The University As A Network

I wrote earlier about How To Build An University to argue that our current paradigms are flawed. My essential point was that the university, more than its buildings, curriculum and facilities, is a community, and this should be the key consideration for building an university. I wanted to add to this thought, how one may put the community at the heart of university-making, and think through some of the practical implications.

This argument that one may need to look at the University as a Community is old, and indeed, the first universities were conceived as communities more than anything else. This is also at the heart of a sophisticated business argument - Clayton Christensen and his coauthors argued for adopting an 'User Network Business Model' for the universities - and this did become a talking point when venture investment in education was raging. I did write about it then (See Education 2.0: Universities As User Networks , Universities As User Networks: An Update and The Architecture of Disruption: The University As User Network ) though my ideas changed over time. The limits of business imagination, that students are users, consumers who participate in a certain way, is perhaps limiting for universities. However, the essential idea of a network remains valid and this is one paradigm shift we need to afford in our thinking about the universities.

Essentially - and this is the crux of Christensen's argument - universities today are envisioned as a Value Chain, a process that transforms a new student into a scholar or a professional. The value resides in the process, which is made up of different things - curriculum, lectures, facilities, social life - and therefore, these take precedence in university making. The ritual of planning for an university creation starts with regulatory checklists, and then proceeds through steps to satisfy the regulators. Once the license is acquired, which somewhat guarantees the process is in place, the university focuses on two things - acquiring students (input) and enhancing academic prestige (process validation) - which drive allocation of budgets and all the thinking.

Network is a different architecture than the value chain. It is not linear, and its value resides in connections (or nodes) rather than the process. The network may actually do nothing other than connecting, and enabling the participants to create value through the connection. This is indeed the architecture of a telecom provider, or that of the Internet. 

It is difficult to see how the University could be a network, but that is essentially because we are stuck in a paradigm of value chain (that is what paradigms do, they obscure alternative possibilities). There are three essential shifts that one has to adjust to before one can start thinking of universities as networks. The first is that the students are not naive participants with empty heads, but intelligent, engaged and aware human beings. The second is that the University's primary job is not to offer certifications, though that might be done as a matter of course, but to offer a learning experience. The third is that learning does not come from consumption of content, but from solving real life problems, through conversation, collaboration and application.

These might sound obvious the way I presented it - admittedly I used language to make these sound obvious - but come to think of it, our conception of university as a value chain works on opposite possibilities. The model considers the students to be empty vessels, buckets to be filled, though all evidence regarding the good universities are only as good as the students they let in. Our current models emphasise the outcomes, degrees, jobs, starting salaries, and our marketing drives the attention towards that, despite the growing chasm between degrees and achievements. And, our conversations about the universities are all about facilities, libraries and classrooms, professors' credentials and custom textbooks, and not about collaborative projects, engagements or impact of the students on communities (which are, at best, add-ons).

Against this, Universities as Networks may present themselves as membership organisations that are defined by certain values, and invite learners into 'legitimate peripheral participation' (Jean Lave's famous phrase). The student life is constructed not of lectures and essays, but actual work, together with others, in businesses, communities and government. This university would provide a safe space, without the fear of failure or artificial constraints of time (a bane of corporate life), for creative pursuits, thinking and making. The university tours take visitors not to sprawling football grounds, but to local schools, hospitals and businesses where the university students are making real impact.

The university as a community is a rhetorical construct right now. It is constructed as a bureaucratic organisation, at least in most cases, run by managers, centred on outcomes and limited on imagination. It is a part of the bureaucratic state, its tool for self-creation and a mechanism of offering 'graces' to a select group of its citizens. This system, though, is at a breaking point. Expanding literacy and aspirations on one hand, and failure of salvation on the other, have put the system under enormous stress, requiring a reset. A more democratic and engaged form, as in the Network University, needs to emerge. Paradigm shifts usually emerge at the precipice, which we seem to be at, right now.


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