Paul Raven @ 19-10-2010

What would further education look like if it was run more like Wikipedia? That’s the question asked by a chap called David J Staley at the Educause conference in Anaheim, California last week, who thinks it’s a pretty good idea [via SlashDot]:

First, it wouldn’t have formal admissions, said Mr. Staley, director of the Harvey Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching at Ohio State University. People could enter and exit as they wished. It would consist of voluntary and self-organizing associations of teachers and students “not unlike the original idea for the university, in the Middle Ages,” he said. Its curriculum would be intellectually fluid.

[ Those of you who’ve read Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance may be reminded of Phaedrus’ University… ]

And instead of tenure, it would have professors “whose longevity would be determined by the community,” Mr. Staley said, and who would move back and forth between the “real world” and the university.

Universities “seem to be becoming more top-down and hierarchical at a time when more and more organizations are looking more like networks,” said Mr. Staley…

Not everyone agrees with Staley, of course:

“… he clearly understands Wikipedia about as well as he understands universities. That is, not very well. Wikipedia is peculiar. Its brilliance is in its peculiarity. It’s also more static, intellectually conservative, and elite-governed than most people believe.”

Valid points, but I think the problem is due to Staley using a specific institution as a placeholder for a more general set of ideas and methods; yes, Wikipedia is flawed (just like any human institution), but its underlying principles are symptomatic of a phase change in the way we look at organisation, which is what I suspect Staley was getting at.

We’ve discussed further education’s increasing unsuitability-for-purpose before, and much of that unsuitability comes from the rigidity of its hierarchical approach to both organisation and the categorisation of knowledge; a more open, flexible and fluid system might not produce the same numbers of people equipped with expensive pieces of vellum, but I suspect it would produce a lot more people with knowledge that was actually useful to them in the chaos of the contemporary economy. That said, until you manage to convince employers to hire people on the basis of their actual skillsets instead of their paper qualifications, you’re going to struggle to convince academia to abandon the business-like model that it currently operates under.

Interestingly, this chimes with a UK-based project I’ve been invited to get involved with, which I will discuss further when it’s more fully developed…

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