Isomorphism vs. Creative Disruption-The University in Transition?

There are two seemingly disparate volumes on the future of the university, Kevin Carey’s “The End of the University” and Michael Crow and William Dabars’ “Designing the New American University”. Kevin’s is a speculative volume based on his work on education policy and his specific exploration into where the investors in Silicon Valley are attempting to disrupt the university of today. Crow and Dabars are focused on actually transforming a public RI university without a land grant charter and medical campus into an institution that approaches isomorphism with the high ranked research institutions but with an increased opportunity for academically qualified but fiscally challenged students in the State (Arizona State University).

“Designing” is one of an ever increasing volumes that explore the history and purpose of universities as they evolved from inception around 1100 in Europe. It is that “idea” of a modern, multidisciplinary, institution that the authors have been building for about a decade, following a standard path of “buying” research talent and building a campus while, at the same time establishing programs to bring qualified high school graduates to an on campus experience. Simultaneously, again, following conventional wisdom, they have reached out with a virtual program to attract students, globally, while allowing students to enter undergraduate programs at low cost to fill their need for advanced and continuing education.

Carey’s ideas are molded by his experience of what the technology-driven researchers and investment bankers see are transformative technologies rising on the “Internet of Things” that can allow educational systems such as K-12 schools and universities to more effectively communicate to students what they will need to be effective citizens and contributors to the 21st century and beyond. Additionally, Carey grounded his thinking by taking a course from MIT on its EdX knowledge platform.

Here it is worth noting that MIT has expended significant time and money to create, on the Internet OCW or open courseware, the entire set of courses in its catalog, freely available. They also created their virtual platform, MITX to explore how both that technology and OCW could improve their campus-based program. These efforts and the fact that MIT has a highly selective admissions program sets it apart from institutions, globally. For Carey’s experience, it also provided an interactive community of highly qualified students and unparalleled institutional support.

It is worth looking at these two books from a global perspective where there are a number of insights. First, both Europe with its harmonizing of universities across countries and, now Africa with its similar “tuning” effort show that these academic differentials can be embraced to allow individual talent to migrate to where its needs can be realized without compromising the institution. Simultaneously, with a wired world, basic knowledge migrates seamlessly across geo/political boundaries at incremental costs. Thus student mastery and the support thereof become the differentiating issue.

The rise of adaptive software with varying levels of faculty and artificial intelligence support start to allow students to progress at their own pace. Emergent here is a critical element, student regulated learning, in its varied forms but with an increased shift of learning responsibility to the student. The rises of micro-certification/degrees (badging as an example) and increased measures based on competencies, instead of time in class, also change the student/institutional relationships.

Both the Carey and Crow/Dabars approaches are significantly impacted, particularly as these human shifts start to enter education from K-16. There has been a cliché that faculty should be a guide-on-the-side instead of the sage-on-the-stage. That idea, once just theory, is becoming emergent. The ability for students to drive their education, carefully curated by intelligence, human or artificial changes everything allowing both brick-spaced and virtual campuses to exist.

Harmonizing of educational offerings parallels the increasing collaboration for research between institutions. In the end research accomplishments and educational programs will change. What seems certain is that this will not lead to a leveling of either creative research or academic excellence as suggest by such works as Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron but perhaps with a flavor closer to that proposed by Neal Stephenson in his Diamond Age.

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