Thursday, December 12, 2013
Metaphors for change in universities
Having just read Peter Reed's blog posting "The Last (open) Samurai" with its ideas that there either are battles between traditional staff and those who will adopt open practices or perhaps between traditional and MOOCs; and that in the end the "modern" method will defeat the old traditional method I got thinking about the problem of the dilemma. We often pose problems as an either / or. Either we will have open education, or the traditional will survive. Either MOOCs will replace universities or traditional universities will survive. I think that the problem comes precisely from looking at these things as a battle.
I would like to propose a different metaphor - the landscape, nothing new in it of course, but it does offer a different view. If we take the education landscape with its mountains and valleys, its woodlands and waterfalls then there is room in the landscape for development and change without necessarily destroying the existing landscape. If open education (or MOOCs) are going to radically change the landscape they might be damming the valleys or covering the hills with wind farms, but even so some of the old landscape will survive.
To take a historic view (and why not, universities are amongst the oldest organisations that we have) we still do many of the things that would be recognisable when the earliest modern universities were set up across Italy - the lecture and seminar. We still have the exam, but we have added new methods and ideas as they have become available. So I think, as President Bush said "I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully" I know open education, MOOCs and universities can coexist peacefully.
But, to be a bit more serious. There are considerable claims made for open education and for MOOCs which are political rather than educational. Every few years we see some new technology (or revised technology) come along and claim that it is going to utterly change the system. We saw this with (amongst others) virtual learning environments, reusable learning objects, open learning, MOOCs.... But, in the end, each of them has been co-opted into the establishment and used to enhance teaching and learning.
A landscape can absorb considerable development. Some of it may be an improvement (a Capability Brown) and some may harm the landscape (dark satanic mills) but few radically change the landscape, and many of those that do radically change the landscape are not changes to pedagogy so much as changes to the educational environment. On the positive side think of the Robbins report or the major expansion under Thatcher/Major/Blair, the abolition of the "binary divide" between universities and polytechnics or the admission of women to universities. On the negative side the reduction in funding per student, student fees and the pressure to perform for the RAE/REF without similar stimuli to improve teaching.