacobs means in the Innovator’s Dilemma sense of Clayton Christensen, where a new business model (or new technology) disrupts the existing businesses using the existing model.

John Brockman quotes Don Tapscott “Universities are finally losing their monopoly on higher learning… There is fundamental challenge to the foundational modus operandi of the University — the model of pedagogy. Specifically, there is a widening gap between the model of learning offered by many big universities and the natural way that young people who have grown up digital best learn.”

There seem to be two intertwined ideas here: technology access and pedagogy.

So, if a large unmet demand for education exists at a price point well below that of a university degree, and the Internet infrastructure is available to deliver both the content and the collaboration, will the higher education model in the developed world succumb to Jacob’s disruptive revolution from below? And if so, when? And which players will be the facilitators?

Lets take the time dimension out of the problem. Will the revolution be substantially underway by 2020 (10 years out)? I pick 10 years because it is about one cycle of accreditation review for most US universities and it would be at the outer edge of most corporate planning. Here is why I conclude the preconditions for Jacob’s bottom up revolution, the technical infrastructure, will exist within 10 years if they don’t already exist today. The question is, will learners develop a reflective practice within an optimistic, constructivist and collaborative pedagogy to realize the potential, and if they do, will this self-organizing revolution be sufficient to engulf the developed world’s educational systems.

The Technical Infrastructure Exists

First, a conversation between Charlie Rose and Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google points to the direction for the technology of continued exponential improvement of hardware (mobile devices, Google’s servers and the network bandwidth) following Moore’s law with video recording and GPS-aware applications standard on phones. As illustration, my cell phone in 2000 had a small B&W screen, could store phone numbers and make calls. My cell phone today is an iPhone. In another decade my cell phone will be equally unrecognizably different from my iPhone of today.

Second, Seb Paquet proposed the idea of making group-forming ridiculously easy and postulated an extension to Reed’s Law: “The value of a group-forming network increases exponentially with the number of people in the network, and in inverse proportion to the effort required to start a group.”

Mechanisms for finding, forming or joining groups can be expected to be enhanced. Amazon and Google demonstrate the impact of personalize recommendations based on data about you. Their capacity to recommend will grow, and those recommendations could help learners discover and expand niche communities.

Third, people younger than myself seem to think nothing of making video to communicate their ideas. The rate of production of user content on YouTube will increase beyond the current 1000 hrs of user created video uploaded per hour. Micheal Wesch describes how media are becoming environments that change our conversations.

Fourth, Internet World Stats provides information on the level of Internet access worldwide by region.  On a planetary basis, 24% of the world’s population has access today and the growth rate is 362% over the period 2000-2009. In another decade it seems credible that almost anyone wanting Internet access (e.g., wanting an education) will have it.

I contend that the technology is in place (MediaWiki alone is adequate to the task) and that there is a sufficiently large user base to start the revolution (over a billion people outside North America and Europe connected Internet (World Internet Stats, 9/2009)).

The Pedagogy Exists (and is being implemented outside of universities)

In her review (ca 2000) of George Hillocks Jr.’s book Ways of Thinking, Ways of Teaching. New York: Teachers College Press, 1999. Carol Rutz (Writing Program Administration 23.3, Summer 2000, 127-129) describes Hillocks’ analysis of his subjects’ teaching approaches:

“[Their] four ways of thinking are derived from two epistemological stances, the objectivist—knowledge is “out there” to be apprehended and understood—and the constructivist—knowledge is constructed actively by learners as they interact with the world. These positions are modified by the teacher’s attitude toward students. The pessimist views students as defective creatures unable to learn without close supervision, whereas the optimist views students as capable and eager to learn.”

Hillocks constructs a 2×2 matrix of these stances and uses them to analyze the behaviors of English composition teachers.

Near the end of her review, Rutz notes and laments, “Had Hillocks interviewed students as well as teachers, his case for the effects of reflective practice within an optimistic, constructivist pedagogy would likely become even stronger.”

Unspoken in Rutz’ review is that this is an analysis of classroom teachers, published in 1999 before the emergence of Web 2.0. What happens if one relaxes the assumption that teachers are meeting students in classrooms and explores the “effects of reflective practice within an optimistic, constructivist pedagogy” on learners in Internet communities? That is a key phrase ‘reflective practice within an optimistic, constructivist pedagogy’ and a key observation, it is not held by all teachers.

In a 2007 study, we have found similar spectrum of teacher’s beliefs about teaching, ranging from teacher-centered, to learning-centered, to learner-centered and as part of our Harvesting Gradebook work we found s spectrum of learning beliefs among students, ranging from teacher-authority to learner-as-agent.

John Seely Brown begins to give us an idea how widely this practice/pedagogy is held by learners (outside the university).

“The most profound impact of the Internet, an impact that has yet to be fully realized, is its ability to support and expand the various aspects of social learning. What do we mean by “social learning”? Perhaps the simplest way to explain this concept is to note that social learning is based on the premise that our understanding of content is socially constructed through conversations about that content and through grounded interactions, especially with others, around problems or actions. The focus is not so much on what we are learning but on how we are learning.”

