Conversation 21: The College Project

I often talk about creation of a brick-and-mortar college as a part of my future plans. However, my current work is all about online, as was most of my past engagements. Therefore, the question that I often face is why I think Brick-and-Mortar college is a good idea: In fact, whether I think brick-and-mortar colleges have any future at all, in this age of dramatically improving education technology.

The starting point for me is that I see a college as a community, first and foremost. It is a community of teachers and of learners. We have systematically undermined this community aspect over the years, as we promoted individual success over collective goals and reduced the education proposition to the mere degrees and college brand names. The community of teachers was undermined by increasing managerial domination over academic life, as well as by disconnecting academic life from the life on the main street. What was left - as many of the proponents of the online college point out - is three years' of partying. But as partying is the only form of community life known to the current form of human civilisation and college should not be faulted alone for promoting that idea of life.

The presumed decline of the college, I shall argue, is not because the college has fallen out of sync with the realities of our life by promoting a falsely idyllic life, but because it has failed to have a purpose, by being too pliantly a part of the unrestrained individualism which undermined all our institutions which sustained community life. The college as a tool of globalisation, one that promotes solely the ideals of consumer individualism, is a form of entertainment, a sort of chicken soup for the career-minded. This is what made party-life central to college experience, and led to the academic drifting that Richard Arum so convincingly portrayed (or evidenced in Rebekah Nathan's work) and other various complaints about the value of college life.

However, this one reality, consumer globalisation as the moral direction of history, is not the only one we should live by. In fact, this looks different from different vantage points, more so from the point of view of economies such as China and India, who are not only in the quest for national prosperity, but to sustain it, they are also searching for culture that can sustain such prosperity. A close reading of any of the developing societies will perhaps reveal the struggle to eclectically combine industrial progress with a sense of identity and community, the very things consumer globalisation essentially undermines. In summary, the college still has a role to play.

The online technologies of information and communication have made great progress in the last decade or so, and tipped to replace the college, but only in its reductive form of a place of information dissemination and credentialling. In fact, online colleges may only seek to create credentialled individuals who have nothing to do with the community membership, who are, at best, somewhat akin to footloose global bankers and, at worst, a rootless nomad. Its promise of bringing people together has been subverted into the business logic of pushing people apart. Tragically, the college itself, by trying to play its part in the same consumer quest, has made itself amenable to online disruption, but perhaps not in the societies which are seeking to build its communities at the same time. This is my primary start point for imagining a place-based college.

In the college I imagine - and I can't but stress that this is only a long term plan to be realised over a period of time - several departures must be made from the current model of the college. Indeed, this must be an administration-light college, where information technology and student participation should be brought together to replace the prohibitive costs of administering such an entity. This should also be about rigorous learning and intellectual work, rather than academic drift, and should be sustained by teaching communities. I can see the possibilities of technology in creating an wider community of experts worldwide who may still be part of the community without necessary having to locate themselves in it: In short, my model is based on the opposite of an online college, where the students will be in one place but teachers could be anywhere. Indeed, my conception is to create this whole model around intense connections with practice, in fact co-locating the learners with practitioners as far as possible, and informing the process of assessment as closely as possible by the real life work situations.

This is work in progress, and all that I do, study, learn, feeds directly into developing the details of this idea. I reach out to people in different professions and places, looking for serendipitous connections which lead to the evolution of this idea. And, this blog is a record of those evolving ideas, which, hopefully, even with all the confusion or contradiction that must be part of such a conversation, represent progress.


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