I’m an academic, disintermediate me now

In the past week I have used the word ‘disintermediation’ twice, almost without embarrassment. It may be an ugly term but it is an important concept. Admittedly these two occurrences were in academic conversations, I didn’t use it down the pub or anything, but they were in different contexts which demonstrates that it is one of those ideas that has some currency.

(If you’re not sure what it means – it is the removal of intermediaries and it’s often the result of technology e.g. the word processor disintermediated typing pools).

In education terms the easy to use VLE has (to an extent) disintermediated a lot instructional designers – the educator can create their course, upload content, arrange forums and synchronous sessions without going cap in hand to their IT unit (or in theory they can anyway, lots of institutions put intermediaries back in place through policy – yes, it is called reintermediation).

It is one of the standard claims of the anti-elearning fundamentalists (Noble and the like) that elearning disintermediates academics since content is freely available. The response to this has always been obvious, bordering on the incredulous – you mean to say that the only thing you offer as an academic is content? There should be an awful lot more to education than that. The claim itself seems to reveal something fundamentally flawed in their view of the learning process.

But as I mentioned before the provision of content, tools and really informed discussion – ie all the ingredients for a good quality learning experience – on the wider internet does threaten the monopoly of universities. Previously my response to this has been similar to the one above ‘ah yes, but universities do more than this.’ This is an appeasement – it roughly translates as ‘don’t worry academics, there’s nothing to see here, move on please’.

But perhaps this is the wrong response – maybe we should be saying ‘you know what – universities will be disintermediated by the internet. Let’s accept that and see what happens’. After all newspapers, broadcasting and retail have all been massively changed over recent years by the internet. In general this has been a good thing for the individual costumer (as I appreciated when I did all my Christmas shopping from my dining room while watching the Ashes). But, except in the numbers and demographics of students, higher education hasn’t really changed in the past forty years. An academic from 1966 would fit quite comfortably in to the practises of a modern university. They might begrudge the extra admin, the additional teaching load, the apolitical students, but they’d still be happy giving a lecture (perhaps using the same notes). The same would not be true for a TV broadcaster from 1966.

I don’t know what a disintermediated educational sector would be like, but I feel that we shouldn’t pretend it can’t happen, and maintaining the comfort of academics (such as myself) is not reason enough to prevent it.

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