Lisa’s CCK08 Wordpress Blog

November 18, 2008

Universities: post-historical technocracy vs new learning models

Filed under: Week 10 — lisahistory @ 4:42 pm

Having read with great interest (read: frequent gasping, jaw dropping, note taking) Michael A. Peters’ Higher Education, Globalisation and the Knowledge Economy: Reclaiming the Cultural Mission (2007), of course I must respond. It is my duty, I think, as a historian. And at the same time, I want to see whether I can connect it to the question George Siemens poses in this week’s video (is technology transformative or just an add-on?) and his article for this week.

What’s missing in the questions about technology and educational institutions is the middle ground, the negotiated, messy grey areas on which techno-evangelists claim the world is embroiled, but themselves seem unwilling to engage. Peters was more willing to deal with these than many other authors to whom we’ve been introduced.

In his work, Peters claims that a new crisis for the university system has been declared. In English-speaking countries particularly, there has been a move away from the university as a “universal welfare entitlement” to a “private investment in ‘human capital'”, a transition marked by a demand for new workers in the global tertiary economy, cries for accountability, and monitoring to reduce the public financial burden. There is at present more people in universities than ever, a greater focus on vocational goals and application, and concerns about competition among institutions of higher education as we “come to terms with the impact of globalisation”. Taking his cue from Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins (1996), Peters says that the main concern, apart from a decline in the humanities, is a crisis of external legitimation, which he claims up to now has been based on the “notion of culture”.

This notion, embedded in the “modern university”, is subject to his (and Readings’) historical examination. This examination is based on three ideas dominating the modern university, in chronological order: “the Kantian idea of reason; the Humboldtian idea of culture, and; the techno-bureaucratic idea of excellence” (5). He treats the first two as the “historical” university, where the main purpose of the institution shifted from the application of reason to the needs of the state. Universities became the place where, in the 19th century, nationalistic ideology was inculcated. Entering what he calls the “post-historical era” (I really dislike that term), the modern capitalistic economy replaced the older nationalistic goals with the meaningless idea of “excellence” in education, an undefined and useless objective. This new approach promoted the neo-liberal focus on market forces, “obliterating the distinction between education and training”. Nowadays, it is suggested by Readings, that market model is being replaced in its turn by the conception of the university as a “global service corporation” in a new “knowledge economy”. This economy, according to a UK White Paper “Our Competitive Future” (1998) will be neither interventionist nor market-based, but focused on knowledge as wealth-creating and transferrable, ready to be exploited — a “techno-bureaucratic ideal”. In opposition to this ideal, Readings instead presented the concept of “dissensus” as an alternate path once “we have had to relinquish the notion of culture as the unifying idea” (20). This dissensus is founded on openness and incompleteness, which sounds similar to a number of views we’ve examined in this course.

Unfortunately, although Peters doesn’t say so directly (so I will) Readings’ “dissensus” vision seems to replace the techno-bureaucratic utopia with an ahistorical model that substitutes “knowledge” for “excellence” as the useless and non-referential catch word. Instead, Peters provides a better-grounded alternative to legitimization being based on consumer power, competitive production, or the “hollowing out of the university” (16):

I want to take a different tack and suggest a form of the university that does not break entirely with the founding historical discourses and their single unifying ideas but preserves them, adapts them to new conditions, reinvents and redefines them as an imaginative basis for resistance against the narrowing of thought.

He goes on to talk about the traditional goals of universities as producing knowledge and disseminating it. Instead of throwing out universities’ role in “culture”, he suggests the adoption of “knowledge cultures” based on shared practices and cultural norms, even as they shift. He argues for the preservation of reason and understanding of our own culture, an acknowledgement and acceptance of changing conditions that need a rational response. In other words, he argues for many of the things I would argue for that make the “post-historical” idea clearly the wrong direction. This wrong direction leads away from the “critique” element of rational discourse (for which Peters cites Foucault) into the stupidity of crowds and the tyranny of a mob wandering around in semantic constructions (which is one of my levels of hell).

George Siemens’ New Structures and Spaces of Learning (2008) attempts to envision a different model, one based on connectivism but acknowledging the traditional roles of the university, including accreditation, guided tasks and research. This model does not succumb to the post-historical techno-bureaucratic free-for-all that disturbs Peters. It quite literally connects the old and new elements of the university:

Structure is seen as necessary for beginners in a subject, to provide foundation, with exploration at the next level for the learner, and room for negotiation. It seems to reflect the approach of the English tutorial system, or graduate study (when grad students aren’t subject to serfdom, that it). This model would bring the perception of universities our culture can reclaim (centers of learning) together with new methods that take advantage of the latest technologies. It could potentially also move the pendulum back from skill-specific vocational “training” to a fuller idea of education, so long as the technology didn’t dominate the learning and create its own techno-bureaucratic nightmare. In addition, Siemens’ model needs to be careful about promoting specialization too early, which would take us back to the “training idea”. One great advantage of our general education standards, as I’ve said before, is the provision of a multiplicity of fields of study, with required introductions to each before a student may specialize.

So in answering questions about the future of institutions in the face of open resources, internet connectivity, and amateur content, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that institutions do evolve over time in response to changing conditions, and they don’t have to lose all their foundations to do that. And no, it’s not as simple as just augmenting the current system or “adding in technology”: I’ve seen that fail in many classrooms, from K-12 to college. Technology’s purpose is to be applied to problems. When there are problems in our institutions that technology could solve, technological solutions should be applied in those areas. If there are problems technology cannot solve effectively (or morally, or efficiently, or acceptably to those concerned), then there needs to be conversation about whether its application is appropriate. But the role of the university itself is to expand, not contract, to include varying subjects, approaches, and connections in the quest for knowledge, not just the pursuit of “excellence”. That’s part of the university “culture” as well.

