'Rebundling' Liberal Education

June 22, 2010

In 2009 a group of 42 researchers, educators, and entrepreneurs met together at the invitation of Union Square Ventures, a venture capital firm, to discuss how the Web could transform education. A major theme of the daylong discussion, which took place under the theme "Hacking Education," was "unbundling," the process through which online distribution of digital media and information breaks apart and erodes existing industries. At the center of "unbundling" are new technologically-enabled relationships that democratize access to the means of production and collectively create plenty where scarcity once existed.

An often-cited example of "unbundling" is newspapers: with blogs and other online tools, one no longer needs a printing press or fleet of delivery vehicles to be heard. The newspaper editorial room competes with an army of bloggers and other online media outlets. Craigslist emerges as the marketplace for used household items, local job listings, and community announcements, replacing the advertising function of the traditional print newspaper. The combination is a perfect storm leading to a steady, nationwide stream of newspaper closures.

Is liberal education as vulnerable to "unbundling" as newspapers are? Two characteristics suggest it is. First, it too functions under the economics of scarcity: gather some of the best teacher-scholars in various disciplines and seclude them with students in close learning environments on a residential campus. But where scarcity once existed, early signs of plenty are emerging: you can access engaging faculty lectures (with course materials) on Yale's OpenCourseWare site or browse the "how-to" video catalog of new upstarts like Khan Academy or dozens of similar online nonprofit and for-profit alternatives. (See Hassan Masum's recent interview with Salman Khan.) These and similar resources will grow in sophistication and offer alternatives to much general education coursework.

Second, education in general – and especially liberal education – is also primarily an information product. What you get for your money is not a set of real-world, physical goods, but intangible skills and information. So there is every reason to believe that whatever "liberal education" is, "it" can travel over a network. While the resources cited above focus on introductory curriculums, remember that we are in the early days of a digital transformation of academics: 20 years ago, most colleges did not even have reliable networks.

While the foundations for "unbundling" seem present, I would suggest that liberal education should see in new technology developments tremendous opportunity to preserve its mission of producing "liberally educated" graduates, all the while expanding its diversity and adding curricular breadth and depth. As the participants in the Union Square Ventures "Hacking Education" event realized, the education economy differs significantly from other information economies: accreditation and the importance of institutional reputation are important reasons why learning at home with online course lectures differs from matriculating at a university. (Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy's study in Remaking the American University, published by Rutgers University Press in 2005, suggests that the value of institutional reputation remains strong). Liberal education adds another important differentiator: close faculty-student and student-student contact, both designed to foster engaged dialogue and both core to this model of education.

Our coming ability to conduct engaged and very personal academic discussion across great distances – or in cyberspace – should be of keen interest to institutions of liberal education. Rather than unbundle liberal education, these new technologies and networks will allow liberal education institutions to "rebundle" themselves: to recombine academic assets into new arrangements across distance and institutional boundaries. In a world where space has been collapsed to allow for intimate engaged dialogue over distance, the physical campus will become less the locus of learning than a point within a web of learning environments.

Campus Space and Cyberspace

The processes that drive liberal education rely strongly on configurations of physical space, and some of the most profound changes this model of education is approaching involve rethinking how physical and virtual spaces interact. These campuses are constructed to foster academic interactions of a very personal, intimate kind. The small seminar class is perhaps the primary example: it is a tool to encourage close, engaged participation by all students and to develop intense faculty-student dialogue. At a larger level, campus space planning itself – especially at residential, liberal arts institutions – considers how to promote both formal and informal learning opportunities. The locations of residences, labs, cafes, the library, and other spaces are carefully considered as ways to further create opportunities for dialogue. As the Annapolis Group, a consortium of top liberal arts colleges, describes on its Web site, this style of education seeks "to develop intimate learning environments where extensive interaction between faculty and students and among students themselves fosters a community of serious discourse."

One principal effect of new technologies and advanced networks is to make physical space matter less, simply because online venues can serve those same functions. Technologies and networks are creating alternative virtual spaces at such a high rate and with such increasing sophistication (whether in terms of visual or sensory fidelity or social and interactive sophistication) that established practices with managing social and professional relationships are quickly changing. Three principal technology areas are covered briefly here.

Telepresence and High-Definition Videoconferencing

High-definition videoconferencing and "telepresence" may be the best-poised to enter rapidly into liberal education for one reason: we are seeing the development of virtualized environments that combine high-definition video and other technologies to gather multiple remote participants into realistic, though virtual, meeting environments. These environments challenge the notion that the "intimate" part of liberal education means "face-to-face" and "sitting at the same table" NITLE's research partnerships with the commercial sector have enabled consideration of new videoconference products and services by companies such as Polycom, LifeSize, Tandberg, or Cisco, and have made clear that the industry seeks, among other goals, to replicate and replace the face-to-face business meeting with a virtualized one. The similarities between the business meeting and the seminar classroom make this development compelling for liberal education: small room, limited numbers of participants, careful time delimitations, support by media assets, and the goal of soliciting active involvement of all participants.

The time may be right for broad adoption of these virtual environments by liberal education institutions. First, hardware and infrastructure costs have become surprisingly affordable. Introductory hardware capable of equipping a single space with basic high-definition video capabilities has fallen under $5,000, and bandwidth requirements are dropping steadily. Second, these environments are removing barriers of technical and operational knowledge that challenge us in other virtual environments, such as immersive video games or social networks. Questions such as "What do I click to make my avatar walk?" or "If I friend you, can your friends see our online discussion?" are answered intuitively through one's own experience in the space.

Finally, over time fewer necessary adaptations to course curriculums will be required. We can expect a basic class session featuring seminar-style group discussion and a whiteboard (perhaps a real one made easily readable by high-quality video) to function in ways that may be nearly identical to those of a traditional, face-to-face seminar.

Social Software and Web 2.0

Users of Twitter, Facebook, texting, and blogs are familiar with the sense of social interconnectness and constant banter with one's "buddies," "friends," or "followers." These tools enable new modes of interaction, and while some criticize social networks for being saturated with mundane daily details (and thus of questionable applicability to education), users engaged in academic activities can be expected to “post,” “tweet” or “text” details of that academic work. We are steadily seeing more robust academic exchanges on Twitter quite different than chatter about what you or I just ate for lunch. (Skeptics might consider the Library of Congress's recent decision to archive every tweet ever made, or read Clay Shirky's account of how "low-brow" exchanges in new media develop over time into new literacies and new social value.) These tools offer a platform for rich, always-on "discourse," a key strategy for liberal education. They open new channels for dialogue and seem to reflect learning as process and engagement and not as memorization and rote knowledge acquisition.

Virtual Worlds and Gaming

Driven in part by the development of impressive, affordable computer graphics capabilities and increasingly realistic, multi-user virtual worlds, interest in virtual worlds, gaming and education has grown significantly. In higher education, the virtual world Second Life saw a large "land rush" in 2008–9, with hundreds of campuses establishing a Second Life presence in that year. While this movement may not have lived up to its early hype, a steady stream of experiments in teaching in virtual worlds are nevertheless producing interesting results.

In terms of user experience, these worlds attempt to provide immersion experiences that overlap interestingly with the close, residential pedagogical model of liberal education. Games pursue aggressively encompassing sensory and mental engagement to establish a sense of "place" online. In platforms like Second Life, a primary pedagogical tool is the simulation, the ability to create environments that model, or even extend and modify, real-world environments. These simulations differ from ones we might explore in the lab or via software applications running on our laptop: they are social (i.e., others can be present with us in these spaces) and networked (others can connect remotely, removing the need for participants to be geographically co-located). These tools offer compelling alternative spaces with continually improving sophistication and realism, which may one day offer attractive alternatives to physical classroom or campus space.

Sharing Academics and Curriculums

These technologies open new possibilities for intimate, discourse-centered education, but they cannot scale access to expertise: they cannot take one expert or one seminar classroom and turn it into many. Instead, they remove the need for academic experience to take place within a particular geographical location, and are therefore less likely to affect the value of academic expertise and access to faculty through small seminar-style classrooms and other learning environments. (There are only so many who can engage at once in a small, focused dialogue.) They are likely to enable sharing of expertise over distances.

In other words, access to experts should remain a valuable, scarce commodity in the "liberal education" information economy. Rather than replace faculty expertise (the traditional, but fading, hobgoblin of technology and teaching discussions) these networks and tools should allow specific expertise to be exercised at great distances. Star faculty should see their value rise as networks and tools allow them, and their institutions, access to new institutions and environments for sharing their expertise.

This creates at least two opportunities of considerable value, which help answer the question: "Why we should invest in these networks to share academic expertise?" First, these networks will give us the ability to combine smaller classes and departments across distances to create richer academic experiences. There are a number of permutations we can imagine. A biology faculty member who wants to team-teach an interdisciplinary course on computational biology, but who has no willing, local computer science collaborator can now search more broadly among a consortium for a collaborator. Likewise, an institution may combine class sessions with partner institutions abroad.

Second, these networks allow us to import disciplinary expertise that cannot efficiently be budgeted locally, thereby growing the course catalog. A college not able to hire an Italian language and culture instructor to support a few students in art history for whom Italian is a key need can now look more broadly. For some, this idea is controversial (i.e., it is "distance learning") and is often attacked on grounds that distance education deprives students access to expertise. However, in this instance, there is no deprivation, just a different form of mediation.

Organizationally, the challenges will be significant. The current model of grouping costs and revenue under the umbrella of a single organization allows for accountability and pairing pricing and costs. Breaking these costs and benefits out inter-institutionally will raise questions about equity. Bringing in remote expertise and sharing local expertise remotely will likely require new administrative apparatuses and inter-organizational systems for managing these activities; some existing organizations will step into these roles, and new organizations will form to meet needs in other places. Last, there will be fear of these new models from many places, and skepticism from parents and students about the quality and characteristics of academic experiences in virtual environments. But while the challenges are great, so are the rewards.

As we look to the future of liberal education, we seem unlikely to change the fundamentals of what has made that model successful. We will enhance the curriculum with interactive smart classrooms, course and lecture capture, ubiquitous wireless connecting smaller and more capable digital devices, and other technologies not yet invented, but close faculty-student and student-student interaction will remain the core. What seems more likely to change – and to offer transformative possibilities – is the medium. Those looking for fundamental shifts in this pedagogical model will be disappointed. Those looking for creative options to organizing, planning, and packaging – or "rebundling" – this style of education are likely to be rewarded.


Eric Jansson is labs director at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education.

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