Of dinosaurs, brick and mortar higher education and other big dying things (#change11)









[Image retrieved from http://www.geekologie.com/2007/09/get_your_very_own_pet_dinosaur.php 12 January 2012]

In this week’s change mooc, Irvine and Code introduced the question regarding the future of “brick and mortar” universities.

Higher education in general, and “brick and mortar” universities in particular – face a number of challenges.  I responded to their proposal for “multi-access learning” as a way to address some of these challenges in a previous post, but I would like to now reflect on the main question: do we really still need brick and mortar higher education institutions? Or are the brick and mortar higher education institutions leftovers from a previous era? Will we look at them one day as exhibits of an era gone by?

Let me immediately start by stating that I think that “brick and mortar” higher education will still be with us for a very long time. Why do I say this?

Brick and mortar higher education institutions have always served and perpetuated the interests and epistemologies of the dominant discourses of the day whether sponsored by religion, the state, national interests or economic interests.

Nothing has changed.  I really cannot see the normative discourses that are served by brick and mortar institutions to give up their interests. There is too much at stake for them.

Yet, it is no longer business (sic) as usual…

A number of scholars have indicated that the playing field has changed dramatically and will change even more dramatically in future. This does not only affect what we teach, how we teach but increasingly, why we teach.

I don’t pretend to see things or hear voices (my shrink said I should not reveal the fact that sometimes I see things that others don’t see J), but the following seem to herald different ways of looking at higher education:

  • There is an increasing convergence between residential and distance education higher education. Technology redefines the notion of face-to-face, location/place and time. Interestingly, of these three, “time” seems to have changed the least – I don’t foresee the notion of synchronous and asynchronous to disappear? Mobile technologies are changing the traditional notions of “office hours” and “class time”. In an age when learning is going mobile big time, why do we still think of brick and mortar?
  • The notion of accreditation is changing. Employers are increasingly looking for and at portfolios of evidence, capability and expertise. I suspect the validation and accreditation of learning and expertise will be a highly contested issue for the next number of years e.g. open source academia versus established journals; badges instead of certificates, etc. Again there are huge interests (read money) at stake, but change is coming…
  • Not only has the number of knowledge producers increased (understatement), the nature of knowledge production and dissemination has changed – from experts going open to open (in the sense of self-publishing) going expert.
  • Lifelong learning is changing the playing field and changing the rules. There is increasing need for shorter, just-in-time and context-specific learning which defies the traditional boundaries of brick and mortar.
  • Local is good. While the notion of “global is good” remains the dominant paradigm, there are increasing concerns and contestations of local knowledges claiming a space and equal validity. In so doing these local knowledges contest and deconstruct notions of the quality and universal applicability of knowledge produced in the global north.

Centuries of brick-and-mortar-produced graduates who plundered the earth’s limited resources, increased global poverty and inequalities to levels last seen in the dark ages and who look for any good reason to import and transplant so-called liberal democracy to contexts ravaged by famine and disaster (ala Friedman).

We don’t need no education. We don’t need another brick in the wall.

Maybe there still is a need for brick and mortar higher education – as museums of an era gone past?

About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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11 Responses to Of dinosaurs, brick and mortar higher education and other big dying things (#change11)

  1. jaapsoft2 says:

    Hi, universities in the Netherlands do a lot of research. 30% of our research is in universities.
    Universities sometimes try to avoid becoming just schools for higher professionals, but they are. There is a lot of gain for them. Practical training delivered by universities is getting more and more accepted.
    So universities do a lot more than only the courses in law and the other kind of courses you could do at home with some books and an iPad.
    Students do comment on bad teaching in university and that helps improving the quality of lessons.

    • Hi Jaap. Thanks for the response.

      Your response raises interesting questions:
      * Can research only be done in universities? From my experience very little “new knowledge” is produced in my university compared to research done in industry and other research-dedicated institutions. Which raises the question that if “research” will be the claim to fame for brick and mortar universities, what type of research, how will it be shared, validated, etc.
      * Re the practical training provided by universities. Yes. But do we need brick and mortar higher education to organise and oversee this training?
      * I agree with you that the nature of the discipline determines to a huge extent how it is taught and assessed. Some disciplines and foci transfer easier to mobile and e-learning than others.

