Hacking Education

In a number of posts I have argued that the nature of higher education is changing and those universities that recognize that fact and tackle how they want to undergo the transformation are the ones that are going to be happier about their future.

One of the things that has worried me is while the super-efficient and super-rich distribution system that the internet offers makes it easy for all nodes to be both producers and consumers, it also makes it easier for nodes that previously only had access to local resources to turn to global ones. Such a reality is clearly one of the driving forces behind a number of universities making a variety of their educational materials available on-line. MIT led the way with its Open Courseware, but Harvard and Stanford have followed. Harvard mandated that all faculty publications must be openly accessible on the university’s own infrastructure, and Stanford has engaged in a number of fascinating enterprises, including the Stanford Engineering Everywhere (SEE) initiative — and let’s not forget iTunes University courses like the one I’m enrolled in on iPhone app development.

These universities and others like them seem to be giving it all away. If education is only about information transfer, then they’ve got nothing left, right? But education isn’t only that. Sure, undergraduate and graduate students do pack a lot into their heads during their matriculation at university, but a good portion of that packing, if universities are doing their job right, is through experiences in thoughtfully structured learning environments.

So, part of what these universities are doing is good old-fashioned advertising and/or marketing, building their brand through both their generosity — and they are being generous, make no mistake about that — as well as clearly articulating for potential students that if you want to be in the presence of knowledge creators and not only get the knowledge but also learn how to create it, then you’ll need to pay tuition and, as a friend of mine once said, “be there to get it.”

Within such a system, there is room between producers and consumers for facilitators, or, as Jeff Jarvis terms it, *consultants*. Here’s Jarvis on on what’s happening:

> In education, we’re fooling ourselves if we think that we can maintain our scarcity-based economy: only so chairs to soak in the wisdom of that teacher. It’s a wildly inefficient system — especially in our industrial-age knowledge factories that try to turn out people who memorize the same answer instead of invent new ones.

> Earlier, I’ve speculated about the idea of an educational ecosystem with star professors whose lectures are widely available (as is the case with MIT and Stanford) and who gain value (books, speaking gigs) through being broadly distributed. Then we have local tutors who give us the specialized instruction and consultation we need.

> Thus we have performers and consultants. There is still value in unique performance. We will continue to buy tickets to concerts by stars (but we won’t pay for the Muzak covers of their songs on elevators). We will buy books. We will pay to sit in a movie theater with popcorn. The new competition in the case of media and performance isn’t that someone will make a good-enough version of what we do but that there is more call for the public’s attention.

> [[Jarvis’ post on *The Business Insider*]](http://www.businessinsider.com/stop-selling-scarcity-2-2010-2)

I’m not sure that Jarvis has it entirely right, especially since within his model of the eco-system education is equivalent to media and performance, but I do think that he has the *star* notion right — even though it runs exactly counter to the ideals of the internet.

Jarvis isn’t entirely right because he doesn’t entirely get that the consultant, or facilitator, possesses value over and above his/her audience. In fact, Jarvis is entirely looking the multiple audiences that educators regularly face. It would be great if educators only had to worry about having an audience of committed students seeking to maximize their time to learn. That would be amazing. But that isn’t all educators face. Instead, there is at least one other market to which they report: those stakeholders that require education to *certify* that its output, students, possess some minimum set of knowledge(s) and skill(s).

As anyone in education knows, the certification business has become a race to the bottom in terms of funding: how little do we need to invest in order to get the minimum return? This is much of what lies behind standardized testing and, indeed, the current efforts to “streamline” higher education in Louisiana.

Certification is not where a hybrid university wants to get caught. Once you are simply a certificate issuer, your class enrollments go up, your faculty’s teaching loads go up, and pretty sure you are not sure if you are simply a diploma mill with some real estate. Let me be clear, teaching universities can be amazing places, and some of my happiest colleagues are at teaching colleges and universities. But those are typically private institutions who have made it clear to their audience of students and, in particular, their parents, that facilitation requires either faculty also capable of and engaged in content creation or that it requires, as it does, the seeming luxuries of time and face-to-face interaction, which only comes with smaller class sizes and reasonable teaching loads.

As the major research universities increasingly give away their content, there is going to be enormous pressure on the hybrids — those like my own dear little U — to give up content creation and simply become facilities, quite literally. One need look no further than the recent statements by the Committee to Streamline Higher Education that there can be no more than one major research university in Louisiana. (The statement is left somewhat ambiguous but comments from the committee members reinforce the idea that research is research and everyone else should bow out.)

This is so much foolishness, and it turns the wisdom upon which the internet was built upside down and returns us to the industrial model of the nineteenth century where all raw materials flow into a central factory from which all finished goods flow. The information, and knowledge creation, economy is a distributed one. Not all nodes can or will be equal, but each must be allowed to contribute to the larger network. To rule out a priori their potential production is to cut off the margins, exactly the place where we now know innovation occurs.

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