Rethinking Industrial-Era Education in the Information Age

[Cross-posted on the LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences blog, 2014-02-21]

I’m now a third of the way through my first MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course. Received wisdom says that the fact that I’m still enrolled in a MOOC makes me vanishingly rare. But it seems that wisdom is wrong; the completion rates for some MOOCs are near 48%.

And this MOOC’s modus operandi is to reject received wisdom. The History and Future of Higher Education encourages participants (to quote its subtitle) to unlearn the traditional model of higher education, with its roots in the middle ages and its growth in the industrial 19th century. And then to relearn a new model for the information age. In short, it asks if you were designing a university in 2014, what would it look like? How would it work? Would it have labs and lecture theatres, faculties and four-year degrees? Or would it use different systems to reach the same intellectual and economic outcomes?

This course’s topic suits its format. “How you teach is what you teach,” the outline declares. Our instructor, Cathy N. Davidson of Duke University, offers recorded lectures you watch online. I’ve seen online lectures, but none like this. For one thing, I’ve never been tested on their content before; each week there’s a multiple-choice quiz. For another, Davidson eschews the “doc on the laptop” model of online learning. The point that she practices and preaches is to unlearn the broadcast model. Davidson’s best provocation is that if professors can be replaced by a video screen, they should. Better learning happens in the venues for peer-to-peer collaboration. But I confess that I haven’t visited the discussion threads and wikis yet. (They take time to read, and they’re not on the quiz. Yes, this makes me an apostate.)

The structure of this six-week course is just as the title advertises: three weeks of history in Part 1, three weeks of future in Part 2. The course began late last month by setting its principles: how educational systems reflect their historical origins, and why the history of information is the most influential. In the second week, I’ve learned about the industrial-age origins of the higher education system, particularly in the United States. Finally, next week Part 1 closes with the founding of the public internet, the 1992 decision to release it from private control, making way for the participatory web.

This week I learned that the model of the modern university was designed to serve a very different information and economic system. The spread of public, compulsory education between 1852 and 1918 met the rising need for industrial, not farm workers: workers who follow the clock, not the sun; who make timely products, not independent decisions. They needed systems to instil predictability, orderliness, and precision.

See if you don’t recognize their legacies in your own university:

  • Hierarchy: the sage on the stage, the professor as repository of knowledge, dispensing it to willing students. Teaching is privileged over learning.
  • Productivity: measures of scholarly contributions, research impact, and student enrolments.
  • Standardization: the same faculties and departments across universities; the same degree requirements; transfer credits for comparable courses. Reliably quantified grades (A, B, C, D, F) for every student.
  • Timeliness: prerequisites, teaching basic before advanced skills; and course modules that sequentially follow each other.

If you’re wondering what the problem is with some of these things, you’re not alone. Not all of them are manifestly bad, and some are downright useful and pragmatic. Without degree requirements or course prerequisites or uniform grades, chaos would reign.

Our system was designed in another era, but not an utterly foreign one. After all, the industrial economy remains with us, just as the agrarian economy persisted in the 19th century (and today, indeed). It’s just that we’re also now in an information economy. Every layer rests on other layers. Consider a granola bar in Amazon’s warehouse: sold though an information system, but produced in an industrial food system using ingredients from an agrarian system.

This MOOC identifies the origins of our system, to provoke questions about whether all of its components meet our needs. Our answers to those questions will sometimes be to keep things as they are, but only after we unlearn and relearn them. As John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty (1859), “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little.” Traditions should persist because they regularly prevail over lesser ideas, not because we lack the imagination or temerity to rethink them.

So those are my reactions to the first two weeks. In future posts, I’ll talk about the results of all this rethinking, and what higher education might look like if it were designed for the modes and affordances of online life.

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