He who laughs last…

May 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

At the 2010 Educause National Conference, two colleagues, David Staley and Ken Udas, and I presented “The University as an Agile Organization” (see presentation PDF here). Within the session, we supposed how the organization and operation of a college or university might be enabled–and benefit–through the principles behind the Agile Manifesto, especially in light of various trends in technology, teaching and learning, and management emerging within not only education, but institutions of higher education as well.

In the session, David Staley, offered…

a “university as a networked complex adaptive system is permeable (no formal admissions process); consists of voluntary and self-organizing associations of teachers and students; consists of a self-organizing and intellectually fluid curriculum; does not offer tenure to professors (longevity is determined by the community), who move fluidly between the “real world” and the university; is governed by protocols based on community values and mores rather than on administrative rules and fiats; does not grant diplomas (but does grant certificates); encourages play (and even failure); is governed by “intellectual barter” and makes all knowledge created therein free to anyone; has a fluid temporal structure: there are no “semesters”; teaching and learning are ongoing activities.

I think this just may be the best description I have heard, not for MOOCs specifically, but the environment that has created and allowed MOOC’s (and the various MOOC-like organizations that have benefited from their rise, e.g. Coursera, EdX, Udacity), to emerge, not only as a platform, but as an educational development and delivery model.

Let’s compare Staley’s description of a university as a networked complex adaptive system…

  • no formal admissions process
  • self-organizing teachers/students and intellectually fluid curriculum
  • faculty longevity is determined by the community
  • governance through community values and mores
  • does not grant diplomas, but does grant certificates
  • encourages play
  • makes all knowledge created therein free to anyone
  • no “semesters,” teaching and learning are ongoing

…with Wikipedia’s list of benefits of MOOC’s…

  • You can organize a MOOC in any setting that has connectivity (which can include the Web, but also local connections via Wi-Fi e.g.)
  • You can organize it in any language you like (taking into account the main language of your target audience)
  • You can use any online tools that are relevant to your target region or that are already being used by the participants
  • You can move beyond time zones and physical boundaries
  • It can be organized as quickly as you can inform the participants (which makes it a powerful format for priority learning in e.g. aid relief)
  • Contextualized content can be shared by all
  • Learning happens in a more informal setting
  • Learning can also happen incidentally thanks to the unknown knowledge that pops up as the course participants start to exchange notes on the course’s study
  • You can connect across disciplines and corporate/institutional walls
  • You don’t need a degree to follow the course, only the willingness to learn (at high speed)
  • You add to your own personal learning environment and/or network by participating in a MOOC
  • You will improve your lifelong learning skills, for participating in a MOOC forces you to think about your own learning and knowledge absorption

Remember Staley’s work was in October of 2010, two years before, “The Year of the MOOC.” I am hard-pressed to see any significant difference in these two descriptions of, and benefits with, MOOC’s or even any other of the now common initiatives related to, or institutions adopting, open education: all, it appears to me, are “networked complex adaptive systems.”

I think it is important for me to emphasize, I am not advocating for MOOC’s (nor am I assailing them). The issue for me with MOOCs is that much of the interest and many of the investments made in MOOC’s by institutions of higher education is really “innovation hype,” where institutions  apply traditional processes and re-organize existing operations in response to perceived trends (and assumed value): basically “keeping up with the Joneses.”

Unfortunately after our presentation, we (and Staley particularly) were ridiculed by our peers. Several folks poo-poo’ed our session in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s article, “What if we ran Universities Like Wikipedia?” Indeed, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Associate Professor of Media Studies and Law at the University of Virginia, argued the Wikipedia analogy was “silly,” saying, “universities are nothing like an encyclopedia, and Wikipedia is nothing like a university.” I can’t help but suggest (and please do consider the irony), perhaps Professor Vaidhyanathan should keep his head down at the next University of Virgina Board of Visitors meeting. Apparently, Rector Helen Dragas feels massive change from online education and MOOCs, as well as enabling a new model where more learning from professors who are not at the college or university a student attends, “can’t wait” at UVa.

Yet, three years later, we are indeed seeing more and more institutions acknowledge the value of non-traditional educational models for the creation, distribution and assessment of knowledge. So while I am tempted to say, “told you so,” I think it is more important to focus on the other, less discussed, part of our presentation: the methods for managing such an environment where content, courses, students, faculty and credentialing is remote, distributed and decentralized…

  • Remote: services (teaching, tutoring, assessments, etc.) are provided through off-site, third-parties;
  • Distributed: development (courses, content, etc.)  is undertaken by multiple, independent organizations;
  • Decentralized: decisions (curriculum, instruction, credentialing, etc.)  are made by “the crowd,” not a central hierarchy.

…or as Staley described this, a “networked complex adaptive system.”

In our presentation we highlighted Agile methods as a means to manage such an environment, asking, What if we organized the university according to agile principles, allowing the university to perform like a networked complex adaptive system? Just like any other influence (whether it be a threat or an opportunity) that can impact higher education, institutions must consider, not only how to assess trends–is this a fad or actually valuable?–but also, if deemed valuable to the institution, how best to incorporate and operationalize principles and practices that can ensure continuity, quality and consistency.

I’ll try one more time, as we did in our session, and offer again, Agile principles best coordinate and guide networked complex adaptive systems. The university (as a system of knowledge creation, distribution and assessment) is a complex adaptive system. We manage universities like hierarchical industrial organizations, this is incompatible with the realities of a network society. Understanding Agile principles and practices provides a potential reference model for the planning and decision-making processes within higher education institutions.

Good job David!

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