Occupying Knowledge and Learning
The communication technologies of the 21st Century have threatened both the time-honored ways of delivering education and its social and cultural purposes.
The debate over delivery is whether the digital technologies and online applications are actually a means for enlightenment. Many do not embrace the new technology because they believe them to be a “shoddy imitation of the class room experience.” Or, that it is the millennial mind that needs to be fixed, certainly not their teachers.
The debate over purpose is whether online is primarily a financial tool to create new revenue streams by video recording lectures to reach distance and nontraditional students, or an opportunity to systemically restructure the substance and nature of higher education.
The Educational Divide
These internal debates over delivery and purpose have created an educational divide that rests on false either/or distinctions between live classes and online material, rather than the complementary aspects of how to most effectively use the technologies for teaching and learning. These debates go to the core of how, not whether, the roles, functions and responsibilities of higher education have changed as a result of the digital revolution.
The new communication technologies are neither a second-rate educational experience nor a cheaper commodity. To view them as such is to diminish their value. Failure to embrace and use their potential is to cling to the dead idea of a 500 year old concept that lectures and books are still the primary currency for teaching and learning. Both have been replaced by the new communication technologies, binding delivery and purpose together into a new 21st Century entity.
The divide is paralyzing change, while higher education is failing to come to terms with unsustainable increases in tuition and the need for wider and more successful access.
A Void Waiting to Implode
The public debate over financing higher education grows more urgent every day. When the student loan bubble bursts – as it surely will – higher education will be required to reposition itself, if it has not heeded the warning and done so proactively.
On the nontraditional side there is no such confusion. The commercial on-line and for-profits have both a marketing advantage and a clear strategy. Their products are practical, job centered, and non-critical. They are not part of the liberal elite, and their negotiable content better serves the preservation of traditional social values. Education as a commodity fits the bill of state legislators who are feeling the political heat of rising costs of public education as austerity measures causes state revenue to be replaced by tuition increases.
The competition for educational dollars will only continue to grow in the face of continued financial constraints. This transfer of title to greater standardization, less physical structures and lower cost is well underway.
However, contrary to its manifest appearance, the real story is not about the healthy democratic process of government oversight finding a balance between consumer protection and corporate profits. It is about the role and function of teaching and learning in the 21st Century as the instrument of human progress. This is no small issue. The ownership of both knowledge and learning has replaced economic growth as the gatekeeper of the human condition.
There are only two ways the merger of delivery and purpose can go: Either there will be a further commodification of knowledge with the for-profits competing with public institutions for the educational marketplace, or traditional institutions of higher education will re-invent themselves to actually serve the dual role of centers of public knowledge and to provide massive open online learning opportunities.
Owning Knowledge and Learning
The Occupy movement provides a conceptual context for the unification of delivery and purpose into a new 21st Century entity in which lectures and books are replaced by the power of the new digital communication technologies. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) can be widely inclusive of the general public and still personally responsive and individually evaluative of registered students.
One of the purposes of my MOOC “Forums for a Future” is to expand the physical, social and temporal boundaries of the class to be able to include the parents, extended family and social network of the students so they may share their educational experience with significant people in their personal life. This simply inflates and enriches the reach of the course at little extra cost. In addition, because the course is online and fully public and self-paced, anyone is free to drop-in, or to fully participate. Finally, any existing public interest group – such as church discussion group -- can create their own section by physically meeting together at a set time or in virtual space. If they wish, they can invite university students to drop in, or even to participate with them; this is something students who have completed my course may do for credit as facilitators, or as paid participant observers for evaluation. In every variation, there are interpersonal interactions among self-selective groups who are able to use the opportunity provided by an open door classroom to tailor their participation to suit their own unique needs as learners.
The new technologies have given us the opportunity to restructure both how (the delivery) and what (the purpose) we teach as the counterforce to education becoming simply another commodity. It is time to close the false distinctions of the educational divide and to occupy both knowledge and learning as the new role and function of public higher education in the 21st Century -- as the essential instrument for the enhancement of the human condition.
Good education is both disruptive and essential for democracy. The content and who controls it does matter.
Edward Renner teaches in the Honors College at the University of South Florida