Imagine, if you will, a world where individual academics work in isolation from one another. Each attracting a greater or lesser number of students according to their reputation and tailoring course content to ensure that student fees continue to flow in.
Students drop out of courses when they have met their immediate needs and feel employable – or when they become dissatisfied with their experience – and only a small number ever graduate. Despite claims to the contrary, each academic uses the same published materials, and works in a very similar way.
You’d probably think that I was paraphrasing the latest sensational piece from a thinktank or blogger, describing how the ‘university’ is defunct in a modern, connected age. But actually, I am writing about the Italian city of Bologna, almost 1,000 years ago.
There, as students became interested in fashionable new subjects like law and medicine, academics began to realise that their existing approach was not fit for purpose and that something had to be done. Students had organised themselves and were demanding a better experience, more up to date resources and fairer assessment.
The first step that the academics took was to begin talking to each other, sharing ideas and approaches – then they began to collaborate, finding strength and also greater flexibility in numbers. And from these early personal learning networks, came the University of Bologna – the world’s first university – in 1088.
After nearly a millennium, academics are again exchanging ideas and offering support, this time via networks far bigger than a single university. The growth of social media has seen scholarship become more open and more transparent, as the ideals of the open web draw us back to the ideas of sharing that shaped the birth of the University of Bologna. We’ve even seen a single programme’s Twitter hashtag – #ukoer – become a means of discussion and debate around all areas of open education.
Scott Hibberson, e-learning adviser at the Jisc Regional Support Centre for Yorkshire and Humberside, describes these personal learning networks (PLNs): “Helping learners to establish good networking skills and the ability to collaborate effectively online is a key component of digital literacy, and that’s why it’s essential that we encourage today’s learners to start building their own PLNs that will place them in good stead for the future.”
This idea of a network of peers, sharing and supporting learning, also underpins the emerging learning theory known as ‘connectivism’ which has been developed by Canadian academics such as George Siemens, and underpins much of the thinking around the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).
Open Educational Resources (OERs) are another example of these networks adding benefit to learning across the world – where tutors in Canada can use materials created in Ghana and modified in India, then share their own additions under the same set of open licensing.
It would be tempting to ask why these networks are being formed outside of universities and if this phenomenon makes universities defunct? But the answer would be ‘no’ – networks of support have always existed around subjects and areas of interest and the web is serving to make them more accessible and more efficient.
In another parallel with medieval Bologna, there is a current perception of increased demand from students and a similar need for academic collaboration and support. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)/Pearson report, ‘An Avalanche Is Coming’ suggests that: “[The] student consumer is king and standing still is not an option. Embracing the new opportunities set out here may be the only way to avoid the avalanche that is coming.”
Similar language is found elsewhere in government and private reports, refocusing the attention of policy makers on student demands. In England, the Browne Review radically reformulated funding policy to make universities more responsive. And the emergence of new models of content delivery, in particular the MOOC, presents new pressures and new competition.
We can already see a range of startups and platforms emerging which aim to support the further disaggregation of higher learning, using the language of revolution and personalisation to sell standardised products to replace and constrain current experiences of learning – and all in the name of meeting the needs of the learners.
To quote ‘An Avalanche is coming’ again, from a detailed passage examining each component of the university offer and the emerging non-institutional completion: “[New] competition is not necessarily only at the level of the whole institution, it is also competition at the level of each individual component. When this happens, the unbundling of the existing institutions becomes possible, likely or even necessary. Other means of grouping the various components become more attractive to consumers and/or more economical and efficient.”
The US Government Accountability Office reported serious concerns about the quality of some commercial higher education as a part of a major review in 2011. Whereas there are some examples of world-class private colleges, other institutions – particularly those with ‘innovative’ models of delivery, failed to meet basic expectations of academic standards and student support. For example:
“At College 4, our [undercover] student submitted work in one class that did not meet the requirements of the assignment (such as photos of political figures and celebrities in lieu of essay question responses). The student further failed to participate in required real-time chat sessions. The instructor did not respond to requests for grade details and some substandard submissions appeared to have no effect on the student’s grade, which ultimately resulted in the student passing the class.”
Innovative approaches to higher education delivery, including unbundling, are inherently risky. Within an institutional setting, these risks can be managed using existing processes and support – but if delivery involves several private and public service providers these can be difficult to manage.
It would be difficult to find anyone who would disagree that student needs should be addressed. But the National Student Survey suggests that nearly 90% of students are satisfied with their overall university experience. In itself, this is an argument for evolution rather than revolution: the gentle attentions of the tide and wind rather than an all-consuming natural disaster.
A student in a lecture theatre in 2013 could be sharing the experience, given the rise of lecture capture, with students all over the world. Inviting the world into a lecture theatre can only improve the student experience, and the use of resources and contacts from throughout (and often without) academia lends the same support to students as those demanded in Bologna all those years ago. We see this happening today in initiatives like Phonar in Coventry, where students are introduced to the networks and contacts that define professional practice in photography.
The high priests of university disaggregation appear to want us to abandon nearly a millennium of collaborative experience. The system we have has successfully supported generations of students, and sustained a world leading research profile. Whatever the needs of students may be in the next 1,000 years, it is highly unlikely that a return to early isolationist practices will meet them.
This article originally featured in issue 38 of Jisc Inform (UK web archive).