“Why stay in college? Why go to night school? It will all be different this time.”
“Life During Wartime” – The Talking Heads
“[T]he earliest universities, in the twelfth and thirteen centuries – at Bologna and Paris – were not deliberately founded; they simply coalesced spontaneously around networks of students and teachers, as nodes at the thickest points in these networks…. [U]niversities had no campuses, no bricks and mortar. The term universitas referred to a group of people, not a physical place.”
(McNeely and Wolverton, Reinventing Knowledge, 2008, pp. 79, 80).
We have access to more knowledge than at any time in human history. We have access to more people than at any time in human history. I can remember the breathless pronouncements of distributed intelligence, the hive mind, and “colleges without walls” in the 1990s. Yet we still structurally operate the business of learning at all levels – from instruction to scholarship – in pretty much the same way as we did in 1995. While we may have models of distributed learning as exemplified by everything from MOOCs to online colleges, these are not distributed universities but are merely the scaling of existing, entrenched models of learning.
Teaching students, however, is only one part of the university’s mission. Indeed, its first mission was to serve as a center of scholarship for the faculty itself. Concentrations of scholars quickly attracted students but that’s where it started in places like Paris, Bologna, and Oxford. Scholars used to travel to universities to “read” for a degree because that’s where the books literally were. After Gutenberg, this was decentralized somewhat but idea of concentrating knowledge never really went away. Industrializing learning in the 19thcentury made it a logical efficiency to bring the students to where the books were. The internet increasingly makes it possible to explode those notions. I know I am increasingly frustrated when I can’t access a book or article instantly to move my work forward. There is no “technical” reason this can’t happen.
There is precedent for decentralized scholarship. The Republic of Letters of the Enlightenment was central to the advancement of scientific and philosophical thinking. Vannevar Bush conceived of the Memex in 1945 as a means of using technology to drive knowledge forward. Tim Berners-Lee originally conceived of the web as a way of coordinating scientists working at CERN with partner facilities around the world.
While physical universities of place were essential, especially early on, in the hosting and spreading of the internet, they may have sown the seeds of their own successors. This is because in so doing they have laid the groundwork to finally flip the idea of a “center” of learning.
But the more important caveat is that universities were, and are, critical “social nodes” for scholars and innovators to come together. The community of learning is perhaps the most important role that the best universities continue to play. At the same time, this reality also poses the greatest limitation and threat to a true universitas.
These physical communities invite siloes that run counter to the needs of the universitas technologica. While Harvard may be on the internet, at the end of the day Harvard is still in Cambridge. Most universities are even more divided, with sub-nodes of colleges insulating and competing with one another. These competitions extend to siloes that rise above the walls of the university itself into disciplinary organizations that create dogma and channel creative energies in very specific directions. Corporate interests, particularly in publishing, have served to further exacerbate the channeling and masking of knowledge.
The rationale for these “disciplines” is rapidly fading. Answers to complex issues are increasingly more likely found in the spaces between disciplines than within disciplines. Furthermore, as I argued in another context, constructing castles, for siloes are just that, invites attack if for no other reason than for their fixed nature. The more we have an Ivory Tower, the more ivory hunters will emerge to pillage it.
What we need is a completely new vision for our learning enterprises that redefines place and discipline. In 1994 Kevin Kelly wrote, “it is possible that a human mind may be chiefly distributed, yet, it is in artificial minds where distributed mind will certainly prevail. “ (Kelly, p. 19) We now have the technological capacity to create such minds – a collective hive of intelligence – even if the platforms we by and large use to communicate with tend to perpetuate rather than erode siloes of knowledge.
The most successful companies in the new economy, such as Google and Apple, have managed to create interdisciplinary hives. Two centuries of specialization in the university, ironically the originator of this concept, has surprisingly lagged behind in this regard. Bryan Alexander recently argued that this is one of the reasons that it finds itself under attack as enrollments have declined.
Ironically, the attacks on the edifices of higher learning come at a time where there is increasing consensus that our children will require ever more complex mental tools to navigate their futures. Now more than ever we need to reinvent communities of learning to harness the distributed intelligence in order to solve ever more complex problems.
Instead, when we try to construct and redefine our communities of learning, we are often confronted by an atomized landscape, limited in its interdisciplinarity and ability to cope with the level of change and complexity likely in the near future. The needs of knowledge creation have outstripped the physical and organizational infrastructures of universities (and, by extension, the business specializations that they have in turn created) more than ever before. This reality has been a constant challenge to me over the last few years as I have been involved in numerous projects where different cultures, disciplines, and skills have had to come together to make them work (most haven’t, yet).
Organizationally, this problem became particularly acute with the dissolution of the New Media Consortium as that grouping provided a number of mechanisms for cross-disciplinary collaboration. It provided a center of gravity for activities that were not tied to discipline, institution, or even profession. However, even it often struggled with figuring out how to operationalize its hive mind against centripetal forces. Without it as a center, however, there was nothing stopping those forces from scattering the universitas that came together under its broad tent.
In the last year I have been involved in a number of interesting conversations and attempts to “irrigate the sands of the desert” at various levels and these might start to point us toward the visions of how the internet might finally disrupt the Ivory Tower and create a true “universitas technologica.”
On a very micro level, several of my colleagues and I decided to try to meet regularly starting last summer to free form discuss various readings that were brought to the table. Call it a “book club” or graduate seminar, but it created a lot of interesting trans-disciplinary thought. We met using Zoom videoconferencing and so were able to create a very effective universitas on a very small scale. We are currently discussing how to expand this effort, make it more public, and possibly complement it with more asynchronous tools. It has been a very rewarding effort that has introduced me to more concentrated, new thought (and entire streams of literature) than at any time since I left grad school.
On the macro end, FOEcast is attempting to create a “distributed innovation network.” The idea here is to spin up nodes of innovation in teaching and learning using technology around the world and interconnect. We hope to create a professional organization with no physical “center” to leverage the connective tissue of the internet and united through a federative structure of ideas and principles. Like all attempts to colonize virgin territory, it is struggling to lay down its roots. The vision is there, however, and we are probably closer to realizing it than we have been at any time in the last 20-30 years.
The power of both of these efforts is not due to any technological revolutions. True, video conference over the web has reached a certain level of simplicity and affordability that was not available a few years ago, but that’s not really what’s driving things here. What is unique to both the seminar and FOEcast is that we’re willing to cast off from any preconceived notions of what an educational effort is. Indeed, I don’t think many of either efforts’ participants have even thought of them as “educational” until very recently – at least not in the sense of their potential for being self-educational.
The last couple of years for me have been spent trying to tie together strands of brilliance and resources to create spaces (both real and virtual) that will accelerate the processes of reinventing education. So far, this has often been an exercise in frustration as I have constantly run up against cultural norms and institutional barriers.
What I have come to realize, however, is that we may collectively be starting to create a “Distributed University” or universitas technologica to replace the physical university that has evolved from its medieval genesis. Now that the readings are everywhere, recreating the university’s communities of learning in a distributed fashion is our next big task. Like the internet itself was designed to be redundant and resistant to failure, we must construct a global interdisciplinary community to achieve the next steps in the evolution of scholarship and learning. Maybe we are finally seeing the emergence of that.