      As I indicated in my post, I cannot foresee that brick and mortar higher education will disappear in the near future, if ever. But I sense that the playing field is changing dramatically.

  2. Pingback: Of dinosaurs, brick and mortar higher education and other big dying things (#change11) « juandon. Innovación y conocimiento

  3. Robert Snell says:

    Hi, that’s a nice list of factors influencing changing of course delivery at university level. I think everyone will need to be a lifelong learner (if everyone isn’t already) soon enough. Also, I think students will be demanding cheaper options that are more specialised and focused on their needs. If issues of accepting alternative accreditation systems are overcome I think students who are aware of more personalised course options (set your own assignments etc and still receive accreditation DS106 MOOC – no assignments in change 11 as far as I’m aware) and still receive credit. And it could offer a cheaper option if the student only needs to pay for the exam and a final essay/coursework evaluation. Perhaps the main driver will be the customer after all.

    I also like the point you make about local vs global. In this respect I think universities could team up with other universities from various continents for a global and local perspective on a topic.
    It would seem that there are opportunities out there to deliver ‘better’ course offerings in terms of students’ needs and interests but there is perhaps a reluctance to change the business model and dabble with changes to the accreditation systems. I guess it’s too early to say for certain whether new forms of accreditation (I will put on my CV ‘MOOC change11 + blog address’, and see what happens) will be accepted or not. I guess most institutions are playing a wait and see approach.
    Enjoyed the post, thks

    • Local vs Global – a great maxim is “Think globally, work locally”. But it works both ways in that brick and mortar universities could not just do this from their perspective but latch on to the international student who remains in their locality, perhaps in a very different local setting, so that the university is enriched by the local perspectives.

      • George – thanks for the response. See my points below in my response to Robert re local vs global? I really think you are on to something with our willingness to encourage students to share their “local” perspectives. There is always a danger of stereotyping or thinking that students’ views from their respective contexts represent the “other” – but at least it is a beginning. In face-to-face higher education this is, (I suspect) often easier than in distance education where courses are developed three years in advance to allow for production and printing. But Web 2.0 technologies do make it possible to really celebrate the “local” in the context of the “global”. It will be very interesting to see how technology will change our understanding of local/global…

    • Robert – great points- thanks!

      I like the points you made that alternative forms of delivery often are also cheaper and more customised to learners’ learning needs, often just-in-time learning. Your points about alternative forms of validation and accreditation is equally sound – there are already a number of examples such as the open courses offered at e.g. Stanford which are open, but can be assessed and accredited on certain conditions.

      Your point regarding local vs global is an interesting one. My research in the context of the Open University Business School have pointed to some dilemmas in developing curricula that are “global” or that take into account the local specificities of other contexts and cultures. From my research and reflection on an “international” curriculum, I have come to the following insights or pointers:
      * to develop a “truly” international curriculum is almost impossible. Course development teams just don’t have the expertise and time. It is also often bizarre to include members from other cultures to make your curriculum “international”. This practice is based on the assumption that these members then represent the other cultures and at times even continents as if cultures and continents are homogenous.
      * a better approach is to acknowledge the assumptions and biases of members of the course development team and acknowlegde that their views are temporal and localised constructs. Students can then be invited to disupute or contest points made by course developers and in such a manner bring the “local” to the fore.
      * Your point about collaboration between institutions is very interesting. I think you are on to something there. We must also find ways to link students from different contexts using Web 2.0 technologies.

      Finally, your point about higher education’s current business (sic) model and the way accreditation systems legitimise and perpetuate certain forms of knowledge makes it clear that the vested interests in current accreditation and business models will make change very difficult, if not impossible. But maybe…

    • brainysmurf says:

      Great overview! Thanks as well to Robert for reminding me to capture something about moocing on my resume too. 🙂

  4. The points you make here regarding higher education holds equally true for basic education (R-12). Perhaps the little ones need someone to hold their hands, but with the shortage (often complete lack) of qualified teachers, we must look at technology to fill the gap.

    • Kobus, thanks for your post. When I think of the challenges we face in ODL and higher education, I am sometimes paralysed when I think of the challenges facing basic education in South Africa. Luckily there are people like you who courageously engage with the issues.And as you indicate, technology does provide some solutions to the challenges we face in basic education. I wish you all of the best! Paul

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