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Posted by on Oct 4, 2011

The University of Everywhere is a community of students, thousands of little somewheres

In the spirit of dissecting articles written about entirely different slants and using them for springboards into other topics, I am going to do a quick spinoff of the New York Times Op-Ed piece from Bill Keller “The University of Everywhere. To its credit, it had me thinking quite a bit. I think Mr. Keller touched on the powers of the distributed model for learning and some initiatives in that regard. 

It’s true that online education has proliferated, from community colleges to the free OpenCourseWare lecture videos offered by M.I.T. (The New York Times Company is in the game, too, with its Knowledge Network.) But the Internet has so far scarcely disturbed the traditional practice or the economics at the high end, the great schools that are one of the few remaining advantages America has in a competitive world. Our top-rated universities and colleges have no want of customers willing to pay handsomely for the kind of education their parents got; thus elite schools have little incentive to dilute the value of the credentials they award.

Two recent events at Stanford University suggest that the day is growing nearer when quality higher education confronts the technological disruptions that have already upended the music and book industries, humbled enterprises from Kodak to the Postal Service (not to mention the newspaper business), and helped destabilize despots across the Middle East.

While it might not be that hard to humble the Postal Service, I get the message. Technological disruptions (why can’t we use the term affordances?) provide breaks from models and those breaks provide opportunity for increased impact. For higher education, it is both their mission and in their best interests (financially) to pursue these affordances. And a good deal of that energy is being directed towards online education, elearning, or whatever you prefer to call it. The Stanford case described below is compelling:

Meanwhile, one of Stanford’s most inventive professors, Sebastian Thrun, is making an alternative claim on the future. Thrun, a German-born and largely self-taught expert in robotics, is famous for leading the team that built Google’s self-driving car. He is offering his “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online and free of charge. His remote students will get the same lectures as students paying $50,000 a year, the same assignments, the same exams and, if they pass, a “statement of accomplishment” (though not Stanford credit). When The Times wrote about this last month, 58,000 students had signed up for the course. After the article, enrollment leapt to 130,000, from across the globe.

Thrun’s ultimate mission is a virtual university in which the best professors broadcast their lectures to tens of thousands of students. Testing, peer interaction and grading would happen online; a cadre of teaching assistants would provide some human supervision; and the price would be within reach of almost anyone. “Literally, we can probably get the same quality of education I teach in class for about 1 to 2 percent of the cost,” Thrun told me.

You had me there until you started mentioning lectures, “some human supervision”, and other instances of transporting a face to face pedagogy into an online environment. That might be a more efficient cost delivery device (might be), but it negates a good deal of the affordance/disruption made possible by being online in the first place. And the notion of the University of Everywhere suggests a post-geographical state where place/space/location doesn’t matter in the least. These are arguments from the infancy of elearning, where it was possible to visualize a potential future where learning took place irregardless of location, where my location in Princeton, Seoul, London, wherever didn’t matter. 

Once again, I do not deny the cost-efficiency argument and indeed I would like to see physical higher education streamline itself a bit better (I am looking at you, you unwieldy megaliths knowns as state university systems). But I will not sacrifice, not for an instant, the incredible power that distributed learning models have for rapid deployment, exploration, knowledge production and knowledge transfer. They are as powerful as anything we have known towards knowledge production and a good deal of their power is in their disaggregation. So, creating a University of Everywhere negates those nodes of disaggregation. Those outliers and waypoints known as students in places known as location. 

My experience in online education has taught me that place matters, the way we position ourselves towards the university, the way we pivot based on learning activity, the way we interact and assemble and interact, our cultures of self. Our very agency is informed by this location. I have completed two Masters degrees without ever seeing the physical university I was attending (until after completing my studies). That didn’t negate the university itself. It was a location, a proximity, an emotional, intellectual, and philosophical resonance. It was a culture onto itself. The University of Everywhere, while a nifty marketing tool (and even as an accurate description of delivery) downplays location. Being of, but not at, a place. It is real. It ruminates in your imagination. I thrive on the interaction with fellow students from places who bring this place with them in discussions and interactions. 

We are talking as well about presence. (The University of) Everywhere disavows presence to a degree. Its metaphor is a radio beacon and it only broadcasts in one direction. That is not agency or presence in modern elearning. That is merely a delivery device for information. More to come on this subject. 

Place matters. These elearning structures developed solely to extend the physical space onto the virtual will fail, in my opinion. Precisely because it negates the power lying underneath the surface in elearning, that raw, unlimited, chaotic capacity for connection, interaction, and reflection. There is no physical world counterpart.  These endeavors will fail precisely because the online aggregation known as university might ultimately be more powerful than its physical counterpart. I would just hate to see its power bled simply to prop up a physical, occasionally antiquated (not all of it, just parts of it), construct. 

Yes, location matters. So give it a name. Everywhere is made up of a thousand little somewheres. That is how identities and presence is formed. Thousands of little pieces, all situated. Signing off from Seoul, Korea. 

 

 

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