Would Technology Transform Higher Education?



I. Why Doesn't Technology Change Higher Education?

I lived through the Dotcom years - all that frenzy about valuation of Start-ups, reading Red Herring (the aptly named Magazine of the time that is no more), the excited talk about a changing world - and I have heard this before, that Technology would utterly, completely, irreversibly change College. 

It sure did. So, textbooks were replaced by e-textbooks, lectures were recorded and made available as videos, journals became searchable e-journals and submissions became online (though, tediously, many schools still asked for paper copies). But it was a damp squib! There was no disruption like the Music industry, which stopped becoming an industry, almost; nothing like the Netflix-size challenge that shook the big studios; and not even like steady, creeping territory grabbing like Amazon, that redefined how we buy stuff. 

A lot of businesses, and people who built them (which includes me), tried and failed to transform education in any fundamental way. Great ambitions often pivoted into mere selling of services, and the only the investor portfolios felt the impact of disruption that was supposed to come about. The teachers were blamed for their fear of change as well as their habit of abandoning the course too soon into an enterprise; regulators were blamed for over regulation that strangulated innovation and under-regulation that encouraged markets for lemons. But the question remained unasked: Why doesn't technology transform Higher Education?

Let's rephrase it: Why doesn't Higher Education change the same way the other similar sectors changed through technology? Streaming destroyed record labels and now the studios, but in education, it became the tool for the marginal indulgence of the podcasts; data sharing and RFID transformed the supply chain and how things are bought, but de-materialization of textbooks did not mean the end of textbooks, but rather a greater, more profitable, proliferation of them. Surely, these changes brought greater efficiency, increased private sector participation and changed student engagement, but it left the PROCESS of College 'un-disrupted': The popular conference slide that a show classrooms of the nineteenth century side by side with contemporary ones to illustrate how little has changed is not heralding the future, but rather, in itself, is an admission of defeat.

II. What's Different About Higher Education?

Is Higher Education peculiar then, a sort of impermeable, unchanging practise that continued the same way all the time? Certainly that carefully cultivated claim is the embattled educators' last defence: It was as it now is and as it always will be. And, the reason such a claim may sound authentic is not because College has not changed, but rather the opposite, that it has changed and such claims were always made. It is the language and the nature of the claim that remained constant, though Higher Education has always been a historically defined activity.

It is more helpful to focus on the origins of this claim than to settle for the more obvious, but superficial, explanation that Higher Education is not really comparable to media or retail sectors: The latter came about as a result of technological transformation, and were expected to change when the technologies changed. This is obvious because the music, movie and organised retail are very much industrial era phenomenon, made possible by a certain technological moment. But this explanation is superficial because this hides more than it says: It obscures that the College in its current form is very much an industrial era creation too, and that the media and retail industries were created not just as a result of enabling technologies, but because of the social conditions - urbanisation, nuclear families, consumer culture etc - that accompanied it. It was not just that the technologists said that let there be a film industry and there it was: It came about in baby steps, through a process of negotiation between ways of organising businesses and ways of living - and in perspective of those changes, the recent transformation of those industries are, at the same time, less revolutionary and yet more promising. 

Once we accept that Jeff Bezos is very much a child of Sears, just responding to a different social reality, and Steve Jobs was merely updating the visions of Akio Morita for a 'Prosumer' (Alvin Toffler's prescient term to describe Producer-Consumers that sounds slightly clunky now) world, we perhaps get to see why Education might be different, and how technologies may indeed change education. It is not the Technology in itself, but the whole complex of technical, social, economic and commercial factors that make a sector change to transform the sector. Our affection for the term 'Revolution' is unhelpful; and the adulation for the 'Revolutionaries' is outright mistaken: Rather than making transformation, changes come as the existing arrangements fail, utterly, completely and irreversibly, and eventually, someone gets it and seizes the moment, usually from the outside!

This is where Higher Education is different. Because the industrial era assumptions that brought the current system of College into play are still alive and kicking! We may claim that Robots are changing everything and we have this wonderful age of globalisation going, but it is harder to accept that we would no longer be educating people for 'jobs', 'skills' may not really be as easy to define, and that we may not need to do things that we can't really measure. Ideas die harder than the realities that created them, and the industrial era realities - the big corporation, education for jobs, clearly defined subjects and disciplines, of merit and innate intelligence, 'smarts' - are very much with us even after the chimneys have disappeared.

III. How May Education Change?   

It is that claim - of the timeless continuity of College - which tells how may it change. The claim, indeed, is not just a claim, but an elaborate process of symbols and practises - with red-brick buildings or Roman arches, beautiful Robes at the Commencement Ceremonies, cryptic motto written in ancient languages - designed to sustain the central functions of the college, 'sex for students, parking for faculty and sports of the alumni' (in Clark Kerr's words). The modern university wants to claim its lineage directly to the medieval monasteries, through University of Paris to Plato's Academy - and perhaps beyond - to remain OUTSIDE historical time. The central motivation of this claim is not Utopian, but Conservative - of preservation of privilege - and it should therefore be acknowledged as such. The modern Higher Education is a building block of modern social relations, which are based on assumptions of 'merit' and measured in terms of economic productivity, which replaced the previous arrangement of privileges of birth and appreciation through civility. The current structure of college is an intrinsic part of privilege and power of the modern society, and that any amount of Silicon Valley money would rock this proverbial boat is a rather frivolous assumption.

But the emergent economic and social realities just might! In more than one way, the expansionist assumptions of Industrial Era - that there will be unending economic growth, new jobs and ever larger businesses - sound seriously outdated, and yet these are at the heart of our educational enterprise. Despite our premonition that we don't know what's coming, we tend to believe we can define, develop and measure competencies, only to be proved wrong again and again. We fetishize on economic productivity, and yet, know no straight path to it. These problems and possibilities arise from technologies, but they are not technological problems, to be solved with yet another cool app. There will be apps and gadgets that will enable the transformation, but they wouldn't define it.

What would define it is the imperative to correspond with social realities, such as adjusting for a world without jobs, one without year-on-year growth and credit-fuelled expansion of desire, one where money is reined into some sound basis after the bits-driven frivolities burns itself out and where politics, after years of abjuring the 'popular', returns to local and the familiar. This is no return to medieval monasticism, but an abrogation of industrial era College, which is structured as a PROCESS - with defined output and, often, defined input - and which, implied in itself, arrogate the role of arbitrating the shape of the future. Instead, as jobs and careers break down (industrial era concepts as they were), the Higher Education may become a NETWORK, something one may join and leave, each pursuing their own goals, and bringing their own credentials and experiences with, to validate, to collaborate and to co-create. The College, in this, wouldn't exist to measure, to certify and to ensure conformance, but rather to connect, to create and to expand possibilities. Admittedly, these expressions are empty and over-used, but such is our limited vocabulary of the college, inherited from the industrial-era dictionary: What the college would really do would emerge as the attendant social situations emerge, and most certainly, new words to describe it would emerge with it.

(Photo Credit: Everystockphoto)

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