To Disrupt or Preserve The University

Lately there has been a lot of heat around the idea of disrupting higher education. In fact, the search phrase “disrupting higher education” currently yields almost 2 million results via Google.

Like everything else disrupted in the recent past, the impetus here is the application of digital technology to a new domain in order to lower costs and increase efficiency. This HASTAC article has a nice breakdown of the current state of play in higher education. And here is a presentation on disruptive innovation in education from the man who coined the term and popularized the concept. No word on whether Joseph Schumpeter considered the university as part of the business sector and hence available to be torn asunder, though I suspect he did not.

There is a bit more to the story than just the application of digital technology to higher education. I would argue (and will in a later post) that the confluence of learning objectives derived from Bloom’s taxonomy, standardized testing, and digital technology constitutes the three legged stool supporting this trend. I won’t dwell on the consequences of disruption here, as I have a feeling most people reading this have first-hand experience, or soon will, with the effects of disruptive innovation.

Pessimism in this situation is understandable and, to an extent, unavoidable. But, there is a countertrend afoot: a conserving trend that would see the university reimagined along the traditional lines of a self-governing polity of scholars. Granted, these initiatives are young and some are little more than a few people sitting and talking over drinks, but that is exactly how most movements get their start.

Theses initiatives include cooperative organizations like the New University Cooperative (which doesn’t seem to have any new activity since 2011) and The Social Science Center, Lincoln. In addition to their organizational work, both of these initiatives have spawned conceptual work around the question of whether the cooperative is a sustainable model for the university, here, here and here.

Another direction is represented by the IF Project which aims to provide a  free education in the humanities by using London as an open air lecture hall/seminar room combined with select online lectures. An example of their curriculum can be found here. They also just finished a successful kickstarter campaign. Similar to the IF Project are the Ragged Project, the Liverpool Free School,  the University of the Commons  and The Public School.

Developing in a different direction is The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Here you will find seminars in philosophy and the humanities conducted in found space across NYC. While many of the initiatives I have highlighted are utopian to the point of insisting on not paying their instructors, the Brooklyn Institute charges a modest fee for its 6- to 7-week seminars, most of which flows directly to the instructors. I would imagine the pay per hour is equal to, or slightly better than, adjuncting with the priceless benefit of controlling your working conditions. If you are in NYC, they are looking for new faculty. Though, I notice they are looking for a social theorist and a sociologist but not an anthropologist. Ahem…

Another area of ongoing experimentation is assessment. Some initiatives are pursuing traditional accreditation, others are experimenting with Mozilla Open Badges, and others are going assessment free. This is worth thinking through comprehensively, even more than new forms of organization, as assessment is the most difficult and politically charged issue in education. Not only in the form the assessment takes, which can range from the easy computability of a standardized test to the hermeneutic task of interpreting a narrative evaluation, but also in how, or whether, the assessment might be taken up and employed by future publics.

One more thought before I wrap this up. If you think things are bad in the social sciences and humanities, and they are, take some comfort in knowing they are no better in the life sciences. Ethan Perlstein has been talking for a couple of years now about the “postdocalpyse” in the life sciences.  Yet, Perlstein and the projects mentioned here continue to pursue their intellectual projects by other means and in the process take small, but important, steps towards repairing the disruptions.

2 Responses to “To Disrupt or Preserve The University”

  1. Thanks for this. I shouldn’t be discouraged by the trend, but I am. Disruption and quality degradation have characterized this (my eleventh) year of teaching at my college. I have decided to leave at the end of May.

    At this point my research has a following from around the world and it is likely I can find another position. At least, I hope so.

  2. Johnd977 says:

    I don’t usually comment but I gotta admit thanks for the post on this great one cfdkbedcckde

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