“[I]nstead of starting from the Cartesian premise of “I think, therefore I am,” and from the assumption that knowledge is something that is transferred to the student via various pedagogical strategies, the social view of learning says, “We participate, therefore we are.” “

“A contemporary model that exemplifies the power of this type of social learning is provided by the distributed virtual communities of practice in which people work together voluntarily to develop and maintain open source software. The open source movement has produced software such as the Linux operating system and the Apache web server, which have offered surprisingly robust alternatives to commercial products. …

“Open source communities have developed a well-established path by which newcomers can “learn the ropes” and become trusted members of the community through a process of legitimate peripheral participation. [‘legitimate peripheral participation’ is another key phrase for this new learning model. np]  New members typically begin participating in an open source community by working on relatively simple, noncritical development projects … As they demonstrate their ability to make useful contributions and to work in the distinctive style and sensibilities/taste of that community, they are invited to take on more central projects. Those who become the most proficient may be asked to join the inner circle … Today, there are about one million people engaged in developing and refining open source products, and nearly all are improving their skills by participating in and contributing to these networked communities of practice.”

The “hole in the wall experiment” (below) is the low tech version of this idea.

The Long Tail in Learning (learning without the University)

Seely Brown continues…

“Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired, has shown that Internet-based e-commerce differs from commerce in the physical world. In the world of physical retailing, and particularly in areas of selling goods like books, music, and movies, sales are usually dominated by best-sellers. Typically, 20 percent of titles generate 80 percent of all sales, [b]ut Anderson notes that e-commerce sites such as, Netflix, and Rhapsody don’t follow this pattern. They are able to maintain inventories of products—books, movies, and music—that are many times greater than can be offered by any conventional store. The result is an economic equation very different from what has prevailed in the physical world … the bulk of their sales comes from their vast catalogs of less-popular titles, which collectively sell more than the most popular items. … From the customers’ standpoint, online enterprises offering unprecedented choice are able to cater much more efficiently to individual tastes and interests than any brick-and-mortar store.”

“As more of learning becomes Internet-based, a similar pattern seems to be occurring. Whereas traditional schools offer a finite number of courses of study, the “catalog” of subjects that can be learned online is almost unlimited. There are already several thousand sets of course materials and modules online, and more are being added regularly. Furthermore, for any topic that a student is passionate about, there is likely to be an online niche community of practice of others who share that passion. … The Faulkes Telescope Project and the Decameron Web are just two of scores of research and scholarly portals that provide access to both educational resources and a community of experts in a given domain. The web offers innumerable opportunities for students to find and join niche communities where they can benefit from the opportunities for distributed cognitive apprenticeship.”

Seely Brown gives an example of this change:

“A very different sort of initiative that is using technology to leverage social learning is Digital StudyHall (DSH), which is designed to improve education for students in schools in rural areas and urban slums in India. The project is described by its developers as “the educational equivalent of Netflix + YouTube + Kazaa.” Lectures from model teachers are recorded on video and are then physically distributed via DVD to schools that typically lack well-trained instructors (as well as Internet connections). While the lectures are being played on a monitor, a “mediator,” periodically pauses the video and encourages engagement among the students by asking questions or initiating discussions about the material they are watching. The recorded lectures provide the educational content, and the local mediators stimulate the interaction that actively engages the students and increases the likelihood that they will develop a real understanding of the lecture material through focused conversation.”

The biggest example of all may be Wikipedia, who’s goal is to get a free encyclopedia to everyone in the world. It averaged 379 Million page views/day (all languages) in Sept 2009. More importantly than being a top global website, Wikipedia demonstrates a how to create a self-organizing learning organization using volunteers.

While the Seely Brown and Wikipedia examples points to some sophisticated (and already educated) communities, Sugata Mitra gives an example of third-world children using similar strategies to teach themselves to use computers and the Internet.  In his Hole in the Wall project, young kids figured out how to use a PC on their own — and then taught other kids. He asks, “what else can children teach themselves?”


Extending Clay Shirkey’s analysis of the problems facing newspapers, we might conclude Universities may be denying the impending revolution.

“When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.

“The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift.

“With the old economics [of newspaper publishing] destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.”

I think there is evidence to believe a “reflective, self-organizing, constructivist and collaborative pedagogy” is already practiced by many people organized into communities that make use of “legitimate peripheral participation.” So, to paraphrase Shirky: It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a University industry, because the core problem Universities solve — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of building knowledge and making it available to the public — has stopped being a problem.

Dry tinder is in the box, all that is needed is a hot spark.

What will the spark be, and where would it most effectively land?

2 Responses

  1. […] Posts From Student Feedback to University AccreditationBeyond The UniversityNot your father's PortfolioUpdate on Harvesting […]

  2. […] than the academic monograph in a conversation about accountability for learning outcomes? Because, I think discovering conversations, contributing and getting feedback are important aspects of peer-to-peer […]

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