Building University 2.0: Beyond Platforms and McDonaldization

In an earlier post, I pointed out that the application of 'platform thinking' in education misses the mark, as it fails to understand how value is created in education. Since this apparently contradicts my earlier enthusiasm for the university as a 'user network', this statement needs further explanation.

To start with, Clayton Christiansen's idea that the universities of the Twentieth Century needs to evolve from its current 'value chain' model - wherein its value lies in its processes - to a form of User Network, where its value emanates from its community, still resonates with me. The Value Chain model, with departments, examinations, textbooks and degrees, that we know the university for, is very much a late Nineteenth/ early Twentieth century formulation. And, indeed, one can claim that the universities were always communities, and its value came from being a member of that community rather than its end product - the degrees - for much of history. It is only the late Twentieth century trend of Mass Higher Education that made the processes (and 'quality' that protects the integrity of these processes) become synonymous with the University. In a sense, the 'User Network' model refers to the past of the Universities as much as to its future.

However, the User Network model - or 'platform' as tech businesses will call it - can be easily misunderstood. Rather than the community, it may be seen as something like Facebook, a space and a toolkit, which allows the learners come and create value themselves. This is the vision that For-Profit education and its investors have embraced readily, because it resonates with the motto of 'platform thinking' - with infinite scalability and cost models focused on sales rather than delivery. 

And, this is now being carried to an extreme of self-service universities. The teachers and any form of knowledge are being discarded in favour of 'skills', the idea being no one needs to know anything because knowledge is dynamic. A character in a famous Satyajit Ray movie says, "It is pointless to learn as there is no end of learning", and this fallacy seems to be celebrated in the various neoliberal projects of 'disruptive learning'. Together, they aim for 'McDonaldization' of the University, ironically designing value propositions based on standardised processes and cancelling the community out. In their formulation, the new university is knowledge-free, devoid of any teachers, self-service, bite sized and often virtual: Learners can dip in and out, and create value by themselves for their own use. 

That I have come to see the danger of such an idea should be self-explanatory. And, what I describe is not a fringe phenomena, but the key proposition of what goes under the 'disruptive innovation' label in education. This is backed by serious venture investments, which love the scalability and content-free model, and these ideas are promoted by think-tanks and conferences the world over. Such models are tested out in developing countries, turning entire generations into guinea pigs, and failures, as they come, are swept under the carpet as failures of implementation rather than conception. Ideas, like Learning from Experience, are expropriated to justify the approach, though its proponents, people such as John Dewey or Paulo Freire, had meant very different things. The more recent ideas, such as Self-Organising Learning Environments, evangelized by Professor Sugata Mitra (who I worked with in NIIT), are celebrated, though Dr Mitra's thesis has the ideas of learning communities entrenched into it. The McDonaldized, 'disruptive' University 2.0 disregards such nuances to build education models that fit the spreadsheets, rather than inconvenient objectives such as the development of the person and developing a critical engagement with the world.



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