Yesterday, we had a really nice discussion with a small EC delegation about the future of ‘the university’. (You know who you are: thanks – you gave me food for thought. That’s a precious gift.)
Apparently, some people are rather worried by the risk of ‘commodification‘. I’ve added quotes and a link to the wikipedia article, because I wasn’t really sure what the word means. Apparently, wikipedia is itself an illustration of the commodification of knowledge…
Trying to articulate in terms that I understand better what I think is the real challenge for universities, I used the notion of ‘unbundling‘. A long time ago, universities offered a full package and had almost a monopoly as a provider of that package. Nowadays, many, if not all, of the parts of that package are also offered by alternative providers:
- professors used to author content: many still do, but there is such an abundance of high quality content (OER and other) that I don’t understand why we would still focus on this as a core aspect;
- professors used to deliver content, for instance by lecturing: many still do, but the effectiveness of doing this is very questionable, there are many alternatives now and delivery of content is challenged by the ‘flipped classroom’ and other alternative models;
- universities used to support students in the learning process: well, some did and some still do, but spontaneous or organised communities of learning are moving on-line;
- professors used to take exams in order to validate that students had learned: well, this is certainly still the norm, but I have argued before that exams were intended as a means and have now become a goal for students which actually impedes learning – and, in any case, automated or peer grading, as well as learning analytics provide rather attractive alternatives that scale much better;
- universities had the monopoly of accreditation through diplomas: again, this is still largely the case, but also under pressure through the use of badges and alliances between alternative providers of learning and corporations.
All in all, through this process of unbundling, the authority of the university as a learning institution is challenged at a deep level. Being the optimist that I am, I think this is A Good Thing: either the universities can make clear what value they add by bundling these different services or they will become less and less relevant, as specialised providers of only one or other service will be more effective.
Personally, I am not completely sure what exactly the added value of the university is. A ‘place for learning’ sounds nice, but you could also be a place for learning and do so by integrating services from elsewhere? If you would invent the university now, would it look anything like universities as we know them?
What do you think? Did I miss important services that the are also part of the university ‘bundle’? Do you have ideas about the added value of the university?