November 15, 2008

Openness and . . . wait just a doggarned minute

Filed under: Week 10 — lisahistory @ 6:55 am

This morning an instructor who’s just starting to teach online contacted me. He had been told I was the campus online guru, and wanted to meet with me to discuss ideas and course management systems (our college is currently supporting Blackboard fully, but paying vendors for access to Moodle and ETUDES-NG). Among the many resources I’ve built into our Program for Online Teaching, I thought he might be interested in my EDUCAUSE article on CMSs (it’s not in the big journal, just the little practitioners’ Quarterly). I don’t keep it bookmarked, so I typed the title into Google.

I noticed others had written things about my article, so I started following a few links. I found it on Downes’ column for last May, with some comments I wasn’t aware of. Then I saw a link from British Library Direct. When I followed it I discovered that I’d have to pay a service charge, plus VAT if applicable, for the full text of the article. For me in the US, that’s £8.75 for immediate download.

I had been paid nothing for writing the article, and here this outfit is making money providing it to others. It is available free in both html and pdf forms from the EDUCAUSE website itself, so it’s not like it’s a restricted item of some kind. When I wrote it, I knew I was doing it for free, but wanted to share. It never occurred to me that anyone outside the organization asking me to write it would get paid for my work.

During our UStream discussion yesterday (thanks to Kristina for posting it), it was mentioned that Bradley Shoebottom had said something about making money off of open source. I misunderstood that, having not yet read Bradley’s post, and when I hit British Library Direct, I thought: “This is how people make money off of opennness!” They dupe people into believing that the article is accessible only through them, and charge for it. I wrote the article intending it to be free and open, and someone else has stolen it, in a sense, by trapping it.

If they’re doing it with my little article, then right now, people must be taking all kinds of free and open work, and charging for access to it. What kind of walls will our content be behind, without us even knowing it?

November 10, 2008

Learners, Students and an Ontological Issue

Filed under: Week 10 — lisahistory @ 3:10 pm

This class has me thinking a great deal about individualism, independent learning, and terminology. I’m also considering George Siemens’ shift, articulated in the Nov 7 UStream session, from the epistemological to the ontological, from talking about how we know things to discussing what we become.

All of us are “learners”, from the time we are born. It’s built in. We learn from many people and resources. To call someone a “student” is to imply formal enrollment in an educational institution. Somewhere along the way, some learners and students become educated people. I have been reading Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter, and becoming familiar with economists’ definition of the “enlightened public” as meaning something between the ordinary public and economists, who to me represent “scholars”. Scholars base their life on exploring and researching academic subjects. Another word we’ve been using would be “experts”.

Learners are the focus of this course, and of connectivist theory. Not just formally enrolled students, but people who learn, however and wherever that happens. The desire seems to be to turn our enrolled students into learners, imbued with the motivation to explore that they’ve had from birth. While I see that as laudable, I am struggling with the attack on our current educational systems as being either harmful or useless. Although I personally think there should be a great deal more independence of action and fluidity of curriculum, our current education system serves a purpose in terms of acculturation, child care, socialization and other elements that society wants.

But a key factor for intellectual development is exposure to what’s possible. At the K-12 level, students are introduced to many different subjects. At the college level, most of our students are subject to a multi-disciplinary curriculum. (In this case, the term “curriculum” refers to the package of courses taken for a degree.) In a world of completely independent, self-guided learning, the learner would pursue areas of interest to fulfill his/her own perceived needs. But colleges have General Education, curriculum developed with the deliberate purpose of exposing students to subjects they might otherwise not encounter. I can cite numerous circumstances of individuals who came to college with one major, but graduated with another, or who found their intellectual direction in classes they didn’t want to take.

The battle seems to be for the minds of people in their formative years, who are in the current system distinct in their role as students, their institutionalized instructional guidance, and their exposure to multiple subjects. To replace our educational system with completely self-guided learners could mean premature specialization, and a lack of exposure to non-familiar subjects.

Learner Student Educated Person Scholar
Directedness self school self self
Motivation immediate need grades/status/degree subject learning intellectualism/status
Likely age any, begins as baby key formative years any adult graduate school and up
Likely diversity of subjects explored low high moderate low
Information source varied, depends on access and desire institutional, guided by instructor varied, depends on access and desire data, research

It seems likely to me that what makes someone an educated person (not just a student or a learner) is diversity. And while I would certainly agree that diversity of learning methods in our schools and colleges could be improved, drastically, I’m not certain that the cost should be diversity of subjects to which students are exposed. My objective in my job is helping students become educated people who know how to learn, an ontological goal to which I’ve dedicated much of my adult life.

Educated people, the “enlightened public”, have always included the ranks of the self-educated. But the vast majority of educated people, who can now learn for their own ends while at the same time recognizing the need for service to society, are dominated by those who found their way in a guided environment. In fact, many of us learned in opposition to those educational institutions, fighting the norms we found overly restrictive in our formative years. It wasn’t necessary to determine our own educational objectives to determine our destiny. Many must become learners (with self-direction and motivation determined by biology) and students (forced to see the variety of human knowledge whether initially interested or not), to become truly educated.

[Note: this class has made me quite topsy-turvy — at work I am an innovative teacher, here I’m just an “educator” — everywhere else I am considered a radical, but here I become a traditionalist — I am a supporter of Rousseau and John Holt, but here I am arguing for our current system….]

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