New Ivy-League: Nice idea, wrong model

The education press fizzed this week, having caught up with an end of 2011 TED talk from former Snapfish CEO Ben Nelson in which he proclaimed a $25 million war chest and an ambitious two-year timetable to “transform higher education” by creating an elite global university online. Not the first, and certainly not the last, entrepreneur to look to upset the timidity of the conventional higher education landscape, one does wonder whether the Minerva project is really about changing lives and futures, or just about market-share, profit, and disruptive enterprise. Is it really about something brand-new, or just new-brand? The obsession with being new ‘ivy-league’ belies some mis-placed assumptions.

In 1996 John Daniel, then Vice-Chancellor at the Open University UK, and later head of the Commonwealth of Learning, wrote ‘Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media: Technology Strategies for Higher Education’. Daniel writing in 1996 says “One new university per week is required to keep pace with world population growth but the resources necessary are not available…Popular perceptions of university quality are a barrier to change that can be surmounted. The appropriate use of technology adds quality in other areas of endeavour and can help universities overcome the criticism levelled at them.” I wonder if Ben Nelson has read it. I suspect not.

The power of the internet to transform education is not in doubt. We misjudged the impact of slate, paper, bought ink, ball-points and calculators, I don’t think there are many left who doubt the impact of the internet on higher education. We’ve seen exciting developments in OER and MOOC’s in recent years, and innovation with accreditation through OERu and MITx. Clearly the model is changing. And it’s been changing a while, but what the world needs is scale not 20th century notions of ‘quality’.

OER: the death of the solipsistic academic?


The challenge faced by the Open Educational Resources University is not translation, context or learning styles, it is not a question of interoperability of learning environments or granularity of learning objects, SCORM compliance or IMS standards; it is perhaps rather a question of academic identity. We have a lot of identify work to do.

I remember first meeting  Wayne Mackintosh at the Third Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning (PCF3)  in Dunedin, New Zealand, in July 2004, hosted by DEANZ, the Government of New Zealand and the Commonwealth of Learning (COL). The theme for PCF3 was “Building Learning Communities for Our Millennium: Reaching Wider Audiences through Innovative Approaches”. Wayne was convener of our thoughtful, diverse, varied and anarchic think-tank. We talked about kite-marks, quality standards, intellectual colonialism and poverty. The seeds of the OERu were visible then.

It is no surprise to see Wayne Mackintosh, Director OER Foundation, leading the initiative for Open Educational Resources University, OER university (#oeru). The initiative is raising some interesting critiques, and questions, which Tony Bates summarizes succinctly. But these are still issues of institutional norms, governmental process and sectorial quality assurance. I sense we are asking a lot of people.

There are people in the world who are good at facilitating learners’ encounters with new concepts and ideas, there are people who can enthuse, capture and motivate; and there are those who write, design, narrate and structure learning in meaningful ways. It is as often pride, as much as institutional conventions, that gives rise to academics’ conviction that they must fulfill all these roles. Whilst an academic was once the guardian, seeker, generator and clarifier of the codex of knowledge in their domain, they are now primarily its steward and pride is best placed in a more defined function.

That knowledge was once defined in terms of individual libraries, writings and musings suggests only that it was confined to the means available to communicate it. To consider it now practical, or realistic, for an individual to hold the key to a domain of knowledge is nothing less than a delusion born of vanity.

The world of knowledge creation, dissemination and propagation has changed radically in the last 30 years, and with it, academic identity. It is simply illogical, not to say inefficient, to expect a single academic to research, write, and teach all the content for their university courses. What the OER movement represents is a 21st century model of knowledge propagation, a contemporary revisioning of the master-pupil relationship, and a means of making learning accessible beyond the single, constrained, voice of the solipsistic academic.

For the faculty that make-up our institutions to accept their emerging role as validators of the learning that happens without them necessarily ‘teaching’ what is validated, and teaching what is validated by others….. that is a huge leap into the unknown, and that surely, is the biggest challenge facing the OERu.

%d bloggers like this: