Friday, March 19, 2010

The Quantum of Knowledge

A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, but just how little is a bit of knowledge?
The question matters for the future of Universities as their structure is determined by the scale they use as a measure of knowledge. Shipbuilders, planemakers and carmakers do fundamentally similar things, but on such wildly different scales that they appear to have little in common. A shift in the scale could have seismic implications for how Universities work.

University administrators measure knowledge in credits. In Europe, these are standardised according to the Bologna Framework as the ECTS, full time students are loaded up with 60 credits a year, 180-240 for a Primary degree, another hundred or so for a Masters. They are usually lumped into standard 5, 10 or 15 credit modules - the 40 foot shipping containers of knowledge. Academics would denounce it all as a 'Fordian Construct'.
("What's that?"
"Who cares" shrugs the College Registrar.)

Just like the shipping container, it's a powerful concept. Standard sized blocks on knowledge can be compared, mixed and matched across countries. Just like a coastal container ship, learners can in theory load up on modules in different Universities and, once enough have been loaded, have them signed off as degree. Another analogy is the invention of money. Money provides a standard commonly accepted measure of economic value, as the ECTS does for learning. It is nothing less than the monetisation of knowledge. The infrastructure of the University, from it's timetables, lecture halls to it's Virtual Learning Environments are bent around this idea. The modern VLE, focused on who has access and control over blocks of content 15 credits wide and one term long, has more in common with the software running a container port than a learning tool.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Connectivists. Echoing the structure of networks and synapses, they would see the quantum of knowledge as a useful connection between pre-existing pieces of knowledge, people, facts or systems. The quantum unit of knowledge is very small. It might be measurable, but it isn't fungible, no more than wheat can be traded grain by grain. It's more useful for teaching and understanding how to transfer and create knowledge than the administrators ECTS containers. In practice, this idea of knowledge acts more like a continuum, without the artificial boundaries of the credit unit. Tools like like Personal Learning Environments (PLE's) are conceived as frameworks for guiding it.
("Can we get a PLE from Microsoft?" asks the University IS manager.
"I dunno. Maybe we could figure something out with Sharepoint" mutters the underling.)

These two conceptions of the quantum of knowledge are as far apart as the kilogram and the electron mass. They are framed for very different purposes, driven by different logics. Neither is wrong, both are useful, in their place

But just because neither side is wrong, doesn't mean that one might not displace the other.
Currently the module, made up of credit units, is economically dominant, and Universities are shaped around them. But the Internet allows a much greater granularisation of knowledge.Instead of getting omnibus newspapers each morning, we get the news we need instantly when we need it. This will likely evolve to include more sophisticated tools to manage and measure knowledge as the century progresses. This granularisation presents a potential existential threat to the current model of the University towards the mid 21st century.

With no real competition, Universities ruled the roost. Credible knowledge came in degrees. But where the half life of modern knowledge is increasingly short, the logic of buying it in 200 ECTS degree sized chunks weakens. Indeed, the emergence of modules and credits as sub components of degrees is themselves a reflection of this process, as whole degrees are atomised into more bite sized chunks. As the internet facilitates this granularisation, Universities must reinvent themselves to reflect it, become less like container ports of knowledge, and more like Sushi bars or supermarkets of knowledge, where students pick up exactly what, and how much they need. That might indeed be a dangerous thing.

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