Defense Against the Dark Arts: The University’s Last Lecture

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I’m an insider, but an outsider.  As a PhD student studying higher education, and as someone who has worked in colleges and universities his entire life, I’m completely comfortable in the classroom and in being surrounded by students.   This semester, however, I’m an immigrant in a foreign land.  I’m taking a course in the business school, MI621: Social Media for Managers.  It’s not that I don’t work in a business, I do.  I just don’t speak the exact same language.  I, like many other academics, hold on to the belief that the university is somehow a special and unique kind of business.  It has a unique purpose and unique goals. How can the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake be reduced to market forces?

The truth, of course, is that higher education is a business and is increasingly becoming one.  Marketization, globalization, and the rise of social media and Web technologies are knocking at the door.  The university has been pretty adept at dodging market and social trends before, but this time it’s different.  It no longer works to hide behind the traditions, ceremonies and funny caps and gowns.  It no longer works when students are empowered to create their own education and the resources to do so are plentiful, readily available, and free.  From massive open online courses (MOOCs) teaching thousands of students at once, to personal learning networks (PLNs) where students cobble together their own learning communities, the university is no longer the sole provider of higher education. Coursera, EdX, open educational resources (OER), and other initiatives are all changing the competitive landscape.

So why is this different now?  Why have social media and Web technologies finally advanced to the point that the university is forced into change?  Speaking broadly, I believe it’s due to the loss of three things: the shelf, the bulletin board, and the blackboard.

BooksThe Shelf:  Back when knowledge was locked in these physical “books,” the university could lay claim to being the only source of knowledge in town.  As technology now allows one to access the entirety of the world’s knowledge from one’s couch, the university is no longer the exclusive home of specialized knowledge.  The university lost control of shelf: being the exclusive source for knowledge.

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Corkboard with colorful Post-It notes and pins (isolated)The Bulletin Board:  Institutions of higher education used to be able to control the flow of information to their students through the very limited means of communication available.  As social media and communication technologies evolve and become more ubiquitous, however, the university is now competing with a lot of other messages and “noise.”  The university no longer controls the bulletin board: the ability to communicate to a captive audience.

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blackboardThe Blackboard:  Many university classes used to be dominated by the lecture and one-way communication from professor to student.  As more, and more diverse, students enter higher education, they demand educational practices that are relevant and address their diverse learning styles and needs.  The university lost the blackboard: the ability to rely on old methods of instruction and ignore multiple learning styles.

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Although it is important to understand where higher education has lost control, it’s also important to understand where it has the potential to capitalize on its strengths.  A number of articles online have attempted to answer this question (two particularly good ones can be found here and here).  It is my belief, however, that the strength of universities lies in their ability to help students synthesize and make sense out of their experience, holistically.  Some of the best universities have recognized this and created environments that support seamless in and out of the classroom learning.  They promote collaborations between the faculty, the content experts, and student affairs professionals, the developmental education experts.  There are guided internships, service learning experiences, and learning communities in the residence halls.  Universities, in virtue of their ability to act as their own local area networks, have the ability to curate an educational environment that even the most expansive online educational networks cannot solely provide.  The university can network the best of the physical and virtual learning environments.  For the university, the best defense against the network is for the university to become a network itself.


UPDATE (2/6/13):
A special thank you to @shawnbrackett for highlighting this post in the February 5th BreakDrink podcast, “Daily Dose of Higher Education.”  Listen in here.