How to think about 'innovation' in Higher Education?

Civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe: If H. G. Wells meant education only in a broad sense, in this third decade of the third millennium in the common era, the same can be said about specific 'formal' types of education that have pervaded all aspects of our lives and cultures. In the intervening hundred years (almost, as Wells said that in 1922), 'education' has increasingly come to mean formal instruction and recognition, and despite occasional half-hearted attempts by the government and academic dissertations with zero impact, 'informal' education has gotten nowhere. If anything, the thriving ecosystems of 'adult education' that Wells would have seen around him have all but dwindled into a caricature, as mass schooling and formal education reached everyone and degrees came to mean enlightenment.

However, even if education has changed, catastrophe remained somewhat steadfast. The social arrangements that emerged in the nineteenth century, and whose first disruptions Wells was experiencing first hand, have reached - yet again, one might say - another pivot point. Technologies are now far more powerful and more pervasive, States have control over more areas of its citizens' lives than they ever had and the successive waves of consumerism and compliance have thrashed out the spirit that drove democratic expansion: As François Furet said, the French revolution is well and truly over. Indeed, this may mean that we have finally solved the civilisation's problem and reached the plateau of uninterrupted forward march, the end of history; or, as it really feels like, we have run out of ideas how to move forward anymore. Except for Singularity perhaps, when conscious machines reach the threshold of human intelligence and gain the organic ability to self-replicate. Outside a tiny sliver of territory in California, where this is touted as progress (and perhaps in some boardrooms in New York and London), this is how catastrophe looks like for the rest of humanity.

In context, the outcome of the race is foretold. Education is condemned into an unedifying structure, shackled in the leg, waiting for a death-by-committee sentence. Frozen by the nineteenth-century ideals of solid institutions, pampered by the twentieth-century new deal spirit, education as a collective enterprise of creators and entrepreneurs - teachers and scholars - has been forgotten. What lives, at least in most cases, is education as an arm of the State, a legitimising function of knowledge and expertise: One of creating closed spaces and calling out the blasphemies. Despite its rhetoric, it's not defined by surveying the blue ocean, but rather by a besieged mentality: For the last media explosion, that of Print, democratised conversations and the formal education was designed to be the gatekeeper of knowledge. 

At the time of bonfire of institutions, this has so far held somewhat. Educational attainment is intertwined with the structures of privilege in the 'natural aristocracies' - meritocracy - of Jeffersonian imagination. But no longer, as the political revolt against meritocratic ideals - all those smooth vowels and nuanced concepts - is now on the streets. The illusion of opportunity society, the implicit promise of the higher education, stands exposed. The hopes of democratic participation, a nineteenth-century dream preserved in the hallowed corridors of great schools, betrayed its class nature; the never-resolved conceptual conflict between mass education and segregated education now fully understood by its consequences. But an alternate vision of expertise is emerging and for all the ridicule directed at it, WhatsApp university is seriously unsettling the rank-and-categorise world of universities.

It's not that the need for disruptive innovation is not understood, but it's understood in a limited way. The blind orthodoxy of the market resulted in the simplistic formula of privatization - that private investment would make education responsive, agile and creative. But the empirical experience was very different: The walled garden of formal education allowed those players who got in to build their own little private gardens. This was no uncharted frontier of technology, to be explored by risk capital; this was an entrenched orthodoxy, one that could produce oligopolistic returns. Private investment in education, therefore, was anti-innovation; in fact, those who got in did not tear down the walls but built reinforcements. 

'Innovation' in Higher Education, therefore, doesn't come from private providers. More private access will only mean more barriers to entry, entrenched anti-competitive practices and greater divergence between the social and technological landscape and what schools teach. Indeed, the government isn't great at the game of self-obsolescence though the spectre of lost generations and low productivity do make it act from time to time. But the innovation that we need - a new conception of expertise, a new way of assimilating knowledge, enabling the learning curve that would allow the benefits of technology to be enjoyed by many - would happen in the fringes: Not within the institutional structure, not in the wild west of anything goes, but within the overlap of private enterprise and knowledge commons: The equivalent of coffee house at the time of enlightenment. With the disappearance of adult education, the ossification of lifelong learning into a label, this is a narrow space at this time. But this is growing: WhatsApp may be the preserve of charlatans but don't write off its potential as yet.



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