Craving Agility in Higher Education

A skim through the Starfish and the Spider at the Boulder Book Store last weekend charged me up with thoughts about higher education in general and academic libraries in particular. Some of the reasons offered for the successes of fluid, barely-hierarchical–successful–organizations (e.g., Wikipedia) put in relief the stultifyingly inelastic structure of large academic organizations (at least per my experience so far).

Managing the Platform, an article by David J. Staley in the most recent issue of EDUCAUSE Review, examines similar notions and applies them directly to the higher education enterprise. His ideas focus on taking projects like MIT’s Open Courseware efforts quite a few steps beyond, to the creation of a new university model that is a sort of collection of autonomous groups whose members are brought together by common expertise and interest. The article briefly mentions P2PU, a prototype of this kind of loosely structured learning environment.

While I think some aspects of such a model may be both plausible and desirable, I don’t see how such a fluid structure could be solid and accountable enough across time to serve as the source of certification that university degrees now provide. To put it too crassly, I think the simple, structured, transactional nature of colleges and universities, in which students shell out time and money to more or less purchase nationally recognized credentials for themselves is one that would die hard. Or maybe, rather, it is the stiff, unchanging structure of colleges and universities that make credentializing so simple and standardizable. This addresses only the side of higher education that deals with job preparation, however, not the aspects that deal with love of learning, etc.

The article’s first comment, by UIUC’s Robert Hughes, Jr., ably points out a few other weaknesses with the ideas.

A couple of quotes from the article:

The real significance of Wikipedia and similar Web 2.0 technologies is the way in which they organize people and activities, not simply the way in which they create and distribute information.

The question for those of us in higher education is, How might the logic of Web 2.0, the logic of commons-based peer production, and the logic of platform management transform the idea of the university and the very activities—teaching and learning, research, and publishing—that lie at the heart of this enterprise?

An incomplete rapid-fire reaction, this. And now, out of time…hope to return soon to sharpen and flesh out these thoughts more.

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