Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Review: Deschooling Society

"Classics" wrote Mark Twain, "are something everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to read". Judging by the number of copies in the library,  I'm obviously the last person with an interest in Education to have read this book, and it is a real classic. As you may have noticed, I make it a rule* never to conceal my ignorance, so I'm going to review it anyway.

As you might gather from the title, the book is highly critical of the modern educational institutions. The opening sections are a strong, and now familiar critique of the educational system as a means of institutionalising society. The criticisms are not so different from those of Ken Robinson, although Illich is intellectually a much heavier hitter, and Ken Robinson has better jokes. Perhaps the criticisms were radical when he wrote the book in 1970, but, alas, not anymore. Illich takes the critique a step further by observing that the current system convinces people that all education must come from a school (or University). This it tend to make people expect that everything must come from a bureacratic institutions - he talks about '"HEW  (Health Education Welfare)Pollution". Politically, it's all fairly left wing stuff, but Illich never slides into sloppy polemic. It's all well written and coherently argued, and he is as quick to jab at the Marxists as anyone.

The book really starts to sizzle about halfway, and I note from the markings in the library copy, most readers had given up by then (Highlighter Pen only managed chapter 1, The Underliner left me after chapter 3). Unlike many critics, Illich goes on to propose an alternative model for education, and, for something written in 1970, it's remarkably prescient in terms of where learning is really going in the 21st century.

Illich outlines a system where people connect directly, on a one to one basis, with people who have skills and are willing to teach them. He couldn't foresee the web as an enabling framework, but the system he describes is uncannily close to the Web 2.0 model of education, where deep social networks can easily connect learners into peer groups, or with experts in the field. He talks about the need for shifting education from a funnel based model, where people are given the learning that the institution thinks they need, to a web (his word, in 1970!) where people sought the learning they needed across a network, directly from experts, not necessarily teachers. He talks about giving people access to learning objects, and letting them get on with it, which reminds me of Sugata Mitras experiments enabling children in India to learn with fairly unregulated access to a computer.

 The accuracy of his vision is uncanny, and does much to explain his popularity with the connectivist/web 2.0 set. He was a Catholic priest, and such men have been canonised for lesser visions than his.

The book is full of other ideas ahead of their time. Social networks, Government 2.0, appropriate technology and hacker culture are all in there, imagined as they might be without the enabling medium of the internet  I feel I aught to read it again very carefully, to see if I can pick out The Next Big Thing.

Style wise, it's not at all heavy going, and at 116 pages it isn't an intimidating read, a couple of bus journeys, you have no excuse. If you don't have time to dig it out of the library, there's even a free eBook (all formats) you can download this very instant from and, funnily enough given the book, there's also discussion forum on Wikiversity, which is a example of exactly the kind of learning web he was talking about

His lefty/anarchist perspective might put some readers off, but if you can put up with my writing, his will present no challenge. If you are interested in a fresh view of education in society, this is an important book.

Read it.

I'll tip my cap to Steve Wheeler at this point, who brought Illich to my attention in a talk he gave to us in UCC in late 2008.

* More of a guideline, to be honest.

Polytechnic Day: Higher Education and Democracy

I am slightly off topic here, as this post relates more to Universities role in society, rather than their future per so. I hope you'll forgive these occasional transgressions.

This week (November 17th)  marked Polytechnic Day. On this day in 1973 the Greek Military junta moved to put down a student revolt on the campus of the Athens Polytechnic. The bloody events mark the start of a chain of events that eventually brought the military junta down and restored Democracy to Greece.

If you say 'Student' in a word association game, chances are you'll think 'protest' or 'riot'. It's true. As recent fees protests in Ireland and the UK remind us, students are often the first to the barracades in any civil dispute. It's a long and proud legacy, and while I might disagree with them on the issues from time to time, they keep our leaders on their toes and provide a vital warning tone that all is not well. But this is a credit to the young, not to their Universities.

There is an idea doing the rounds that Universities are a vital keystone of democracy. Frankly, I think this is nonsense. We've had universities in Europe for almost a millennium, and it is only in the last century that we've had any substantial number of democracies worthy of the name. Meanwhile, Universities tricked on (admittedly, only barely) in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and all manner of other less remarkable thugocracies. Only in Maoist China and Pol Pot's Kampuchea left nothing standing high enough for Universities and their graduates to cower behind.

Universities are fundamentally conservative organisations. They cannot exist without the approval of the state, which recognises their degrees and allows them to operate. Their graduates are usually professionals who work in the existing system and are invested in it. They have no interest in change, and often find themselves first against the wall when the revolution comes, as symbols of the old order. In their time, Universities have been seen as bastions of Christianity, Upholders of True Communism, Faithful pillars of the Aristocracy, or whatever the prevailing nonsense of the day was. To present them as upholders of Democracy is nonsense, they simply tack to the wind.

That the tides of tertiary education and democracy have risen in tandem in the 20th century is correlation, not causation. Both are tied to a deeper increase in wealth and the rise of the middle classes. It's these middle classes who send their children to University, and can afford to. It's these same middle classes who, once they they have something to lose, withdraw their tacit support for autocractic regimes and press for a transition to democracy and rule of law. Where Universities find an inadvertent role is that they bring the youth of these middle classes together in the cities, where they can meet and organise. Poor democracies, like India, are remarkable exceptions, but it is only now, as it's middle class expands, that more Indians are getting to Higher Education.

It is true that Universities can promote social mobility, but often that is as an ideal, rather than the reality. Recent news reports in Ireland, (neatly summarised by Eoin O'Dell over at remind us that even here, the land of saints and scholars, that ideal is often unrealised. It is true that universities can provide a refuge for truth in the face of tyranny, but often not for long. The pen is mightier than the sword, but swords make a very convincing and immediate argument for compliance.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Get rid of Lecturers

And I don't mean the people. Well, maybe a few (I have a little list, they never will be missed...). It's the title I'm on about.

OK it's a Pet peeve, but why do we have to call them Lecturers? Why should the job title, right there on the contract, on the business card, explicitly specify a pedagogy? It would be like calling Doctors 'Bleeders'.

For Overseas readers, most academic teaching staff in Ireland and the UK are not professors, they are officially known as lecturers. Professor is usually held as a title for heads of Department, or folk of similar gravitas and salary. Academics from Ireland and the UK love the instant virtual promotions they get when they visit America.

You might fairly say, what's in a name, but names are important signals for purpose. If you think your job title doesn't matter, fine. When I become Planetary Emperor, I'll change your job title to Idiot, and see how you like it.

Lecturing is contested pedagogy. Truly great lecturers, even merely good ones, can inspire us. The personal experience can uplift us and affect us in ways that catching it on Youtube can't. It's a monkey brain thing. On the other hand, most lecturers are about two levels worse than they think they are, on a scale of 1 to 3.  Their delivery suffers little from being speeded up 40% on playback. They sound like Chipmonks and it's an improvement. The job title implies a one way delivery of content. It's literally old school. Let's dump it.

The title also ignores what most of them really do. What about all that real teaching and mentoring? What about the research. Since many of them spend as much time on bureaucracy and meetings as lecturing, let's call them bureaucrats. It's often as accurate as lecturer.

The US title, Professor, is at least pedagogy neutral. Professing is a largely forgotten verb. Scholar is pretty good too, wrapping up as it does both the ideas of teaching and research, and with a little gravitas (Where I grew up, "You're a Gentleman and a Scholar" was high praise, usually reserved for people who had just bought you a drink). But please no neologisms like "Adjunct Knowledge Development Officer" or "Learning Catalyst".

As a (very) slight aside, if you haven't watched Donald Clark keynote from the Alt-C conference, please do. It's an excellent critique of the lecture as pedagogy, and well worth 40 minutes of your time. The pro-con lectures argument is too big to get into here, and will be settled by empirical evidence in the end. Donald will tell you all about it...

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Armageddon Game: Universities as evolving systems

Space Geeks love the movie Armageddon. There's a game they play where you count the technical errors. It's easy and fun. There are, apparently, at least 168.

Critiqing universities is just like that game. It's fun, and easy to play. I've done plenty of it on this blog, and will probably do more. But there are smarter, harder question is why these problems exist. How did Universities come to be the way they are, instead of what they could be?

No one designed Universities. They evolved, and evolution is a slow and imperfect process. 4 billion years, and I'm the best it's come up with. Basic errors get locked into the designs, which is why our retinas are stuck on backwards. Evolution gives us adaptations for situations that no longer exist. That leaves us tonsils, appendixes and monkey brains. Evolution cannot adapt to changes on a timescale faster than several generations of the lifecycle of the organism, which is why we humans are managing a planet with brains evolved for hunting bunnies and gossiping.

The evolutionary analogy is not exact. While joint ventures are increasingly common, universities have not yet been observed to reproduce sexually as conventional lifeforms do. Nor, in modern times, do Universities die nearly often enough for classical evolution to function. They're more like bacteria really. Bacteria, I hear, can pass genetic material between themselves, allowing good mutations, like immunity to antibiotics, to spread quickly. Universities do the same. New ideas, occasionally even good ideas, like Humbolt's Research University meme of the 1800s, get picked up and copied. They spread on  the pages of The Times Higher Ed, and down the policy catwalks of the OECD. Existing institutions pick up the new meme and can change their genomes, to a degree.

Core aspects of the University like the lecture evolved in response to a reasonable need at the time. Lectures made lots of sense when books were hand copied and extremely expensive. It was worth reading out the material so students could copy it down. It was a cheap way of duplicating books. The method stopped making sense in about 1500, but by then it was too late. It was physically encoded in the architecture of the campus - buildings full of sloping lecture theatres, which reinforced it's psychological and economic hold. It was also a cheap way of having one expert 'teach' an arbitrarily large class. Whether the class learned anything was their own business. Universities couldn't evolve past the lecture paradigm, no more than cells could evolve past having mitochondria.

There is a debate about the future of education which can be summarised as evolution versus revolution. Can existing institutions change and adapt fast enough over time to meet the changing requirements of society? Or will new institutions step up to fill the gap, by accident or design?

It's always tempting to bet on the incumbant. Universities have impressive pedigree and form. The capital base is massive. They captivate our imaginations. The obvious favourite. But that's how the incumbent systems always looked. The Roman Empire, The Church, The Gold Standard all seemed like they would sit forever at the centre of our lives. But they didn't.

Rapid environmental changes cause mass extinctions. If all the organisms are the same or similar, they are equally vulnerable. What lives the same, dies the same. Survival of life in a changing environment demands diversity. Where all Universities are similar, doing the same kinds of things in the same kinds of ways, they are all vulnerable to the same external shocks, be they technological, financial or social. The Higher Education sector needs to be as diverse a possible to survive. Plus, the wider the variety of institutions, the more likely it is that some will be able to take advantage of those changes, or find new niches to grow.

If I was a University scheming to survive the coming mass extinction, I would nip down to the Environmental Sciences building and collar some ecologists for tips. An obvious one is to become a switching predator. Switching predators eat whatever is handy. They aren't picky. Being a switching predator is a key contributor to the success of humans. We eat cows, roots, seals, fish, roadkill, mushrooms, berries anything. Even other humans, at a pinch. It means that we can stay alive almost anywhere. Most European universities are not switching predators. They eat an exclusive diet of taxpayers money. As we are learning, this is fine on a good year, but when the rains fail, it is simple suicide.

