Is learning migrating away from universities?

Tony Hirst sent me this story from TechCrunch about Grockit securing venture capital to develop a  ‘Massive multiplayer online learning’ system. The idea is that people learn best from each other and the system will use network effects to facilitate education. It’s not actually true that people learn best from each all the time by the way, you don’t necessarily learn quantum physics by hanging around with your mates down the pub (although you can get as far as Brownian motion by observing your pint) – sometimes experts, (whisper it) teachers are useful.

But putting aside their over-simplistic pedagogic spin, there is as I and others have been noting, something in the ability of social networking to engage users and create informal learning opportunities. What the Grockit story does indicate is that it may be commercial companies who learn how to harness this potential quicker and better than higher education institutions, with their glacial timescales and conservative approach. If Grockit don’t succeed then someone else will.

In 2002 in my (now quaintly historic) book Delivering learning on the Net, I looked at the function of a campus degree. One of the functions it provides is the life experience, the good times which are a significant part of many people’s lives. This should not be underestimated. I would guess it already constitutes a large part of the reason students go to university in the first place. We like to kid ourselves that continuing their education is the primary driver, but I think it’s more a case of ‘I went for the parties and some learning broke out.’

If (and it is by no means a small if), people can gain their education via other means, then would this social factor be a sufficient reason to still go to university. After all, you could have a similar rites of passage experience travelling round the world for a year. The key to this migration away from universities would be accreditation, or standardised recognition, of the learning that occurs via these other routes. If employers find a means of recognising this, then the higher education business model looks less attractive.

I appreciate the death of universities (or more modestly, the death of the lecture) has been foretold many times, and the reaction of many is a raise of the eyebrows, but if we value them as institutions, then it is worth taking seriously. Higher education is the last great complacent sector in the face of the massive changes that the internet has wrought – look at what has happened in health, retail, media, politics even and the changes made by HE look relatively minor. And yet, with the possible exception of broadcast media and newspapers, the internet goes to the heart of our sector more than any other. The net is about content, community and communication – these are the core components in the educational experience, surely, and yet bar some tinkering at the edges education is largely unaffected by the massive socio-technical changes we are seeing.


  • Steven Verjans

    Martin, some good thoughts with which I tend to agree, but how do you translate them to Open Universities such as ours?
    I’m convinced that traditional universities have the social and “life experience” as added values, and will therefore probably not need to worry too much about their future, but what about distance education, where the social experience is of a quite different nature?

  • Martin

    Hi Steven,
    if we were to take it to the extreme, then what distance universities would need to offer is a kind of ‘facebook for learning’, where the social interaction is at the essence of the experience. The value that universities add is a) assured content, b) support c) structures such as courses or learning designs d) a cohort of students around which you build your network e) accreditation.
    This would require drastically different pedagogic and business models however.

  • simonfj

    “… the death of the lecture) has been foretold many times, and the reaction of many is a raise of the eyebrows”. Geez they’ve been raising their eyebrows a long time. I remember my first reference to this comment came from Sir Francis Bacon. nd he never had a blog or broadcasting station at his fingertips.
    I think “Facebook for learning” is pretty apt. It does have the connotation that, on the WWW, a uni, school, college (institution) must be universal, which few have attempted just yet. But you can see it happening with OpenLearn (to a small degree) and the OCW consortia (to a greater degree), so the will is there. It’s just that domain minded people find it hard to reclassify their stuff into representing their global groups, as opposed to their National institutions. Ever tried to track a group’s discussions over their individual blogs, or follow their (international) junket materials with peers over a period? Both classifications are too small (and unrelated) to become a global Facebook for learning.
    So the “d) a cohort of students around which you build your network” arguement falls over in a globalizing world of Lifelong learners. And “a) assured content” falls over because it’s usually only reviewed by one small domain’s peer group, or a peer group who terms of reference are rarely seen to include references outside their professionalized reading.
    Eventually we must come to the conclusion that what the Web is good for is telling and sharing stories about a subject, at a time, with global groups, perhaps in different languages, and leaving its memories behind. The only thing missing then are ways to classify (create directories to) online environments so students and teachers know where to go – i.e which virtual rooms might host their peers materials & discussions, and attract “their” global communities of interest, perhaps to a Face to Face tutorial.
    I’ll point to http://www.sitepoint.com as an illustration of how one group of ‘next generation’ web designers are provided with a useful environment today (check out the forums)and are developing a culture with a global perspective. As to accreditation, I’ll just make a note of a threaded conversation i found there about ‘what do you say when your parents say, “get a real job”?’ One reply said, Ï just employed my father”.

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