Posted by: Gillian | March 3, 2011

Global and free Universities ?

This article by Sean Coughlan suggests that excellence in tertiary education will in future be geographically, not institutionally based.   Globalisation of the very best in higher education is far from new: students travelled from far and wide to hear Plato; in response to early protectionism, a Papal Bull from AD1233 gave professors from Toulouse the right to teach ‘anywhere’.

Today, the internet renders much of the travel practically – if not emotionally – unnecessary. Given a reasonable bandwidth and the ability to type (or dictate), the vast majority of lectures can be as good or as bad, as interactive or delivered as they ever were. Assessments very rarely need physical presence and, when they do, the occasions where the eminent Professor must themselves be physically present in the same room are even more rare.

Full-time undergraduate education has long served two purposes: it educates academically but being ‘a student’ allows behaviours and experiments that may be unthinkable at home and have no place at work.  Gap-years, with their origins in a Grand Tour, have recently extended this aculturalisation of bright teenagers into a more complex, globalised adult world, for the most part giving the grounding for more formalised advanced education but not actually delivering any.

To add to the globalisation debate, there are now open educational resources ( OER ).  Many educational resources are now offered free of charge (other than the data connection fee) to the end-user and if you can sift the good from the bad, this is great news.  There are two major problems with this:

1.       Qualifications are not yet free – you pay for the assessments

2.       Suppliers of free resources need to eat so they must be being funded – or free of such worries.

Paying for assessments rather than content just shifts the business model and is relatively uncontentious but the second point, supplying material ‘free’ is hugely complex. There can be free online lectures (see YouTube for any number!) and pdfs, webinars, wikis and moocs (see CCK11 and LAK11 for two recent examples).  They may or may not be dependent on integration with textbooks or audio files or online (or not) seminars or workshops. Providers may be:

1.       Directly funded by universities at full tenured-professor rate

2.       Pre-tenure (that is, possibly hoping for promotion to the security of tenure)

3.       Pre-doctoral – where the academic system really does have a huge financial hold over what you will do

4.       Philanthropic – so presumably finding ‘means to eat’ elsewhere.

Stephen Downes recently challenged me not reject OER because ‘the poor’ and ‘Third World’ cannot afford education.  I do not reject OER.  I just challenge the idea that OER is free to the original individual brain. Merely living in a Western country means you have to be in a paid university role (with all that that means for university business models) and/or exploited by someone and/or of private means.

There is room for genuine philanthropy but how does one get there today?  Largely, one requires university endorsement or universities will not accept references. University endorsement means qualifications which means money which means need income….  Private means can be genuinely very modest or hugely subsidised.

On a global scale, I contend that OER privileges the rich, not the poor.  The rich can literally afford to give ideas but the poor literally cannot afford to do so. Does that mean the ideas of the rich are better than those of the poor? Hmmm: there’s an academic disconnect!

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