on a world with only 10 universities

Reading the post/transcript of Audrey Watters’ presentation from the OpenVA pre-conference, and something struck me.

Compare the predictions of two experts in their fields, extrapolating their personal visions forward a few decades:

“I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers.”
— Thomas Watson, 1943

“In 50 years, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education.”
Sebastian Thrun, 2012

I’m carrying 2 computers with me right now, and each one would have been considered high-end workstation-class devices only a few years go. I use several more, as does everyone else. Watson wasn’t wrong – his vision clearly led to giant computers run by governments and giant corporations. Time sharing systems meant monstrous computers would be tasked with jobs from many client organizations. In 1943, he couldn’t have possibly seen microprocessors and coprocessors and GPU-offloading and miniaturization of devices. Or the internet.

I think Thrun believes he is correct. But his forecast is interesting because it points out his utter disregard for anything beyond content dissemination and the entrenchment of control in the hands of the few who are worthy of such a task.

I think Thrun is on the wrong track, though.

In my mind, Thrun’s model positions The Giant MOOCs as toxic, and diametrically opposed to the real and essential goals of education.

Sure, there will be consolidation. There will be new institutions, different institutions, and institutions that wither and/or die. I think that the proliferation of connections and of the ability for individuals to publish content, connect with others, and to access information means that there will essentially be “universities” for every one of us. 7 billion universities controlled by individuals, rather than just 10 uber-universities controlled by governments and giant corporations. Open education, competency-based badging, and portfolio-based accreditation would naturally lead in that direction.

Does that mean that traditional universities will go away? Absolutely not. I think they will remain essential, perhaps even moreso, but that their roles will shift. To what? I have no idea. But we will need to adapt and respond, and be able to enable and support learning and research that grows well outside the traditional boundaries of post-secondary institutions.

on the napsterization of education

Another post on how education is undergoing (or will very soon be forced to undergo) a napster-like disruption/transformation/eruption.

But napster didn’t disrupt music. It disrupted the previous business model for distributing recorded music content. Musicians still exist. People still write/play/perform/record/buy/download music. The workflow has changed. The people who control the pipelines have changed.

Digital technologies are disrupting the current business model(s) for distributing educational content. And that’s a great thing. $500 worth of required textbooks for a single course is just plain messed up. Academic journals charging researchers hundreds or thousands of dollars to gain access to research funded by public institutions, also messed up.

But these technologies aren’t disrupting education itself. That’s up to the teachers, students, and administrators. They’re the ones who need to figure out what to make of the transformative technologies and with having free (or nearly free) access to content and each other.

Falling back to calling it “napsterization” – as if that is a magic recipe for disruption – is just a lazy narrative. Yes. Things are changing. But it’s not going to be a relatively instant bit-shift from Old Education to New Education through the power of modern chemistry.

Education is not just about granting access to content. If it was, then we’d close every school and just let people go to the library. Education is about the activities we do with each other in our various roles, to build/connect/try/experiment/explore/create/etc… – these are things that build on content, but content itself is not sufficient for education. Music is different, because unless you’re a musician yourself, music is about consuming content (whether pre-recorded or listening to live performances).

on the effects of risk aversion in cinema (and education)

Steven Soderbergh, lamenting the decline in cinema in lieu of movie-making by executives and accountants:

Now, of course, it’s very subjective; there are going to be exceptions to everything I’m going to say, and I’m just saying that so no one thinks I’m talking about them. I want to be clear: The idea of cinema as I’m defining it is not on the radar in the studios. This is not a conversation anybody’s having; it’s not a word you would ever want to use in a meeting. Speaking of meetings, the meetings have gotten pretty weird. There are fewer and fewer executives who are in the business because they love movies. There are fewer and fewer executives that know movies. So it can become a very strange situation. I mean, I know how to drive a car, but I wouldn’t presume to sit in a meeting with an engineer and tell him how to build one, and that’s kind of what you feel like when you’re in these meetings. You’ve got people who don’t know movies and don’t watch movies for pleasure deciding what movie you’re going to be allowed to make. That’s one reason studio movies aren’t better than they are, and that’s one reason that cinema, as I’m defining it, is shrinking.

Well, how does a studio decide what movies get made? One thing they take into consideration is the foreign market, obviously. It’s become very big. So that means, you know, things that travel best are going to be action-adventure, science fiction, fantasy, spectacle, some animation thrown in there. Obviously the bigger the budget, the more people this thing is going to have to appeal to, the more homogenized it’s got to be, the more simplified it’s got to be. So things like cultural specificity and narrative complexity, and, god forbid, ambiguity, those become real obstacles to the success of the film here and abroad.

and, on a studio that passed on a likely-to-be-successful project because it didn’t fit their standard operating model:

They were afraid it would fail, when they fail doing the other thing all the time. Maybe they were afraid it was going to work.

Sound familiar? Sounds an awful lot like the new neo-industrial era of online education. Education being saved not by the people that devote their lives to the craft, but to the executives and investors and accountants that have scrutinized cost/benefit analyses and determined that education is worth being saved. So, it’s not just education that is afflicted with this pattern – it’s a symptom of our larger cultural fear of risk and avoidance of failure.

on MOOCs as the most important Education Technology in the last 200 years.

Bull. Shit.

Giving people access to didactic lectures by a handful of elite professors at a handful of elite institutions is not the most important educational technology in the last 200 years. Not even close. Sure, it’s good. It’s fantastic that I can have access to the lectures and resources of some of the biggest and most famous institutions. Awesome.

But the most important ed tech in two centuries? Bull. Shit.

turn the crank!

Villemard, 1910 À l’ École

I’d say the personal computer is the biggest ed tech innovation. Followed by the internet. Followed by software and tools that let students create. And explore. And collaborate. And share. Waaaaaay down the list… MOOCs1.

Parrotting the “MOOCs are the most awesome education innovation since, like, EVER!” line is harmful. It implies that nothing important has changed in centuries. It glosses over the last 40 years or so of truly radical and transformative innovation (although I’ll be the first to say that ed tech isn’t always – or even often – implemented in a radical way). And ignores some pretty significant chapters in the history of education.

So. Yeah. Hurray for MOOCs. But also hurray for all of the other incredible advances that have been developed over the last several decades in order to enable MOOCs and other initiatives doomed to be co-opted by corporate branding efforts and their need to rewrite history to make them THE MOST IMPORTANT INNOVATIONS SINCE, LIKE, EVER!

  1. Massively Open Online Courses. Started out with folks like Stephen Downes, George Siemens, Dave Cormier etc… before getting sucked into the hype factory and becoming Buzzword of the Year for 2012 as EdX, Coursera, etc… hop on the bandwagon []