For profit Universities are switching predators. They work their way into new ecosystems and find a way to survive. They can eat grants, loans, direct payments, whatever is going. By dropping many of the expensive old traditions of conventional Universities, they can run a lot leaner, and survive on a lot less than grass fed public universities. They may well turn cannibal, and eat some of the weaker public universities that fall by the wayside. And as they rise red fanged from the carcass, they may well wear the head and hide as a trophy, and a disguise. But make no mistake, a leaner, deadlier creature lies beneath.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Blog Birthday Joke

This Blog is a year old today, so I'm going to step out and tell your a joke.

It's a building site in London. A Corkman arrives looking for work. A Cockney foreman challenges him on his knowledge (accents required, hence use of phonetics).

Foreman: "A'right mate, ya gotta know wot your about 'ere on the site. So 'fore I give you a job, matey, I gotta test ya wiv some questions eh. Ya gotta know ya stuff for a job 'ere."
Corkman: "A'right boy. Fire away."
Foreman: "wos' the difference, see, between a Jois' and a Gutta'"
Corkman: "Ooohh, das easy boy, dat's fearse easy. Goethe wrote Faust, and Joyce wrote Ulysses"

I didn't write this joke, but have no recollection where I heard it. It has a Niall Tobin kind of ring to it, but if anyone knows the source, I'll be pleased to find out and acknowledge it.

The creation of version localised for central Europe I leave as an exercise for the reader.

One Year On

This blog is a year old today. Thank you all for reading and passing links on. Particular thanks to those who took the time to comment, most notably those who disagreed with me. Dialogue is a far better learning mechanism than monologue.

I've covered a fair bit of ground over the year, although only a fraction of the topic has been addressed. As I hoped for, the act of writing things down has advanced and clarified my thinking on the subject considerably. It's helped to illuminate how little I know, on one hand, but also built my hunches of a year ago into better supported viewpoints.

A year ago I felt, like many, that some kind of revolution in tertiary education was just around the corner. Now I know it isn't, at least not exactly. In truth, Higher education is about halfway through a century long revolution. The four megatrends I identified early on in this blog aren't things that sit in the future, they are trends that really began in the early to mid 20th century. We are now halfway up an S curve on each of them. The revolution in higher education won't begin in 2010, or 2015. It really began sometime around 1925, and in some places will be complete by 2025. As William Gibson famously remarked, the future is already here, it just isn't evenly distributed. It will take until 2100 for that new model of higher education, the shape of which is already clear, to become global, by which time higher education will be almost universal almost everywhere.

Humans, of course, have difficulty in observing change on this scale. We are peculiarly blind to it. It doesn't help that the new models of higher education are already here, in disguise. Modularisation, lifelong learning, Open universities, distance learning and recognition of prior learning and so on have steadily crept into the mainstream in the last generation. The OU is the largest University in Europe. The Indira Gandhi Open University in India is the largest on earth. For profit entities like the Apollo group, owners of the University of Phoenix, among others, teach millions of students in the developed and increasingly the developing worlds. All use technology enthusiastically and largely eschew the traditional medieval models of the 'Universities of Place' and the paleo-pedagogy of the lecture. The distance and blended learning models they adapt are leaking back into the conventional university sector, almost imperceptibly dissolving the concept of Universities as being fixed in space and time.

Ironically, the very inefficientcy of old fashioned Universities will preserve the greatest of them. In a world where everyone can access cheap distance based higher education (because distance means nothing), the old fashioned, inefficient model where everyone travels to the same place and time becomes a luxury good. Like an expensive golf club, the very fact that it is expensive and filters for the rich and the clever will sustain it's appeal. While technology will bring affordable mass tertiary education to the world, they will all still yearn for access to the gilded rooms of the Global Ivy League, which will remain, for many, the surest gateway to membership of the global elite.

I have at least 20 years before my lastborn receives her primary degree, so this blog has a long way to run. If you'll permit me a moment of levity in the face of such a road, in my next post, I'm going to tell you a joke...