On the Human Network, Mark Pesce blogs about "Inflection Points" where he notes that
agreement between an instructor and a set of students. The instructor
agrees to offer expertise and mentorship, while the students offer
their attention and dedication. The question now becomes what role, if
any, the educational institution plays in coordinating any of these
components. Students can share their ratings online – why wouldn’t they
also share their educational goals? Once they’ve pooled their goals,
what keeps them from recruiting their own instructor, booking their own
classroom, indeed, just doing it all themselves?
To a certain extent, the network is simply dissolving the institutional relationships that have maintained formal educational practices, so we do not exactly have a choice about addressing our changing environment. But without seeking to be overly cynical (not during the holidays!), there
are several key challenges that arise from the pursuing the vision
Pesce describes. Mostly they come down to issues of ethics/ideology (depending on how you like to see such matters).
This is primarily a matter of motives. When we look at the classes of participants in higher education–students, faculty, administrators, staff–as well as those who invest in higher education or have a stake in the outcome of the process–parents, politicians, trustees, corporations–we see many conflicting agendas. The university has evolved as a way of managing those agendas (to no one group's satisfaction). The answer to Pesce's final question is simple. For the most part, students are not in the business of getting an education; they are in the business of getting a degree. And we shouldn't view that as a negative thing. It simply is what it is. If students were in the business of learning for the sake of learning, then they might be able to proceed as Pesce suggested. This would certainly change the business of teaching as well: students would say we want to learn x, y, and z, and a teacher would then accommodate that.
But that's not what higher education is about for students, at least not primarily. Students want to be vetted and certified. Faculty, administrators, accrediting bodies determine the definition of a particular degree. Students who earn the degree attain a particular identity. Are we going to allow students to determine their own curriculum and then at some self-determined end state that they are now certified to be public school teachers or lawyers or doctors? I suppose we could, and then we would leave it up to the employers (school districts for example) to determine if students were qualified. But I don't really see anyone wanting universities to abdicate that responsibility.
That said, social media does alter our ability to organize. We can build a greater degree of flexibility into education. One has to begin with recognizing there is a core disciplinary identity to any major, but even given that, there remains flexibility about particular readings, assignments, and methods of evaluation. We might have to alter the ways in which we assess programs and count credits. In doing so, we have to realize that our current methods are a product of historically-contingent conditions that are now changing. As we change our relationship with students, we need to build a new ethos and new set of rhetorical practices. For example, in teaching many general education courses, I typically find students have a great deal of antipathy for that segment of their education. I don't imagine general education is going away any time soon. I do think that social media can provide a means for discussing this disconnect between student and faculty-institutional expectations. Since GE courses are often intended to address very broad educational goals, I think they can be shaped with student input.
In any case I think Pesce's post does indicate that something is changing. It may be that a whole new avenue of education will be opening up, one where students to pursue learning for its own sake, or seek out post-graduate education as a kind of professional development. Maybe a new generation of web savvy retirees will eventually emerge who will want to take such classes online. At that time, there will be a secondary market for tertiary education. Maybe that's what we're seeing here.